President, Association of Telecom Companies in Nigeria, Mr. Olusola Teniola, was on Arise Television recently, where he spoke on 5G deployment and the COVID-19 pandemic, among other industry issues. Nosa Alekhuogie brings the excerpts:
Can you help set the records straight because a tweet from Senator Dino Melaye has been trending and it talks about 5G being evil and possibly spreading the CCOVID-19 disease. Is this true?
5G is not evil, it is another generation of other generations of technology that is widely renowned and has been deployed globally where we have more than billions of devices that exceeds the population on this earth. We can have more than 6.8 billion devices that depend on this technology and 5G is just the next generation technology. What I can tell you is that 5G does a lot of good and also 4G. It is only in Nigeria where the trend has been quite tremendous in terms of spreading fear. We only have 37 per cent 4G deployment and we do not have 5G deployment yet, even though MTN had last year, did a demo launch for 5G trial launch in three cities in Nigeria-Abuja,Lagos and Calabar. The current national broadband plan that was launched by President Muhammadu Buhari in Abuja, stated that from 2020 to 2025, Nigeria would increase the deployment of 4G technology to every local government authority in Nigeria, which will represent 90 per cent coverage by the end of 2025 and therefore translate to broadband penetration, that is being projected to reach 70 per cent penetration by 2025. So until we get there, 5G is not an issue because it is not present in Nigeria as we speak.
According to the response of the Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Dr. Isa Pantami, no licence has been issued to any telecoms companies. Was his response satisfactory?
5G as a technology is being rolled out in 378 cities around the world. The first deployment I believe was in the second half of 2019 just before the outbreak of COVID-19. Before then, there has been various studies around 1G, 2G, 3G,4G and now, 5G and other complementary technologies like WI-Fi, Wi-Max, and these are technologies that demonstrate high speed on radio frequencies. The World Health Organisation (WHO) and other research bodies have not found any correlation between health issues in human beings and these technologies that have been deployed. So 5G itself is not a hazard to anyone’s health. The minister’s statement was correct and in his position as a representative of the government, he has to be cautious. As you said earlier in your previous question that there has been fear sold into citizens of Nigeria and rightly so because social media is very powerful. It is based on the internet, it based on access to technology that we take for granted which is the mobile phone and with the history of the mobile device, there has always been attempts by certain bodies in the world to try and link radiation with the evolving technology. There has not been any empirical evidence of proof to substantiate those claims. These are opportunistic people who are out there to spread fear. The minister’s statement is apt and correct at this point in time because clearly there isn’t any 5G commercially available in Nigeria. He further stated that there would be further studies as to the planned launch of 5G in Nigeria, which will come to Nigeria within the time frame that they deem fit for the citizens to adopt the technology. This, the minister said, would come after careful studies with the industry, academics and other relevant stakeholders of the society. So, all relevant industry stakeholders will have to make their inputs in this matter before the commercial launch of 5G in Nigeria.
Can you speak to how Right of Way charges in the country are affecting what telecommunications operators are trying to do with regards to spreading broadband and other services across the country?
We also have to realise that the minister is also trying to address the issue of critical national infrastructure so there are two real big elephants in our ability to roll out much infrastructure for the deployment of technology that is required to connect those that are in the rural areas of this country. Right of Way(RoW) is one form of obstacle of hurdle to achieving that. As you know, we have various thousands of kilometres of fibre optic cable across the country, we are yet to attain the goals that the NCC would like to achieve, which is 120,000km of fibre by the end of 2025 and in order to do that, we have to ensure that the cost of rolling out is normalised and what do I mean by that-essentially, that investments are made and taxes do not become impunities to those investments. The hike in RoW charges against much needed infrastructure like fibre optic laying, is an impediment to the penetration of broadband across the country.
We are trying to attain a 70 per cent broadband penetration by 2025, but currently it’s just under 38 per cent. So if we are not able to harmonise and normalise the fees paid, which if we go back to previous Ministers who have run the institution, then we would understand that since 2012, we have tried to attempt to address this issue of having a normal fee of a N145 per linear metre. This is what is deemed to be reasonable and if we are able to convince the state governments that this much needed infrastructure is important for the development of emerging technologies across the country, which is the future of our youth, then it would be N145 per linear metre and nothing more. What we need to do is to still have a continuous dialogue with the state governors and the minister has kick started that in the Nigerian broadband plan (2020-2025). We have identified that it is one of the priority initiatives that we have to undertake to ensure that the reality of achieving broadband deployment to the 774 local governments authorities is achieved by 2025.
With the COVID-19 lockdown, Nigerians are saying that telecoms operators should be able to reduce data cost for subscribers. What is your take on that?
