COVID-19 as Litmus Test for Telecoms Facilities

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Executive Vice Chairman of the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), Professor Umar Garba Danbatta

The outbreak of COVID-19 has become a litmus test for the resilience of telecoms facilities across the country, especially in the face of economic lockdown, writes Emma Okonji

The directive to lockdown Abuja, Lagos and Ogun States, given by President Muhammadu Buhari coupled with the sit-at-home order given by the federal and state governments, as measures to stop the spread of the virus, has turned out to be a litmus test for telecoms facilities nationwide.

During the 14 days period of the sit-at-home order as declared by government, Nigerians will need telecoms services the most, throughout the period, in order to keep connected to their loved ones and the office daily routine jobs, especially for those that can still work and trade online.

According to Buhari in his broadcast, the restriction order would last for an initial period of 14 days with effect from Monday, 30th of March, 2020.

“The few confirmed cases outside Lagos and Abuja are linked to persons who have travelled from these centres. We are therefore working to ensure such inter-state and inter-city movements are restricted to prevent further spread.

“Based on the advice of the Federal Ministry of Health and the Nigerian Centre for Disease Control (NCDC), I am directing the cessation of all movements in Lagos and the FCT for an initial period of 14 days with effect from 11pm on Monday, March 30, 2020. This restriction will also apply to Ogun State due to its close proximity to Lagos and the high traffic between the two states,” Buhari said.

Going by the government directive, it is obvious that more people would depend on existing telecoms infrastructure for daily communication, especially to get informed about the development of things in the country and how to keep safe measures about the effect of the virus. During the period, it was estimated that there would be more pressure on telecoms facilities, which will test the strength and resilience of the capacity of telecoms network nationwide.

There has never been a time in the history of humanity when the need to have seamless access to telecoms services has become very central than now, when people need to keep in touch with their friends, relatives, business partners and to carry out official engagements in the era of coronavirus.
Nigerians need data for social media communication as well as seamless voice connectivity, to enable them feel comfortable throughout the period that they will be staying at home, and all these will definitely put additional pressure on the existing networks across the country, which calls for proactive measures to keep the telecoms infrastructure active all through the period of the sit-at-home order.

Effect on telecoms infrastructure
Although government is taking measures to curb the pandemic, but one of the sectors that has continued to provide succor to Nigerians in the area of access to telecommunications services, is the telecoms sector.

Despite the various efforts put in place by the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), there are perennial challenges facing telecoms infrastructure that is affecting the growth of the sector, which may be compounded this period, if immediate action is not taken.

Some of the challenges include Right of Way (RoW) issue, where telecoms operators are denied access to lay cables for the expansion of telecoms network; Multiple regulations and multiple taxation; Indiscriminate shutdown of telecoms base stations by the state agents, leading to service outage; Vandalism of telecoms facilities by hoodlums/insurgents; Fibre cuts caused by road construction companies, among others. Now that the pressure on telecoms facilities will likely increase, the Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Dr. Isa Pantami must begin to device means to work closely with NCC to ensure that the network capacities are resilient enough to withstand the pressure that will come this period.

Realising the centrality of robust telecoms infrastructure to the nation, Buhari at a recent official function in Abuja, directed the Minister of Communications and Digital Economy to work with NCC, the state governments and other relevant Ministries, Department and Agencies (MDAs) of government, towards protecting telecoms infrastructure as Critical National Infrastructure (CNI).
The presidential directive is based on the president’s recognition of the fact that the Minister needed to truly face the task of addressing industry-based issues.

If this is achieved by the minister, more Nigerians will have access to voice and internet/broadband services, including data services that will enable Nigerians leverage digital platforms to achieve more efficiency in their daily activities, which will result in increased growth of the telecoms industry.

Industry players have therefore called on the minister to urgently address the myriad of industry challenges that will lead to a robust telecom infrastructure throughout the period that the Coronavirus scourge will last.
Although NCC has been playing key role in addressing these challenges, industry players have said that collaboration between NCC and the Ministry of Communications and Digital Economy, would go a long way in addressing the challenges of the telecoms sector.

Telcos’ readiness
In anticipation of a possible economic lockdown, telecoms operators (Telcos), under the aegis of Association of Licensed Telecoms Operators of Nigeria (ALTON), held a meeting in Lagos, where it took a far-reaching decision to cushion the effect of the Coronavirus pandemic on telecoms infrastructure nationwide.

Chairman of ALTON, Gbenga Adebayo, who gave a rundown of the global effect of the Coronavirus that has claimed the lives of many people globally, including Nigeria, said that the Nigerian government might likely declare partial or complete lockdown of its economy, like other economies of the world.

He said fear of the possible lockdown of the economy, compelled ALTON to hold an emergency meeting in order to make recommendations to the telecoms regulator, the NCC and the federal and state governments on how best to ensure hitch-free telecoms services throughout the period of the Coronavirus outbreak.

