Nigeria: Bridging the Infrastructure Divide

md@jidaw.comThe information age has made technology, particularly information and communications technology, indispensable. What has been the Information Technology (IT) and Telecommunications situation in Nigeria? Nigeria is often identified as the fastest moving economy and one of the most advanced ICT market sectors in the Africa. It has the largest population in Africa, also making it an attractive and big market. How has or how is IT and Telecomms allowing Nigeria to leap-frog into the information age?

Essentially answers to these questions have to do with access to IT and Telecomms services. Let's examine Information and Communications Technology (ICT) status and developments in Nigeria by looking at several issues relating to infrastructure in Nigeria. In this regard, telecommunications infrastructure is particularly important, because of its far-reaching impact.

A New Era


Telecommunication infrastructure remains one of the major issues affecting technology deployment required for growth and development in Nigeria. There has however, been massive improvement in infrastructure over the past few years. Nigeria has certainly left the telecomm state where there were only a few dial-up e-mail providers and Internet service providers (ISPs) and when Nigerian Telecommunications Limited (NITEL) was the only Telecommunications operator. It was a dark era characterized by slow Internet links, poor service, high cost, lack of infrastructure and an unprogressive telecoms monopoly. Things have certainly changed. So has night turned to day?

Deregulation of the telecommunications sector led to the introduction of major Global System of Mobile Communications (GSM), mobile phone providers MTN Nigeria, V-Mobile, Globacom and Mtel (http://www.jidaw.com/telecomproviders.html).
Nigeria's government had earlier provided the impetus for liberalization by setting up the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) (http://www.jidaw.com/comm.html). Although NCC became the regulatory body for Nigeria's telecom sector in 1992, it is the present government that dealt with the telecom policy, interconnection agreements and the empowerment of NCC. NCC issues licenses to private telecoms companies providing a variety of telecom services to the Nigerian populace.
According to NCC, deregulated telecommunications services include:
"Sales and Installation of Terminal equipment (Mobile Cellular Phones, Satellite Communication and Switching equipments etc); Public Payphone Services; Internet Services; Prepaid Calling Card Services; Community Telephony with exchanges; Paging Services; Trunk and 2-Way Radio Network Services; Fixed Telephony Services, employing cable and Radio; Satellite Network Services (e.g. Domestic VSAT networks); Repairs & Maintenance of telecommunications facilities; Cabling services; Tele-Centers/Cyber Cafes".

The GSM Revolution

The GSM revolution began in August 2001 and changed the face of Information and Communications Technology in Nigeria. But note that the picture will not be complete without mentioning the Private Telephone Operators (PTOs) and other landmarks such as the licensing of Globacom as Nigeria's second national operator (SNO)as well as the licensing of 22 fixed wireless operators.
Though Globacom is presently more active in the mobile telephony sector (Glomobile), it has the same licenses as NITEL. Globacom's licence constitutes a multi-service package of National Carrier, GSM, International Gateway and Fixed Wireless Access (FWA).
Since the GSM launch, mobile telephony has rapidly become the most popular method of voice communication in Nigeria. Growth has been so rapid that Nigeria has been rightly described in various fora as "one of the fastest growing GSM markets in the world". Indeed these developments have been truly explosive: today Nigeria has about five million mobile lines and about one million fixed lines, compared with just about 450,000 working lines from NITEL three years ago.

ICT boom - Combined Effort

But Nigeria's telecom infrastructure story and growth has not been due to GSM alone. For example, GSM doesn't have much to do with the upsurge in Internet usage and access. In essence it is the combined activities of Nigeria's telecoms providers (http://www.jidaw.com/telecomproviders.html) - GSM, FWA, PTOs, telephony and VSAT operators and NCC's regulatory efforts that has led to increased competition and availability of a wide range of voice, data and internet applications and services. The improvement in the telecom situation in Nigeria has made significant impact in all sectors - commerce, social and educational. Although most of the impact is presently felt only in the urban centers, NCC has announced plans to ensure the telecomms revolution also touches the rural populace. As noted by one of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) publications, there is "a direct correlation between access to telecommunications, economic wealth, and social development".

The telecomms boom has resulted in greater usage of Internet Technology, growth and availability of cyber cafés, increased Internet provision by ISPs and PTOs, increased communications services (mobile telephony, e-mail, VOIP), reduction of Internet costs, online information gathering and research, e-learning, Internet business opportunities, online advertising opportunities as well as developments in e-banking. Growth has been phenomenal because Nigeria's size is massive and Nigerians have been starved of such access for decades. A kind of "Thank God the drought is over" experience. So while there might be an IT or Telecomms downturn in the rest of the world, the ICT sector in Africa especially in places like Nigeria continues to boom.
A few years ago, "cyber café" was a strange word from another world. Today cyber cafés exist in virtually every neighborhood especially in the urban centers. Because cost of ICT is still relatively high for most individuals, the cybercafe has significantly improved accessibility to the Internet in Nigeria.
This is particularly significant as the ITU publication, states: "if information is power, then the internet must be the easiest way of empowering those that have traditionally been left behind."

Success? Paradise?

