Emma Okonji writes on the need for proper implementation of the National Broadband policy in order to achieve the projected 30 per cent broadband penetration by 2018

On September 20, 2012, former President Goodluck Jonathan inaugurated the presidential committee on the national broadband strategy and roadmap. The committee which was co-chaired by the former Executive Vice Chairman of the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), Dr. Ernest Ndukwe and the founder of Zenith Bank, Mr. Jim Ovia, had 15 core members representing various stakeholder groups in the Information and Communications Technology (ICT) sector and an additional set of co-opted members.

From inception, the committee was mandated to come up with a five-year strategic roadmap for Nigeria’s National Broadband Plan (2013-2018). Based on the high calibre of persons with vast industry knowledge that made up the committee, the broadband plan was ready and submitted in 2013.

Although the broadband plan, as submitted by the committee was rich in content with achievable targets, its penetration level was largely hindered by the weak implementation process that characterised the broadband plan. For instance, the target was to increase broadband penetration in Nigeria from six per cent in 2013, to 30 per cent in 2018; but as at January 2015, the country was able to achieve only 10 per cent broadband penetration, a situation that heightened the fears of industry stakeholders to conclude that Nigeria was not likely going to achieve the projected 30 per cent broadband penetration as captured in the National Broadband Plan.
Given the current state of broadband penetration in the country and the level of implementation, the Executive Vice Chairman of NCC, Prof. Umar Danbatta, said last week in Abuja, that the government may not be able to attain the 30 per cent broadband target before 2018 because of inadequate infrastructure layout in the sector.

It is therefore important for government to look at the possible reasons for the poor implementation of the country’s broadband plan and come up with fresh strategies that will speed up broadband penetration to enable Nigerians enjoy the benefits of a true broadband revolution.

Benefits of the broadband

The broadband supply chain comprises international connectivity, a national backbone network, metropolitan access links, and the local access network that has to do with the last-mile connectivity.

The national broadband plan was developed to promote pervasive broadband deployment, increase broadband adoption and usage, and ensure availability of broadband services at affordable rates. These are aimed at maximising the socio-political and economic benefits of broadband to the people.

The national broadband plan was also targeted at achieving a fivefold increase in internet and broadband penetration.

It is for these reasons that the federal government inaugurated the presidential committee on broadband, having widely acknowledged that broadband is an essential right and basic utility for societal transformation and development and that prioritising the rapid spread of mobile broadband will ensure that all Nigerian citizens enjoy world class wireless broadband as a basic access medium for broadband.

Aside the listed benefits, broadband, if well implemented, can stimulate growth of Small and Medium Enterprises (SME’s) and cooperatives, and it could enhance both backward and forward economic linkages. In the area of employment generation, broadband networks have been shown to have a direct impact on employment. It is however the use of these networks towards growing economic activity and enhancing social development, that unlocks the potential increase in employment.

The cost of communication can also be reduced by an increased rollout on infrastructure and improved availability of broadband services. Reducing the cost of communication will be beneficial to citizens, business and government.

Government’s expected role

According to the National Broadband Plan, governments at various levels have critical roles to play in the drive to have pervasive broadband infrastructure across the nation. Government no doubt, has interest in converting the nation into a digital haven that will be fully networked and ready to be integrated into the new world order of digitally enabled citizens in an environment of e-governance, e-health, e-commerce and e-agriculture, among others.

The federal government’s primary role is focused on policy formulation and direction as well as legal and regulatory functions. Government is therefore supposed to focus on providing overall policy, legal and regulatory platform for attracting the required investment for the sustainable development of the sector to support national development goals and plans.

Aside the federal government, the states and local governments are supposed to do their parts in ensuring that their citizens have access to the necessary infrastructure vital for connecting to the information superhighway of the digital age.

But instead of government and its agencies working towards achieving the objectives of the national broadband plan, there have been reports from some areas of the country where government agencies at state and local government levels, create bottlenecks in the deployment of ICT facilities by operators, either by imposing taxes arbitrarily, or obstructing, delaying, or denying right of way applications.

The local government is a focal point for community development and it is recommended that local governments can facilitate broadband growth and adoption by working with communities to reduce disruption to infrastructure development and creating innovative schemes to encourage adoption and usage of the internet to enhance development, rather than posing as obstruction to broadband development.

Challenges

As telecoms operators make efforts to deepen broadband penetration in the country, they are also faced with lots of challenges, which most times, impede the speed of broadband rollout in the country.

Challenges common to operators in the telecoms sector have been identified as: the high costs of right of way resulting in the high cost of leasing transmission infrastructure; long delays in the processing of permits; multiple taxation at federal, state, and local government levels and having to deal with multiple regulatory bodies; damage to existing fibre infrastructure as a result of cable theft, road works and other operations; and the lack of reliable, clean grid electricity supply.

Another major challenge impeding broadband penetration in the country is the inability of operators to transmit broadband capacities from the shores of the country to the hinterlands, where the services are most needed.
There are appreciable number of submarine cable landings on the shores of the country providing over 9 Tbit/s of combined capacity. However there is a growing concern about the fact that all the landings are in Lagos and that access to other parts of the country is choked due to the limitations of distribution infrastructure to the rest of the country.

The operators have done well to heavily finance their submarine cable for broadband connectivity from Europe to the shores of Nigeria, but government is yet to build a national backbone infrastructure that will transmit broadband capacity from the shores to the hinterland, thus putting unnecessary burden on the cable operators to begin to seek alternative means at their own expense, to transmit broadband capacity, a situation that has resulted in slow broadband penetration in the country.