Some of the resolutions, included the need for NCC to facilitate the process of getting approval for Right of Passage (RoP) for all telecoms operators, from the federal and state governments, to allow for easy movement, during the shutdown.

The telcos also recommended that NCC should facilitate the process of RoP for logistics companies that are involved in supplies of goods and services to telecoms operators, in order to allow free movement throughout the period.

Among others, the telcos equally urged NCC to seek support from law enforcement agents to protect telecoms facilities throughout the period of Coronavirus outbreak. They also suggested that NCC should consider stepping down Number Portability during the period of the Coronavirus outbreak in order to reduce pressure on networks, when subscribers tend to migrate from one network to another.

They suggested that NCC should call on government agencies to put a stop to all government orders, directing the closure of telecoms sites, to enable the proper management of telecoms sites throughout the period of Coronavirus outbreak.

They said NCC and the state government should reduce the frequency of physical meetings all through the period of the Coronavirus outbreak and deploy alternative meeting platforms, in order to reduce the risk of contacting the Coronavirus during travels for meetings.

NCC’s readiness

In reaction to the readiness of telcos over the Coronavirus scourge, NCC also came up with new measures to reduce its spread.
In a recent statement issued by NCC and signed by its Director, Public Affairs, Dr. Henry Nkemadu, NCC said the new measures would support initiatives by other stakeholders to curtail the scourge.

The commission in conjunction with industry players and all other government agencies, agreed to reduce the frequency of physical meetings between it and telecoms operators, all through the period of the Coronavirus outbreak and considered alternative electronic meeting platforms, in order to reduce person to person contact that may arise from travels or meetings.

“Departments within the commission that interface with customers have developed e-platforms where all licensing requests, consumer complaints and BTS investigation requests could be channeled or provide designated e-mail addresses to be used for such requests throughout the pandemic period. The commission has also approved resource sharing by operators throughout the period of coronavirus. These include fibre optics cables and other resources in the event of cable cuts and other unforeseen developments during the period of coronavirus outbreak.

“The commission has also directed Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) to ensure that their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) programmes are in tandem with government initiatives to curtail the COVID-19 pandemic in order to provide safety and support aid materials that will protect the public against coronavirus.

The statement said NCC would support RoP for all telecommunications members for easy movement in the event of a total lockdown and or restriction of movement.

The regulator is also in support of RoP for suppliers that are involved in supplies of fuels, foods and other support services to telecom operators, to allow for free movement in the event of partial or total lockdown as a result of the coronavirus.
“We are in touch with Law Enforcement Agencies to constantly protect telecom infrastructure nationwide.
We will come out from time to time with enlightenment information on the dangers of the virus so that consumers can be guided accordingly.
” Since we are in this together, no effort would be spared to bring this deadly disease to an end,” the statement said.

Global readiness
In the same vein, the International Telecoms Union (ITU), the United Nations specialised agency in charge of global regulation of information and communications technologies, has resolved to strengthen telecoms operators’ networks across countries, while advising the operators to increase their network capacities during this period of Coronavirus scourge, in order to maintain steady connectivity for all telecommunication services rendered globally.
ITU equally provided some form of palliatives for telecoms service providers in order to keep the network active all through the period of the outbreak of the virus.

While launching a new platform called REG4COVID in Geneva, Switzerland recently, that will assist governments all over the world and the private sector in ensuring that telecoms networks are kept resilient and telecommunication services are available to all, ITU Secretary-General, Mr. Houlin Zhao, said the launch of the global platform, would protect telecommunications networks during the COVID-19 crisis.
According to Zhao, “As a result of the Coronavirus scourge, I have instructed my team to leverage without any delay, ITU’s existing regulatory and policy-maker platform to help countries and industry cope with the increasing stress being put on global networks.

“The new Global Network Resiliency Platform aims to assist national policy makers, regulators and industry stakeholders to ensure that networks are kept resilient and telecommunication services are available to all to the maximum extent possible by sharing best practices and initiatives put in place during the COVID-19 crisis. It will collect relevant and trustworthy information and expertise on actions that telecommunication policy makers, regulators and others in the regulatory community can use to ensure that their telecommunication networks and services serve the needs of their country.

“This new ITU platform will provide countries struggling to find appropriate solutions to ensure their networks’ resiliency with relevant and trustworthy information and expertise on how to cope with the stresses faced by their infrastructure. And because time is of the essence, it will give those countries that still have time to prepare an opportunity to learn from what is being done elsewhere – from emergency spectrum reassignments to guidelines for consumers on responsible use. Serving initially as an informative tool, the Global Network Resiliency Platform will soon be expanded to provide an interactive and engaging platform for continuous sharing throughout this crisis and beyond.”