Ojobo: Inadequate ICT Infrastructure Presents Investment Opportunities

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The Director, Public Affairs, Nigerian Communications Commission, Mr. Tony Ojobo, spoke with Emma Okonji on how foreign investors could turn around Nigeria’s ICT infrastructure deficit to opportunities, among other sundry issues. Excerpts:

NCC has been at the forefront of wooing foreign investors to invest in Nigeria, and NCC did same at the ITU Telecom World 2016 that was held in Bangkok, Thailand last month. How do you relate this move with the country’s inadequate infrastructure that could discourage investors?

It is true that we have challenges in the area of telecoms infrastructure in the country, but such challenges present opportunities for investors who can create opportunities out of challenges. The dearth of Information and Communications Technology ICT) infrastructure means that there are opportunities for investments. Inadequate infrastructure is a challenge for Nigeria, but for the investors, it is an opportunity to plug in to meet that demand for infrastructure development. So our campaign for broadband investment in Nigeria is strategic because we need to showcase the opportunities that abound in the Nigeria telecoms sector, to foreign investors who are looking for where to invest their money, and the campaign is already yielding results.

Apart from wooing investors, what has NCC done to address telecoms infrastructural deficit in the country?

In addressing the broadband and power infrastructure, for instance, NCC came up with an open access model that will create a level play ground for all operators in the industry. What the open access model means is that an investor will provide the infrastructure and make it available for operators to have easy access to. In order to achieve this, we considered the country’s six geopolitical zones: South east, South west, South south, North east, North west, North central, and created a seventh zone, Lagos, which is the commercial nerve of the country. So we had to map out strategies to licence infrastructure companies (InfraCos) in each of the seven zones for the purpose of providing telecoms infrastructure in the zones and make the infrastructure accessible to operators. So far we have licensed two InfraCos, MainOne and IHS for Lagos and North Central zones respectively, and we are in the process of licensing five other InfraCos in the remaining five zones. NCC has advertised for Expression of Interest to bid for the remaining five zones, and the application closes December 15, 2016. So our plan is to license InfraCos in the remaining five zones and ensure that the InfraCos provide the required telecoms infrastructure in the various zones and make them accessible to telecoms operators.

What value will the InfraCos add to telecoms development in country?

By the time all zones in the country have their licensed InfraCos, there will be fast rollout of telecoms infrastructure across the country and we will begin to experience deeper penetration of broadband services across the country and this will bring about rapid growth in digital inclusion for all the regions in the country.
In this era of Internet of Things (IoTs), Nigeria needs to develop with the rest of the world and we need ubiquitous broadband across the country to achieve this.

How will you rate telecoms growth and development in Nigeria?

Telecoms growth in Nigeria has been very remarkable. At the ITU Telecom World 2016 in Bangkok, Thailand, the Secretary General of the International Telecoms Union (ITU), Mr. Houlin Zhao, said Nigeria maintained the position of the fastest growing telecoms market in Africa and the entire world for five consecutive years. He further said that while the European telecoms market was considering deploying 4G services, Nigeria was already using 4G services. This shows that Nigeria is not really behind in telecoms development as most people erroneously think. But if we as a country are able to meet our telecoms infrastructure needs, then there will be a telecoms revolution that has never been experienced since the inception of Global System for Mobile Communication (GSM) in Nigeria. As of today, mobile penetration is about 107 per cent and 21 per cent for broadband penetration. Now, the National Broadband Policy projected 30 per cent broadband penetration by 2018, and if by 2016 we already had 21 per cent broadband penetration, and we are in the process of licensing more InfraCos to provide more broadband infrastructure, it then means that we are sure of meeting and surpassing the 30 per cent broadband penetration by 2018, as projected by the National Broadband Plan.

In all of these, Nigeria needs content development. What is NCC doing about it?

You are quite correct on the issue of content development. Just as we are determined to grow the country’s broadband infrastructure, there is also need to begin to sensitise the operators and service providers, including Value Added Service (VAS) providers, on the need for content development that will further drive broadband development. To justify the huge investment in broadband, we need enough content for people who will be utilising the broadband services.

The federal government is keen at diversifying the Nigerian economy through information and communications technology (ICT). As telecoms regulator, how will NCC help government in achieving this?

The government is right in its approach to diversify the Nigerian economy in the area of ICT, because the global price of oil has continued to depreciate and we as a country, can no longer be sustained with the revenue from oil, so the best place to look at is the direction of ICT and agriculture sectors, which the federal government has already identified. A major sector that will help government in diversifying the economy is the ICT sector, whose technology tools, cut across education, health, eCommerce, banking, telecommunications, agriculture, insurance, sports and lots more. There is no sector that ICT cannot transform and as a regulator, we are keen at developing the telecoms infrastructure that will drive development in the sector, hence our strategic measures to woo foreign investors to come to Nigeria and invest in our broadband infrastructure. Imagine how ICT has transformed the banking sector and more banking applications are coming up that have made banking a lot easier and better. Today a lot of people do not go to the banking hall before they carry out financial transactions. They do so from the comfort of their homes and offices, and even on the streets, using the internet, mobile phones and other technology devices and apps. That is the beauty of technology, and banks and their customers, including governments, are saving huge money in the process. So our mandate as telecoms regulator, is to ensure that all Nigerians have access to telecommunications.