I think that telecoms operators are offering different palliatives to cushion the effect of the lockdown. I wouldn’t mention their names, but you can see it in the media that there hasbeen overtures of SMS, distribution to civic centres and the medical centres, especially Nigeria Center for Disease Control (NCDC) in the fight against COVID-19. We are continuously looking to raise funds to assist them in this fight against the pandemic. We also have to balance it against the infrastructure needs, because we are very convinced of the fact that congestions on our networks is a reality, so we have to balance the fact that if we drop prices or offer freebies on data then it might impact on the networks and we are very convinced of the fact that we need to increase capacity and our members are doing everything to ensure that our networks are operating at optimal level during this period of lockdown.
There is a widespread agitation against the plan by the federal government to bring a team of Chinese doctors and health workers to assist Nigerian doctors in controlling the spread of COVID-19 in Nigeria. What is your take on that?
With the current situation of the lockdown in the country coupled with the fear that COVID-19 started from China, it is not advisable for the federal government to bring a team of doctors and health workers from China. Government must first explore the use of available technologies to assist in controlling the spread. Nigerian doctors and health workers have been doing well to control the COVID-19 in Nigeria. Government should therefore support Nigerian doctors and health workers by equipping the disease control centres in Nigeria, including our hospitals, rather than spending money to import Chinese doctors and health workers. Although government can use its authority to still import the medical team from China, but such medical personnel must first be licensed in Nigeria and subjected to the process of quarantine before they could be allowed to operate in Nigeria. Cuba has added a lot of value to the control of COVID-19 and the country has demonstrated low level of the spread of Coronavirus in their country and Italy is currently using a team of health workers from Cuba to assist them in controlling the virus in Italy, which I think is a better option for Nigeria than the plan to import Chinese health workers.
Against the allegation that 5G technology triggered the spread of COVID-19, how can technology help in stopping the spread of the virus?
Already data analytics, Artificial Intelligence (AI) and high speed mobile technology, coupled with cloud computing, have been used in China to quickly trace and track COVID-19 positive patients and then monitored to see if they recover or if they don’t. That information is then shared across networks in different cities to assist in combating not only the spread of the virus but lessons learnt how to contain it. In Nigeria we should use the current technologies at our disposal alongside the telecom operators to invent a Nigerian version of this across our 36 states to ensure that the pandemic doesn’t spread and that medical and support staff have all the relevant information quickly at their finger tips.
COVID-19 was first discovered in Wuhan, China in December 2019, but China launched its 5G network in June 2019. How come it is being speculated that COVID-19 was triggered by the switching on of 5G network in China?
A video circulated by conspirators suggested that a 5G mast had been pull down when in fact evidence states that the video was made in Hong Kong and was filmed during the rioting of Hong Kong students who tore down a surveillance camera mounted on a street lamp. Basically fake news to tell the world that it happened in Wuhan and it was a 5G mast – this is fake news. All cases of COVID-19 in China are not linked to 5G networks. Cities where there is no 5G network rollout also reported COVID-19 cases and deaths at the same time as Wuhan in China.
Aside China, which other country has launched 5G network?
Most countries in Europe including the UK and Germany, some countries in Africa, USA and South Korea, which is the first country to launch 5G in the world, have all launched their 5G networks.
As an advocacy group, what is ATCON doing to further sensitise Nigerians on the true position of radioactive emission from 5G network and from other cellular devices, in relation to health hazards?
Our members will engage government, our regulator, liaise with civic society and begin to sensitise Nigerians and the millions of subscribers about the benefits of each technology and work with government to educate the consumers on the use cases that will be introduced in the coming years. ATCON as the umbrella advocacy association in the industry will lead this through various programs and will engage the media to assist in disseminating the messages to reach every part of the country. We cannot do everything on our own and that is where true partnerships with all stakeholders come in. We will need to collaborate to take Nigeria into the digital economy.
What are the benefits of 5G to subscribers?
The technology will facilitate the beginning of new services that will truly allow remote medicine to be adopted in our society, Internet of Things (IoT) applications for improved farming and crop yields, improve logistics, create new areas of employment in building new infrastructure, creation of e-learning systems that opens up a knowledge society and finally improvements in various business models as smart cities are deployed.
What is your view about the clamour for the regulation of emerging technologies like 5G, IoT and AI?
The ethics of AI and ML) is a subject of intense debate and the used cases that may spring about on the back of 5G and 6G is more the focus for how it will define the future of the workplace. Regulation to ensure the safety of the Nigerian citizen is sacrosanct and already a provision of the NCA 2003 ACT. However, the regulatory tools will need to keep pace of changing technologies in order to remain relevant. 5G regulations should specifically focus on power emissions, quality of service (QoS) and aspects that will ensure that the security and safety of each consumer is a priority.