UMAR DANBATTA: Cost Reduction Won’t Solve Data Fast Depletion

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Executive Vice Chairman of NCC, Prof. Umar Danbatta

The executive

The Executive Vice Chairman of the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), Prof. Umar Garba Danbatta, speaks on telecoms development and the expectations that Nigeria will surpass the target of 70 per cent broadband penetration by 2025, given the current statistics of 45.93 per cent penetration as at October 2020. Emma Okonji presents the excerpts:

You were among the recipients of this year’s ZIK Prize for leadership award. What does it mean to you and the entire staff of the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) where you sit at the helm of affairs?

I was honoured with the Zik Leadership Award in the professional leadership category. We were two, who got that award. The other person is a banker. The reason I was considered for the award, according to the organisers, was that NCC succeeded in raising the bar in the telecommunications industry. They acknowledged the fact that we have been able to raise broadband penetration from about 6 per cent in 2015 to 45.93 per cent in October 2020. They talked about how we at NCC have empowered the telecoms consumers. Remember, the NCC declared 2017 as the year of the consumer. That was equally appreciated. They also noted our efforts on protection of the consumers against unsolicited SMS, providing them a toll free number they can used to complain. So, when services are being provided to over 207 million subscribers, of course, complaints are expected. In fact, they are normal. We however, have an excellent consumer resolution mechanism in place, which is working well. The response time to complaints can be shorter. We have the 622 number that is on 24 hours to resolve issues.

The Zik Leadership Award has made me more humble, and I have dedicated it to the telecommunications sector, subscribers, the management and board of NCC, and the media. They have all played huge roles in these last six years.

I also acknowledged the confidence imposed on me by President Muhammadu Buhari, who appointed me in 2015, and re-appointed me in 2020 after a strong recommendation by the Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Dr. Isa Ibrahim Pantami.

So, recognition of this nature comes with a lot of expectations, and it calls for more responsibilities, dedication, and commitment in the service of the country, and Nigerians, who have shown remarkable confidence in what we are doing despite the challenges.

How do you intend to meet the expectations of telecoms subscribers, having been recognised with the Zik Prize?

From about 100 million subscribers in 2015 to over 200 million now, it shows that on a daily basis, Nigerians are subscribing to telecoms services, and I think there are expectations from telecoms subscribers, in the area of getting value for money. They want consumer response time to complaints to be less than 24 hours and they also want the NCC to address the issue of data depletion. As a consumer-centric regulator, we will sure address all of that.

The issue of high cost of data and fast data depletion have topped telecoms consumers’ complaints in recent time. How do you intend to address them?

The Commission will continue to work towards the reduction in the cost of data, and we are also working towards achieving the target of N390/Gigabyte cost of data by the year 2025, as enshrined in the National Broadband Plan (2020-205).

We did our benchmarking recently and we discovered that the cost of 1 Gigabyte of data has come down below N500, which represents 50 per cent reduction from what it used to be. There is however a target to reduce data cost to N390/Gigabyte by the year 2025 and we are almost there. The target, as enshrined in the National Broadband Plan (2020-2025) is to achieve N390/Gigabyte in the cost of data by the end of 2025, but the recent benchmarking that the NCC did, showed that the cost of data has reduced to more than 50 per cent from what it used to be at the beginning of 2020. For us as industry regulator, this is a good sign that data cost is coming down and that the issue of data depletion as experienced by subscribers, is gradually been addressed.

Although the reduction in the cost of data may not completely address the issue of fast data depletion as currently being experienced by subscribers, but that NCC is considering a new measure that will completely address the issue of data depletion. NCC has instituted a forensic audit on the cost of data, just like we did with cost of Short Message Service (SMS) on a particular mobile operator, where we discovered that the operator unlawfully surcharged its subscribers to the tune of over N100 million and we have asked the particular operator to make refunds immediately and the operator has commenced refund to the affected subscribers. This could have gone unnoticed, if not for the quick intervention of NCC. We have plans to even extend the forensic audit on sms to other telecoms operators.