MTN for instance, had since 2012, berthed its MTN WACS submarine cable at the shores of Lagos, which has 14 landing points, with 12 along the western coast of Africa and two in Europe (Portugal and England). It also has bandwidth capacity of over 5.12 Tbps and spans 14,530 km. The cable is made up of four fibre pairs and is 14,530 km in length, linking from Yzerfontein in the Western Cape of South Africa to London in the United Kingdom. The landing points are South Africa, Western Cape, Namibia, Swakopmund, Angola, Sangano near Luanda, Democratic Republic of Congo, Muanda, Republic of Congo, Matombi, Cameroon, Limbe, Nigeria, Togo, Ghana, among others.
Main One submarine cable, which was launched in Lagos on July 22, 2010, completed its upgrade and has boosted its capacity to 100G wavelength on its submarine cable network between Nigeria, Ghana and Portugal.

In 2015, it completed connectivity between Nigeria and Cameroon and the submarine cable currently delivers high speed bandwidth of 1.92 Tbps and has been proven to provide capacity of at least 4.96 Tbps.

The Glo 1 submarine cable is a 9,800 km long cable from Lagos to UK, connecting 17 African and European countries to UK. It has landing points in Nigeria, London, Senegal, Morocco, Spain, Bude, UK and Lisbon in Portugal.
It also has 16 branching units to connect countries in West Africa.

The submarine cable has a minimum capacity of 640 Gbit/s and total capacity of 2.5 Tbit/s.

What MTN and other cable operators need, is a national backbone infrastructure, which must be provided by government to transmit broadband capacity from the shores of the country to the hinterlands.

Broadband deployment in other jurisdiction

South Africa, in July 2010, published its Broadband Policy and was able to grow its mobile broadband penetration to 26 per cent, which is still regarded as being low. The low mobile broadband penetration is ascribed to the unavailability of electronic communications infrastructure and the high cost of broadband services that is stifling broadband growth.

In order to grow its broadband penetration to the current level, the South African government introduced direct policy intervention and strategic investment.

The policy focused on increasing the accessibility, availability, affordability and usage of broadband services throughout South Africa.

In addition, the government also came up with a broadband legislative framework, and set up broadband implementation committee, to further drive broadband penetration.

The implementation committee involved the three spheres of government in South Africa, namely National, Provincial and Local governments.

While the national government was involved in the provision of electronic communication network services towards increasing access and affordability of broadband services, the provincial government was involved in ensuring the provision of electronic communication network services in the province. The local government was busy aligning existing broadband strategies in line with the national and provincial broadband policies, without any of them imposing levies and taxes on operators for broadband service rollout as it is the case with Nigeria.

The South African government also established a broadband inter-governmental implementation committee, incorporating all spheres of government and mandated it to develop an implementation plan that supports the national broadband plan.

It also set up a monitoring and evaluation committee to ensure that the short and long term targets were achieved.

India, which has 7.6 per cent mobile broadband penetration, is faced with several challenges in the deployment of broadband across the nation, just like Nigeria.

The challenges and the requirements of broadband access in India are radically different from the developed world. Delivering a broadband connection to rural users, that is viable and profitable at the current low levels of Average Revenue Per User (ARPU), is a mammoth task.

The challenges range from lack of desired infrastructure, lack of nationwide optic fibre backhaul, which is the primary barrier in adoption of high speed broadband in the country, to Right of Way (RoW) challenge, low last mile connectivity, and lack of adequate content, among others.
In the United Kingdom (UK), the Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK), part of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, is delivering super fast broadband and better mobile connectivity to the nation.

The government is however investing in its broadband policy to provide super fast broadband coverage to 90 per cent of the UK by 2016 and 95 per cent by December 2017, and to provide access to basic broadband for all.
The government came up with a super fast broadband programme, aimed at providing super fast broadband speed of 24Mbps or more for at least 95 per cent of UK premises and universal access to basic broadband.

Government funding is stimulating private sector investment in broadband to ensure that the benefits of better broadband are available across the UK.

Funding has been allocated to projects in two phases: Phase one aims to provide super fast broadband to 90 per cent of premises in the UK and universal access to basic broadband of 2Mbps. Phase two is further extending coverage to 95 per cent of the UK citizens.

Possible solutions

Going by the accelerated broadband growth in other regions that have adopted broadband policy implementation, the Nigerian government should therefore promote a seamless interconnectivity regime and an Open Access Infrastructure sharing agreement among operators, to boost broadband penetration in the country.

For national security and resilience purposes, it is considered critical that submarine cable companies, all have demonstrable recovery and restoration agreements with each other, and that the cable systems are extended to other coastal regions or states. This will help to further accelerate the expansion and distribution of the currently underutilised bandwidth to the rest of the country.

The federal government should therefore promote the rapid establishment of recovery agreements and the delivery of additional cable landing points to other coastal states such as Delta, Rivers, Bayelsa and Ondo as soon as possible.

In terms of a National Backbone fibre optic infrastructure, most long distance carriers have among themselves, fibre presence in all the thirty six states and the federal capital.

Findings also indicate that while many routes in the country still do not have fibre coverage, there exists a proliferation of fibre along some routes. Moreover the cables on the routes that have multiple fibre installations are mostly not interconnected to offer the required redundancy to promote network resilience. While islands of fibre infrastructure may be good for some of the operators, it is definitely not good for the nation as it does not engender a truly national network.

According to World Bank, a 10 per cent increase in broadband penetration, increases per capita GDP by 1.38 per cent in the developing countries. It is therefore important that Nigerian remove all bottlenecks that impede rapid broadband deployment, in order to increase broadband penetration.