Chairman, Zinox Group, Leo Stan Ekeh and CEO, MainOne Company, Funke Opeke

Despite the licensing of four InfraCos for the Lagos zone, North-central, South-east and North-east, Nigerians are yet to feel their impact as broadband penetration remains low, writes Emma Okonji

 

 

With the global drift from voice to data communication in the telecoms sector, Nigeria saw a need to boost its broadband infrastructure and decided to license Infrastructure Companies (InfaCos), with a mandate to provide broadband infrastructure across every nook and cranny of the country that will further enhance rollout of data services. The plan was to license at least one InfraCo in each of the six geopolitical zones of the country and empower them to provide broadband infrastructure that will enhance broadband penetration in the country.

True to its promise, the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) in 2015, licensed two InfraCos, MainOne for Lagos zone, and IHS for North-central. In December 2017, NCC licensed additional two InfraCos, Zinox Technologies for South-east and Brinks Integrated Solutions for North-east, bringing the total number of licensed InfraCos to four.

NCC had assured Nigerians that InfraCos would address the shortfall in telecoms infrastructure in the country, especially with last mile broadband capacity transmission. It was also intended to boost broadband penetration and reduce high cost of broadband bandwidth. But many Nigerians are worried that the challenges affecting broadband rollout have not been addressed and that such challenges were adversely affecting the rollout of InfraCos services, hence they have not felt the impact of InfraCos, two years after the first set was licensed.

 

MainOne and IHS licence in 2015

NCC in 2015 announced the licensing of the winners for the advertised bid for InfraCos, with MainOne Cable winning for the Lagos area and IHS grabbing the licence for the North-central.

The choice of MainOne and IHS seems to sit well with industry watchers as it was welcomed with applause from a cross section of the stakeholders because both are major players in the provision of infrastructure in the nation’s telecom industry.

According to NCC, the licensing of MainOne and IHS would create ubiquitous broadband for the country, which will lead to fast deployment of broadband and reduction in the cost of broadband and massive improvement in the quality of service for voice, video and data transmission.

To give effect to the broadband initiative, the NCC adopted the Open Access model for broadband deployment and rollout. According to NCC, “the model is the leading model in the world; it encompasses sharing of infrastructure and sharing of ownership. It also encompasses competition because it structures the industry into primarily two layers; the wholesalers and retailers.

“Apart from that, broadband is a development product is capable of increasing the GDP of Nigeria. It is also capable of taking Nigeria into the knowledge-based economy that the world is pursuing, It is a product that is capable of increasing the efficiency of our younger generation.  This is how we see broadband, and we see that it is something that we have to do for Nigeria to enter the 21st century properly, and if we don’t do it then we have failed. We have taken the issue of increasing broadband penetration as a priority,” NCC told Nigerians.

 But two years down the line, Nigerians are yet to feel the impact of the licensed InfraCos.

Zinox and Brinks Solution as additional InfraCos

Shortly after Zinox and Brinks Integrated Solutions were licensed in December 2017, the Executive Vice Chairman of NCC, Prof Umar Garba Danbatta, assured Nigerians that the additional two InfraCos, would in collaboration with the existing two, address the shortfall in telecoms infrastructure in the country, especially the disparity in the cost of broadband services as well as the high cost of broadband in the country.

The NCC boss noted that the commission had to develop innovative solutions to fast-track infrastructure deployment with a view to deepening the nation’s broadband penetration.

Just like the assurances that NCC gave when it licensed the first two InfraCos, the commission  was still optimistic that the combined efforts of the four licensed InfraCos, would further deepen broadband penetration, provide access to more online businesses at high connectivity speed, and above all reduce cost of broadband services in the country. But the story remains the same three months after the second set of InfraCos were licensed. Broadband penetration still low and cost of broadband still high, a situation that is creating a lot of worries for industry stakeholders and subscribers alike.

Waning hope of broadband penetration 

Having believed the NCC for too long without feeling the impact of broadband penetration in the country that was supposed to be driven by licensed InfraCos, stakeholders are beginning to lose hope in the country’s broadband plan that was meant to achieve 30 per cent broadband penetration by the end of this year. They are also not pleased that the InfraCos that were meant to salvage the situation are still unable to do so two years after they were licensed.

Some telecoms subscribers who spoke to THISDAY, expressed their worries that Nigeria has ubiquitous broadband at the shores of the country, courtesy of the submarine cable operators like MainOne Cable, Glo 1 cable, MTN WACS, SAT 3, that have brought huge broadband capacities from the berthing of their cables at the shores of the country. According to them, if the federal government was able to build a national backbone infrastructure that will transmit broadband capacities from the shores of the country where the broadband capacities are currently lying unutilised, to the hinterland, where the capacities are in high demand, the issue of disparity in the cost of broadband bandwidth and the high cost of bandwidth would not have existed. They were of the view that if the InfraCos were truly on ground to carry out their mandate of providing broadband infrastructure, the issue of low broadband penetration and high cost of broadband would have been a thing of the past.

“A situation whereby less than 10 per cent of the total volume of  broadband capacities in the country is currently been utilised, calls for worry,” the subscribers said.

Nigeria had in its five year broadband plan since 2013, targeted 30 per cent broadband penetration by 2018, but few months to the end of the year, the country has been able to achieve only 21 per cent broadband penetration, a situation that most Nigerians felt, had been a sluggish development.  And they are in doubt if the country would meet up with the said target, even though the NCC is spirit high that Nigeria will meet the target before the end of the year.

Issues with InfraCo rollout

Industry stakeholders have identified several factors believed to be inhibiting the rollout of InfraCos services in the country and have warned that unless the barriers are removed, the planned rollout of broadband infrastructure by the licensed InfraCos, would continue to suffer setbacks.

The stakeholders, who gave the warning, said they were convinced that the same challenges bedeviling the telecoms operators would continue to slowdown the activities of InfraCos in the country.

They listed the challenges to include: willful vandalism of telecoms infrastructure by social miscreants, refusal of right of way (RoW) permit for telecoms infrastructure by state governments, and multiple taxes imposed on telecoms operators by agencies of governments.

The stakeholders therefore called on NCC to address the barriers in order to achieve hitch-free rollout of InfraCos.

Chairman of Licensed Telecoms Operators of Nigeria (ALTON), Gbenga Adebayo, told THISDAY that the same barriers impeding telecoms expansion were also hunting the planned expansion of broadband infrastructure by the licensed InfraCos.

President of the Association of Telecoms Companies of Nigeria (ATCON), Olusola Teniola also told THISDAY that Nigeria suffered slow broadband penetration in the past, despite its five years broadband plan, because the county lacks enough broadband infrastructure to fast-track telecoms development.

According to him, the undersea cables that were berthed at the seashores of the country by submarine cable operators came with huge broadband capacities, yet the capacities were underutilised because the country lacks sufficient broadband infrastructure to distribute the capacities to every nook and crannies of the country.

He argued that the broadband infrastructure was supposed to be provided by licensed InfraCos, explaining that they lack the capacity to do so because of the challenges confronting them that were yet to be addressed by the NCC.

 

The way forward 

According to Teniola, NCC must first remove every impeding barrier to broadband deployment in order to allow for full broadband deployment in the county.

“We need to experience more broadband connectivity at the last-mile and the InfraCos must be empowered and encouraged by government to roll out wide range of broadband infrastructure for the country,” he said.

The Chief Executive Officer of Pinnet Informatics, Mr. Lanre Ajayi advised the NCC and the federal government to begin aggressive investment in broadband deployment in order to boost broadband penetration and to achieve Nigeria’s 30 per cent broadband penetration target by 2018.