So like we did for sms, we are doing same for data to find out the reason for fast data depletion and it will be carried out across all Mobile Network Operators (MNOs). By the time the audit is completed and the result is out, perhaps we will have better information of what is happening in the data segment, as it relates to fast data depletion.

The telecoms industry is still fraught with the challenge of telecoms infrastructure deficit, which is negatively affecting quality of service. What is your take on this?

It is true that there is the challenge of infrastructure deficit in the telecoms sector, the reason being that there are still existing clusters of access gaps in the country, which NCC is fast reducing. Infrastructure deficit will deprive telecoms subscribers of the right quality of service that they deserve and the NCC is working hard to address infrastructure deficit in the country in order to boost access and connectivity. NCC needs to act quickly in consistence with government policies on infrastructure build up. Government is looking at additional deployment of fibre optic cables in the next four years, in addition to what is currently on ground. The NCC is desirous that telecoms services are pervasive and accessible to all Nigerians, irrespective of their locations, even in remote and isolated communities.

We need adequate infrastructure to address quality of service across networks. NCC on its part, will continue to deploy infrastructure, especially broadband infrastructure in order to solve the challenges of congestion on the networks as well as ensure the right speed of accessing telecoms services. Speed in accessing the internet is very important, hence the National Broadband Plan recommended two digits target of 25mbps for urban areas and 10mbps for rural areas of the country. Another area of target as recommended by the National Broadband Plan, that will enhance quality of service, is the broadband penetration, and it recommended a target of 70 per cent penetration by 2025, but there is a recent presidential order that we should attain 60 per cent broadband penetration by 2023.

From statistics, broadband penetration has grown in the country, as it further deepened from less than 6 per cent in 2015 to 45.93 per cent as at October 2020. If the country can have a steady growth in broadband penetration per annum, which I think is possible, given the current statistics, then Nigeria is very sure of meeting and surpassing the projected 60 per cent and 70 per cent broadband penetration by 2023 and 2025 respectively.

You talked about additional fibre rollout to make telecoms services more accessible. What is NCC doing in the area of additional installation of Base Transceiver Station (BTS) also known as base station?

Well, we know the number of telecoms masts and BTS that we have across the country since 2015. We had access cluster gaps of 217, where some 40 million Nigerians reside without access to telecoms services as a result of the gap in infrastructure. However, the number has gone down by more than 50 per cent. So, we have about 114 access gaps to be addressed.

The clusters of access gaps are concentrated in some specific areas. But even in places like Lagos, we have areas that are underserved, and in the South west. So, from a little under 50,000 masts, which cut across 2G, 3G, and 4G because of co-location, we need more telecoms masts to boost connectivity. So we currently have about 50,000 masts across all networks, serving over 200 million telecoms subscribers, but if you compare this with a country like United Kingdom with a population that is a third of Nigeria’s, population yet they have over 60,000 telecoms masts, then you will see the need for Nigeria to have additional masts installation, the same way we need additional fibre deployment to further boost telecoms services in the country. So, if we go by that analogy, Nigeria will need about 150, 000 BTS to ensure services are expanded. But mind you, these are what we call wireless infrastructure. The infrastructure in this country is predominantly wireless, covering more than 80 per cent. But there is a limitation to wireless infrastructure, which include lack of speed and volume.

So we need to bridge these identified challenges by laying fibre infrastructure to even connect BTS, and by doing that, we boost speed and telecoms services traffic. So, we need the two—the mast on one hand, then fixed infrastructure (fibre) on the other. But because fibre is inadequate, there is no way we can move the huge capacity of data in Lagos, which is close to 40 terabytes into the hinterland. What we intend to do in order to further reduce the cost of data, is to move these capacities at the landing point into every part of the country. Ultimately, we see that will help bring down cost of data, which I earlier said was already coming down. So, ultimately, by 2025, we may be able to buy data cheaper than the projected N390/Gigabyte, and I am confident this will happen because all the indications are there.