Nigeria is still ranked low by the international communities in the area of ease of doing business in Nigeria. Do you see this affecting the efforts of NCC in building a robust telecoms system for Nigeria?

Yes, Nigeria has been ranked low in the area of ease of doing business and the country is not happy about it, but I know that there are agencies of governments that are looking into that. There is Ministry of Commerce and we have the Nigerian Investment Promotion Council (NIPC), which is the major arm of government that oversees those who wants to come and invest in Nigeria, and they are all working towards improving the ease of doing business in the country. The low ranking of Nigeria, no doubt, will affect the efforts of every agency of government, not just the NCC, and for us at NCC, we have always made our licensing processes very transparent for both foreign and local investors, and this is one of the ways we ensure ease of doing business in the country. At NCC, we have developed a template that has structured our activities as an organisation in such a way that foreigners and indigenous operators can easily flow with us. At NCC, we have robust consultative fora with stakeholders, where we take feedbacks from stakeholders and we use the feedbacks to restructure our operations. NCC has proved itself to be a role model and template for other government agencies to follow.

So there is need for government to improve on its automation process and policies and create better enabling business environment for foreign and local investors.

NCC has been recognised with various awards, for its unique role in regulating the telecoms industry. How do you feel about these awards?

As a staff of NCC, I feel good that institutions recognise our passionate efforts in regulating the telecoms industry, and that goes to show that a lot of developments are taking place in the industry under our watch. Again, the awards are coming as a result of the dedication to duty by out backend staff, who are working tirelessly to ensure that everything is in its right position. They have been able to take telecommunications in Nigeria from the backwaters to where it is today in the digital age and we dedicate all NCC awards to them.

How is NCC addressing the challenges of poor service quality across networks?

There is no sector that does not have operational challenges because challenges are bound to occur, and it is the ability to address the challenges that matters most. For NCC, the challenges in the telecoms sector are there, but the challenges are work in progress because we are addressing the challenges for the growth of the telecoms industry. One thing people should know about telecommunication is that it is dynamic in nature and technology itself, which drives telecommunication, is in itself dynamic.

What the NCC has done to address poor service quality, is to engage state governors on issues of right of way, telecoms levies and taxes and on issues of incessant attacks of telecoms facilities by social miscreants. The Executive Vice Chairman of NCC, Prof. Umar Garba Danbatta, made a presentation to the Governor’s Forum, some months ago, where about 26 Governors attended. He spoke on the activities of telecoms in the country, especially with regards to how the state can collaborate with NCC to take broadband to the next frontiers. He highlighted the challenges of the industry operators before the governors, as they relate to telecoms infrastructure and right of ways. He pleaded with the governors to remove some of those bottlenecks that were hindering fast deployment of telecoms services in some states. He also pleaded with them not to shut down base stations for reasons of none payment of levies and taxes. The truth is that most actions of government like shutting down of base stations of telecoms operators in their states, contributes to poor telecoms service delivery in the affected areas. Most times, some of the base stations that were shut down in the past, were hubs that serves communities and neighbouring states. Of course the governors appreciated it and amicable resolutions have been reached since then, even though it is an ongoing process.

Why are states and the federal government keen at tasking telecoms operators?

Well it is the duty of government to generate money to fund different projects and one of the ways of generating money is through taxes and levies, more so that the proceeds from oil revenue have been cut down drastically because of the massive fall of oil prices at the international market. But we are talking with governments not to over task the telecoms industry, to enable it grow the way it should grow. If the governments allow pervasive broadband penetration in the country, it will attract more businesses, jobs will be created and government will generate more money from the sector.

How will you describe the contributions of mobile network operators to telecoms growth?

Currently we have five Mobile Network Operators (MNOs), which include: Airtel Nigeria Limited, Etisalat Nigeria, Globacom Nigeria Limited, MTN Nigeria Communications Limited and NATCOM Consortium, trading as ntel.
The Fixed/Fixed Wireless Operators include IPNX, 21st Century Nigeria Limited, Glo Wired and MTN Wired, and they have all contributed to the growth of the sector meaningfully, including Smile Communications that provides Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) services among others. In fact the MNOs control about 99 per cent market share while 0.2 per cent is reserved for other operators.

Internet subscriptions have risen from 31.1million in 2012 to 93.6 million as at September 2016, representing about 200 per cent growth rate, and all these are as a result of the mobile network operators who are also providing data services, aside voice services.