The facts are there for all to see. There has been substantial improvement in access to telecom facilities and unprecedented growth in the telecoms network. So has night turned to day? Not quite. In view of Nigeria's size and requirements telecommunications infrastructure is still grossly inadequate. Nigeria is regarded as "one of the biggest telecommunications markets in Africa and the world". But does size determine quality? It should be more about growth and qualitative infrastructure than just having a big or the fastest growing market.

With the opening up of the telecoms space further dramatic growth is expected as service and reliability demands increase. However, in-depth penetration and qualitative infrastructure growth is critical.

Qualitative Factors

Cost

Access is not just about availability. Cost affects usage. High cost is still a barrier. While prices have definitely come down the cost of access is still too high to have a transformatory impact. There are presently price competition battles going on involving PTOs and GSM providers, which are steps in this direction. The provision of Internet by PTOs is also helping. But more needs to be done about bringing down call tariffs and rates not just communications acquisition cost. The aim should be low cost Internet and phone service.

The efforts of Nigerian computer manufacturers such as Omatek and Zinox Technologies are commendable and should be encouraged. However, because most of the computer hardware in use in Nigeria is imported, high computer prices are a barrier to access. e-business, telecomms infrastructure is incomplete without affordable computing facilities. Although just like the phone and Internet costs, computer prices have been falling, more people, not just businesses, need to have access to reasonably priced computers for education, recreation, business and other creative activities.

Poor electricity supply
Epileptic power supply increases the cost of access. Supply of electricity needs to be optimal to enable businesses and banks to provide seamless online services through local areas networks, wide area networks and the Internet. Inefficiency is the word to describe a situation where everybody has to depend on power generators, as the primary, reliable power supply. This constitutes a barrier to growth and sustainable development. The growth of real e-business cannot take place or be of any significance in an environment with unreliable public power supply.

Quality of service
While availability has grown, this has not been matched by quality of service. It is not enough to have cheap lines and low cost bandwidth. Efficiency and accessibility of telecoms service should be paramount. Most operators have a lot of work to do in QoS especially in the areas of congestion and support. NCC may have to wield the big stick by sanctioning poor performers.

Appropriate Licensing fees
NCC has done a lot as a pacesetter. But NCC needs to review the appropriateness of its license fees. How realistic are such fees for healthy competition? Will such fees as they are stimulate telecoms growth or increase the number of competent market players?

ICT Incentives
The market is large – the biggest in Africa! Opportunities abound! But more needs to be done to encourage investment in ICT, especially in the knowledge and creative areas. There is a need for a combination of incentives: reduction of import duties on ICT equipment, tax incentives for ICT companies, tax incentives for investment in ICT research, development and training efforts, local manufacture of telecommunications equipment and infrastructure. Again the essence of these incentives is to encourage growth and reduce access cost. If most ICT providers are faced with the problem of multiplicity of taxes, as is the case now, is this in sync with the growth that is needed?

The Nitel question
What exactly is the aim of the seesaw commercialization / privatisation of NITEL? Nitel's performance as a national operator, or even as a telecom provider is still way below standard. Although Nitel may no longer be the sole or dominant operator, its 450,000 lines is still a major chunk of infrastructure that can't be ignored. The Pentascope (present commercial managers of Nitel) experiment is clearly not working. For the many who depend on Nitel, improvement in performance and quality of service are key.

Building expertise in Nigeria
More efforts should be invested in encouraging the development of IT and Telecoms expertise in Nigeria. "The biggest market", "the fastest growing teledensity" or just "the biggest consumers"? Consumption alone cannot engender growth. There is a need to develop human capacity in areas such as: technical, management, research and development, security, strategic and operational. For example, while there has been a cybercafe boom, management has been a major source of concern for cybercafe businesses (http://www.jidaw.com/itsolutions/cybercafe.html).

Also with the many IT and Telecoms projects that are taking off, project management skills will be required to get benefit.
Human development in ICT can be encouraged through increased awareness of opportunities and capabilities in ICT. The environment should encourage ICT education and provide incentives especially for those investing in research, development, training, software and other creative efforts. Acquiring infrastructure is great but it is serious investment in education that will bridge the digital divide and enhance the quality of infrastructure, the quality of access, the quality of usage, the quality of growth.
Initiatives from profit-driven members of the private sector should be encouraged, but such schemes are on their own not enough to make Nigeria an ICT-capable country or a key player in the global ICT revolution.

An emphasis on infrastructure would widen access to ICT facilities. Nigeria can't afford the luxury of ignoring the multiplier effects of access to ICT. Nigeria has certainly done well so far in improving infrastructure capacity in "record time", now it's time to start focusing on quality. At the end of the day, infrastructure is not just about access, it's about what you do with access.


Jide Awe is the Founder of Jidaw.com (http://www.jidaw.com/)
Mr Jide Awe graduated with B.Sc. & Being (Double Degrees) Enhanced Honours (Second Class Upper Division) in Electrical and Electronic Engineering, from Loughborough University of Technology, England, in July 1983. He has over 14 years experience in the Computer and Telecommunications industries. He is a Full member of several Professional Organizations such as the Nigerian Society of Engineers and the Computer Association of Nigeria.



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