What are the roles of communication satellite in boosting broadband services?

There are terrains in this country, where we do not have fixed infrastructure, so you rely on satellite to reach those places. This is not peculiar to Nigeria. Communication Satellite infrastructure is still very relevant, and we are creating licences to communication satellite providers to augment the infrastructure in the fixed infrastructure space. The communication satellite operators have added beauty to the competition in the industry, even though the NCC is not launching satellite into space, and that is not within our jurisdiction. Our focus is about the usage of communication satellite in the country, which is part of our jurisdiction as empowered by law.

What is the total amount required to adequately deploy ubiquitous telecoms infrastructure across the country?

It is difficult to project how much investment is required to do the deployment of infrastructure that will ensure ubiquity in telecoms services. When the Infrastructure Companies (InfraCos) were licensed, they came up with a CAPEX of about N200 billion. To that, you have to add the licensee of the North Central zone. There is one already, and all analyses on it have been done, a memo will be sent to the board of NCC for recommendation. So, because of the last licensee, you may need to add about N60 billion, that will give you about N260 billion.

However, I must say this, those were projections made before the COVID-19 pandemic, and the deterioration of the exchange rate. That is why I cannot say specifically, how much will be needed. Also, remember when we calculated the counterpart funding, we came out with about N65 billion. So, all in all, we are looking at about N300 billion over a period of four years. But that has changed because of the pandemic, which was not envisaged. So, COVID-19 has necessitated a review of the projections, though they are still good. I must also say this that we have embarked on the review of the InfraCo project, which however, has been completed. I wouldn’t want to preempt the Federal Government on what is on the review, we leave it to them. It is stated in the National Broadband Plan that between $4 billion and $5 billion will be needed, but that is in the implementation of the plan, but we need to sit down and look in specific, what component of the broadband plan that will cover.

In terms of level of sector investments, we know that when the operators want to import equipment, they usually make request to the Central Bank for forex, it is when we clear such request that we know the reasonability of it, and normally the request comes in dollars, so we have a record that we can put together and come up with the foreign exchange request that telcos make to the CBN for them to buy equipment. Also, it must be stated that telcos must also have other means through which they source for funds without necessarily having to wait for the apex bank.

What is the current telecoms investments in the country, having reported $70 billion telecoms sector investments since 2015?

Definitely, the $70 billion telecoms investment to the Nigerian economy must have changed, and we are not saying it must have gone down, because it has definitely increased, but we shall get back to you on that in order to feed you with the exact figure. That will be communicated later.

What are some of the achievements in the telecoms sector in 2020, and what are your projections for 2021?

The Strategic Vision Plan is an action plan, and it was designed to span over a period of five years, and it will expire this year 2020. That said, But are we thinking of another plan? Yes, we are looking at another one. We have Strategic Vision Plan 2, which has in it, some of the items that spilled from the first plan because we do not achieve everything in the first plan. One of the things we were able to accomplish was the broadband penetration, where we surpassed the 30 per cent penetration target in December 2018. There are so many things to be done in the sector. If there is no plan, we may not be able to do those things we planned for the sector.

The first step we are taking is to unveil another plan that will guide our plans going forward in the next five years. So it will be 2021 to 2025. Fortunately for us, over the same period, we have the second National Broadband Plan that will guide our activities. The Strategic Vision Plan 2 leveraged on the National Broadband Plan, which is in place. The National Digital Economic Policy (NDEP), which is a plan for 10 years, 2020 to 2030, will still leverage on the Strategic Vision Plan 2 and of course, we look at the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) Vision Plan. So all these plans are policy documents expected to drive the sector. So, NCC will come up with implementable plans to drive it.

