The management of Spectrum is an issue, argues Sonny Aragba-Akpore 

Apathy by operators occasioned by lack of confidence in the near comatose economy of the country is believed to be one strong reason why licencees for the fifth generation (5G) telecommunications services may not be able to provide robust services for now.

Although sizeable investments have been ploughed into project 5G, insensitivity of government officials to the management of Spectrum, a scarce national asset, may have added to reasons why 5G is far away.

   Spectrum is a major determinant for telecommunications and broadcasting services and how it is managed by government determines the success or failure of such services.

When the Ernest Ndukwe led Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) opted for technology neutrality in 2001, leading to the Digital Mobile License (DML) auction, it first sought and obtained Spectrum for that purpose.

Ndukwe, a consummate engineer had solicited permission from his board then led by an unforgettable technocrat, Ahmed Joda.

The National Frequency Management Commission granted the NCC request to go ahead and subsequently assigned such Spectrum to the would-be bidders for the DML.

 The auction beat book-makers predictions when it came out as a very transparent exercise that became a primus inter pares for global DMLs.

  But there was a minus for the NCC in that exercise which cost the Mike Adenuga led Communications Investment Limited (CIL) one of the winners of the auction a monumental loss. Harry Nanke, the spokesman for CIL then lamented then Adenuga’s CIL topped all other bidders including MTN, Econet Wireless Nigeria and others.

Adenuga’s CIL ran Into troubled waters because its Spectrum was encumbered.

Motophone Limited, one of the 33 companies that benefited from the GSM bazaar between 1992 and 1999 under the “old school “ NCC when issuing licences to friends, associates, cronies and family members was a way of life, but was cancelled by Ernest Ndukwe and his team.

Motophone believed to belong to Chagoury and Chagoury went to court to challenge the NCC on the grounds that the Spectrum assigned to it still subsisted and that the regulator had no moral rights to reassign it without showing cause.

While this matter lingered, Adenuga’s CIL sought for comfort as the deadline for payment for the hard won license drew near.

It got none from the NCC and so lost not only the license but also the $20million deposit it paid before the auction.

This became an albatross for the NCC even when it played by its own rules.

Two big legal minds, Aare Afe Babalola(SAN) who represented President Olusegun Obasanjo at the auction while Mr.Paul Usoro(SAN) who stood strong with the NCC couldn’t help the situation. Both men were helpless because they were uncomfortable to swim against the tide.

But the situation couldn’t be remedied as the rules were very clear as to what government wanted to achieve.

If the NCC had bent the rules, the efforts put in to achieve a transparent exercise would have been truncated by partisanship purposes.

    Ndukwe and his team held its ground and saved the country from imminent embarrassment.

That was the eminent role Spectrum played then and the rules were supposed to be adhered to until 2021 when in a desperate move to impose 5G on Nigerians and generate revenue for government, a Minister who knew next to nothing about 5G and an embattled Chief regulator went ahead to conduct an auction and  assigned Spectrum by special arrangements.

MTN and Mafab Communications, the pioneer 5G licencees and later Airtel Nigeria are yet to justify the acquisition of the scarce national resource, the spectrum.

  Spectrum is a radio frequency for telecommunications and broadcasting services and because of its scarcity, it does not come cheap. And operators know so. This explains why 5G remains elusive despite the efforts of the operators.

   Apart from the financial outlays and the crisis of the economy, operators are plagued by a myriad of problems including the spectrum they were assigned.

  The higher portion of the spectrum deployment requires more infrastructure investment to provide same coverage as the lower one. The cost has gone up prohibitively since 2001. But the resources are not readily available.

For instance regulators of spectrum around the world know this so well. Operators are wooed in using higher spectrum because of the economic benefit derivable but with government relaxing the revenue or not collecting it at all. This will allow the operators divert the fund to roll out in lieu of revenue to government. Win -win for operators and citizens. 

It is not clear whether there are incentives and rules of the thumb for execution of 5G services or the operators are simply waiting for the right time, tying investments down without any thought for returns.

“The last 5G auction was revenue focused not economic benefit to Nigeria. The revenue has been collected and the benefit has not been felt by Nigerians for almost three years post-auction period. Nigerians may not see any meaningful 5G deployment in the nearest future” according to a Spectrum analyst. “For instance the economics of spectrum dictate that there has to be demand for it before it is assigned to an operator to put into use. It is a national resource and its assignment has to be judiciously done to facilitate national economic growth”.

 Its positive impact cuts across other sectors as well.  “Remember the GSM auction of the 2001 that revolutionized telecommunications sector in Nigeria and continuous to impact on how we conduct our lives today. “

  MTN Nigeria and Mafab Communications emerged as winners of the 5G auction in December 2021, with Airtel Africa to follow in January 2023. 

   By implication, MTN and Airtel which already had substantial investment in 2G, 3G and 4G and corresponding physical infrastructure on ground, the deployment of 5G would come as a network over-lay and could be seamlessly realized but that didn’t happen.

“Advancement in wireless technologies is synonymous to quest for higher range of the spectrum. Such is the trend for deployment of 1G, 2G, 3G, 4G and 5G. Currently, 6G technology is on trial in a number of administrations around the world. By rule of thumb in spectrum management, putting higher spectrum into use requires more investment and additional infrastructure in the telecommunications operations. What will take a new entrant in our present stage of telecommunications to roll out 5G network can only be best imagined,” an analyst explains.

Aragba-Akpore is a member of THISDAY Editorial Board

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