COVID-19: How Ready is  Nigeria for the New Normal?

Given the low level of Nigeria’s technology infrastructure, where broadband penetration is still dragging at 43 per cent, with less than 10 per cent utilisation of the total capacity of undersea fibre optic cables that have berthed at the sea shore, Nigerians are asking questions about the state of readiness of the country in post COVID-19 era, where organisations and businesses, including government agencies, will rely on broadband for online meetings, healthcare consultations, virtual workplace and virtual learning among teachers and students, writes Emma Okonji

The effect of COVID-19 pandemic that is ravaging global economies has, no doubt, increased the demand for broadband access that will enable government, organisations, schools, healthcare among others to switch to the new normal, where conferences will be held online, and healthcare delivery system, including educational programmes, will depend largely on ubiquitous broadband access.

Nigerians are however skeptical about the preparedness of the federal government to address the new normal in post COVID-19 era, where access to ubiquitous broadband that will drive down the high cost of internet broadband connectivity, is still a mirage.

Aside high cost of broadband bandwidth, homes and organisations still face difficulties in broadband network installations as it takes longer period to complete homes and offices installations, even when payments have been made to the installation companies.

Telecoms operators have however blamed the current challenges on telecoms infrastructure vandalism in some parts of the country, inadequate broadband infrastructure across the country, including the refusal of state governments to grant Right of Way (RoW) permits to telecoms operators that will enable them expand telecoms network infrastructure across the country.

The New Normal

The effect of COVID-19 has forced technology companies to become more innovative in order to help economies survive the new normal created by the adverse effects of COVID-19 that is already crumbling economies.

Speaking during a recent Business Technology Webinar Series, organised by Rack Centre via Zoom, the Managing Director of Rack Centre, a Tier Ill Constructed Facility Certified Data Centre operator, Mr. Tunde Coker, said the new changes would bring about a new normal, drive productivity in governance and reduce operational costs in organisations in the post-COVID-19 era.

Coker advised government and organisations to prepare for the new era that would bring about a new normal in governance and organisational operations.

According to him, in the post-COVID-19 era, activities would shift towards online and internet traffic would grow, with many people working from home, once they are connected to broadband internet.

“During the Post-COVID-19 era, semi-flex office staff location will spring up, where new offices will be created close to workers’ residence and they will travel only few kilometres to access the semi-flex office and work from there as a virtual team, while connecting to the office. Virtual Edutech will spring up, when students will be studying from their homes and getting connected to the school virtually through their connected devices like laptop, iPad and mobile phones. There will be high definition video and Augmented Reality (AR) will be used for healthcare delivery, where medical doctors will attend to people in remote and far places to carryout quick medical consultations. Governments at all levels and organisations will hold meeting through digital conferences like video conference and teleconference. Documents will be signed digitally after each virtual meeting,” Coker said.

He further explained that Blockchain technology would reach a new height of acceptability and use, while internet exchange volume would grow significantly and workers would be digitally connected to the super highway and data centre, with cloud technologies moving to the edge, closer to the point of use. Global supply chain would change and African countries would benefit more from it.

Infrastructure Challenges 

Some of the identity challenges that may likely cause obstruction to the new normal created by the effect of COVID-19, are infrastructure deficit across the country and Right of Way (RoW) issues, where state agencies are denying telecoms operators, the right to expand their networks in their respective states, due to unresolved challenges surrounding RoW.

In recognition of the fact that the country has infrastructure deficit, the Executive Vice Chairman of the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), Prof. Umar Garba Danbatta, had said Nigeria needed to double its current $68 billion telecoms investment to $136 billion, in order to address the existing telecoms infrastructure deficit in the country.

Danbatta, who made the disclosure, while delivering the keynote at the 2019 Distinguished Electrical and Electronics Engineers (DEEEAL) Annual Lecture in Kano, said although Nigeria has huge bandwidth capacity of submarine cable landings on the shores of Lagos, but that the country cannot boast of ubiquitous broadband infrastructure in the hinterlands, because of inadequate telecoms infrastructure to transmit and distribute broadband capacities from the shores of the country to the hinterlands.

According to Danbatta, more than 60 terabytes per second (60Tbps) bandwidth capacity of submarine cable landings from submarine cable operators like MainOne, Glo1, MTN WACS, and SAT 3, are on the shores of Lagos, yet Nigeria uses less than 10 per of the 60 Tbps capacity as a result of infrastructure deficit.

“More than 60 terabytes per second (60Tbps) bandwidth capacity of submarine cable landings are on the shores of Lagos. Operators and the Universal Service Provision Fund (USPF) have laid over 42,000 km of intercity fibre. Sub-optimal intercity fibre capacity utilisation exist due to duplications of some routes. Internet access is mainly through wireless infrastructure, and more than 40,000 Base Transceiver Stations (BTSs) are broadband enablers, yet Nigeria is underutilising its huge broadband capacities sitting at the shores of Lagos for lack of sufficient telecoms infrastructure.