So the projection for 2021 will be on capacity building and the unveiling of the Strategic Vision Plan 2. We shall invite all the critical stakeholders for contributions. So, lots of activities will be implemented in the New Year to transform the digital economy agenda of the Federal Government. NCC, in 2021, will be very important to the country’s digital agenda.

Last month, NCC released draft consultation document on 5G rollout. When will the review of 5G process be over, to pave way for the rollout?

It is our responsibility to advise the government whenever a new technology emerges, because we are trained to be able to do that. That has been the tradition since the emergence of 2G, 3G, and 4G. All these were preceded by trials. So, people forget easily that there was also a commercial trail on the 3G we are currently using. May be these first sets of technologies did not generate so much controversies like 5G. All the controversies surrounding it have been addressed by NCC. We have given assurances to Nigerians that the International Commission for Non-Ionising Radiation Protection has given the clearance for 5G deployment because the level of radiation coming, according to the commission is negligible. It is so small compared to radiation coming from television set. Ionising radiation dry up the skill, but that has not been found in 5G.

Secondly on the date of commercial launch of 5G in Nigeria, I will say that after taking all the precautionary measures that we need to take, including trials, which we have done in six locations across the country because of the terrain, and varying characteristics of signals. For example, the signal in Enugu State in South-east, may be different from that of the South west or even in the Northern part of the country because of so many factors. We have conducted the trials, the report has gone to the Federal Government. I can assure you that soonest, government will make a pronouncement as to when 5G will be fully deployed in Nigeria. Government is serious about 5G because there is an Industry Working Group that will come up with policies that will govern the rollout of 5G. So, without a policy to regulate the commercial launch of the technology, it will be difficult to grant licenses and give a rollout date.

The Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) showed that operators are meeting quality of service standard, but in reality, it is not so. How does NCC measure KPIs, especially as yuletide is around the corner?

The KPIs that characterises quality of service are four, but they have since gone up to seven. Daily, we are coming up with more KPIs. It is a dynamic process because of the dynamic nature of the telecoms sector. We are doing this to ensure services are improved upon. But the one most people are familiar with is the drop call, and they have forgot about the six others. We have capacity to measure all the KPIs everywhere in the country, and we normally give an average. So, the quality of service in terms of drop calls varies from one location to another.

Obviously, where you have clusters of access gaps, there will be more drop calls because as you are moving from one area where there is no access gap to another area where there is access gap. Ideally, you are not supposed to experience any drop calls wherever you move, but you cannot have a situation where you will not experience drop calls when there are clusters of access gaps. With access gaps, there will be discontinuity when you move from one area that is served to area that is unserved. So, when we notice an improvement averagely on the KPIs across all Mobile Network Operators (MNOs), the quality of experience is different.

There are occasions where people have virtual meetings and they experience service disruptions and there are also occasions where others have virtual meetings without experiencing any form of service disruptions, and these are determined by access gaps and non-access gaps. Drop call is something someone can experience, even in technologically advanced countries, but it is not strictly a technical issue. Most times there are factors that are not technical that can make calls to drop. For instance weather conditions, rain for example, can affect services momentarily when there is heavy storm. The most important thing is how quickly we can restore services, especially when it drops.

Other parameter is your ability to set up a call, which we refer to as call set-up success rate. It states that only one call out of 100 calls is allowed to fail. So, you can see how stringent it is, but we are doing everything possible to ensure subscribers get the best for their money.

Subscribers experience more drop calls and delay in delivery of text messages during Yuletide. Now that Christmas is close at hand, what is NCC doing to address the situation?

KPIs are the standards we use for measuring call success rates, and we will continue to use them to measure quality of service across networks. Telecoms operators have the responsibility to make their networks resilient during Yuletide, because people tend to make more calls and send more text messages during the period. Any operator who operates below the set KPIs, gets sanctioned and we have the authority to withdraw their operational licences if they continue to operate below the standard of our KPIs.