“Currently there is under-utilisation of the submarine broadband capacity on the landing shores. There is inadequate intra metro fibre infrastructure in several towns and cities, and 120, 000 km fibre is required. We have deficit in telecoms investment. So far, telecoms investment in Nigeria is put at $68 billion, which is huge. However, double the amount is required to address our infrastructure deficit,” Danbatta said.

Explaining the importance of ubiquitous broadband capacity for national development, Danbatta said broadband remained an interconnected, multi-layered ecosystem, which would provide exciting value chain of: Digital readiness, digital development, digital opportunity, and digital inclusiveness.

Row Challenges 

Industry stakeholders are of the view that unless the issue of RoW charges are resolved, telecoms operators will not be able to expand their telecoms infrastructure in different states of the federation where they operate. They also warned that should the RoW issue lingers, it would affect the survivability of organisations, institutions and government agencies during and after COVID-19 pandemic.

RoW is the approval granted telecoms operators by state agencies, to lay fibre cables for broadband infrastructure deployment in the state. Over the years, different state agencies have different RoW charges for telecoms and some of the state agencies kept hiking the cost of RoW, a development that halted the rollout of telecoms infrastructure in most states. The state agencies charge between N500 to N6,000 per linear metre, whereas a single telecoms operator needs thousands of kilometres of fibre to cover a state with broadband access.

Chairman of the Association of Licensed Telecoms Operators of Nigeria (ALTON), Mr. Gbenga Adebayo, has severally written to state governments, reminding them of the need to take the benefits of telecoms infrastructure rollout in the state, above the gains of Internally Generated Revenue (IGR), by considering the reduction of RoW charges in their respective states.

Disturbed by the development, the Federal Government, through the National Executive Council (NEC), had in 2013, reached an agreement with State Governors to reduce RoW charges to a uniform rate of N145 per linear metre, but for the love of making huge money from their IGR, the Governors blatantly refused to cut down on RoW charges, until the Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Dr. Isa Ibrahim Pantami, in January this year, had a meeting with the Nigeria Governors’ Forum (NGF), where he reminded the Governors of the agreement they reached with the federal government to reduce RoW charges to N145 per linear metre.

Three weeks ago, the Governor of Ekiti State, Dr. Kayode Fayemi, who is also the chairman of NGF, signed an executive order reducing the Right of Way (RoW) charges relating to laying of broadband cable or any other telecoms infrastructure in the state from N4,500 per linear metre to N145 per linear metre.

Ekiti State became the second state to implement the N145 per liner metre RoW charges, after Katsina State that had since commenced implementation of the new rate as directed by the federal government.

Shortly after Ekiti State reduced RoW charges for telecoms, other states like Imo, Plateau and Kaduna state, followed, a development that has received commendations from industry stakeholders.

Following the reduction of RoW charges to N145 per linear metre in Imo State, the chairman, Zinox Group, Leo Stan Ekeh, said: “We intend to rollout multi-million-dollars optic fibre infrastructure across Imo, Anambra, Enugu, Ebonyi and Abia States based on our signed partnership with the Federal Government on Infrastructure Company (InfraCo) project. The reduction will significantly alter the destiny of people living in these states and connect them to the global community in no distant time.’’

Commitment 

In spite of the challenges of the new normal, most organisations are already innovating with technology that will enable companies, agencies of government, educational sector, among others to maintain business sustainability and to survive during and after COVID-19 pandemic.

Huawei Technologies, for instance, has ensured that Nigerian students registered under its Authorized Information and Network Academy are trained in core ICT skills in the face of the COVID-9 pandemic. The company moved its classes online, engaging hundreds of students across the country on their computer screens from the comfort of their homes.

The Huawei Authorized Information and Network Academy (HAINA) in collaboration with more than 70 universities in Nigeria was established to train students for free in the latest internationally relevant ICT skills in subjects such as Networks, Cloud Computing and Big Data. As at today, over 10,000 Nigerian students have benefitted and certified.

In a recent interactive session with some of the teachers and students of the academy, they gave insights into the structure of the academy’s online training programme and its impact.

Head of IT Technical Support Unit, Katsina State Institute of Technology and Management, Mr. Lawal Ahmad Alassan, who is also a Huawei Academy Instructor in Routing, Switching, Storage and Security said his first batch of online classes held from the 10th till the 15th of May 2020 and he had between 75 to 50 students from different educational institutions from all over Nigeria. He said classes were split into two classes of 40 each. The training was structured for three hours daily with breaks in between.

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