Mobolaji E. Aluko PhD
Burtonsville MD, USA
August 13, 2007
I have been watching with feelings both of amusement and of dismay the very public spat between telecommunications regulator NCC (the Nigerian Communications Commission www.ncc.ng.gov ) and NIGCOMSAT Ltd. ( www.nigcomsat.org ), the Nigerian-government-owned company that recently sent Nigeria's first communications satellite NigComSat-1 to orbit, courtesy of Chinese designers and launchers. The spat has to do with the alleged refusal of the NCC to grant NIGCOMSAT free use of unspecified spectrum license DESPITE former president Obasanjo's express instructions (on May 5, 2007) to do so within days of his departure on May 29.
When two people are fighting, it is usual for an intermediary to hear both sides, and then to try to be as objective as possible, usually blaming both sides first before coming out in judgment in favor of one side or against the other.
I will eschew that objective ploy - having "heard" both sides - and come out against NIGCOMSAT. Here is why.
GOING TO THE (FORMER) PRESIDENT FOR RELIEF
I found this particular aspect of this issue to be jejune. It was clear that NIGCOMSAT knew that the NCC had been tasked to license spectrum to users. However, it felt that it could dismantle NCC "intransigence" by going to "Baba" President for a special dispensation. If NIGCOMSAT does not need NCC at all, why not just go ahead and use the frequencies approved by "Baba"? Where would it stop if another agency had gone to "Baba" for special dispensation? Is this not how many government and non-governmental agencies got tax waivers amounting to BILLIONS of dollars - in effect revenue losses to the government?
So that is a slippery slope that clearly violates due process.
At best, a President might have been prevailed upon to call the NCC and NIGCOMSAT together to resolve the issue but the LAST WORD should have been that of the NCC which is CONSTITUTIONALLY charged to award spectrum licenses, NOT the President.
GOING TO THE PRESS WITH AN ADVERTORIAL
While the controversy might have been going on for a while subterraneously, it got really blown out of proportion when NIGCOMSAT took out an advertorial in several newspapers stating its case (see Appendix I below). Consequently having failed to get the NCC to buckle under a former presidential directive, it had now taken its case to the Court of Public Opinion, hoping perchance that that court would force either the NCC – or the new President – to yield to its (NIGCOMSAT's) desires.
Again I find this jejune. My major question: who paid for these advertorials, how much was paid and is it ever justified for an arm of government to spend so much government money to vilify another?
A SATELLITE IS MERELY A RELAY STATION AFTER ALL!
This here is my most important technical point: okay, NIGCOMSAT sent a satellite into geostationary (circular) orbit 22,000 miles up in the air. But a satellite is MERELY a relay station – you send information (data, voice, video, Internet, etc) to it from an Earth Station, and receive the information somewhere else or many places else via another Earth Station, all under some Command and Control Center operations. So in effect ALL that NIGCOMSAT would like to do can be considered TERRESTRIAL after some information has bounced UP and DOWN.
Now we might ask: what spectrums is NIGCOMSAT SPECIFICALLY seeking NCC permission for:
(1) the UPLINK (Earth-to-SATELLITE),
(2) DOWNLINK (SATELLITE-to-Earth) or
(3) TERRESTRIAL (Earth-to-Earth RADIO) CONNECTIONS ?
Not once in its advertorial does NIGCOMSAT mention a PARTICULAR frequency spectrum in contention with NCC eg 800 MHz band or 2.2 GHz band, etc. (see Table 1 for TERRESTRIAL frequency spectrums currently licensed and allocated by the NCC.) After all, the NCC is NOT involved in allocating SATELLITE frequency spectrums – that is the business of the ITU (International Telecommunication Union
www.itu.org ). Rather, what NIGCOMSAT requested for was an incredible "total frequency" range apparently with an incredible range of terrestrial business opportunities in sight:
On 5th May 2007, Mr. President approved specific spectrum allocation to NigComSat Limited and "total" frequency license for any telecommunication service NigComSat may wish to offer. It is germane to state that under the extant regulations, NigComSat as a government owned company is required to apply to the Federal Ministry of Information and Communication or the President for spectrum allocation and not to the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC). However, since Mr. President's approval has been communicated to NCC, the NCC ought to comply with Mr. President's directives...........
Obviously, it does not appear reasonable for NIGCOMSAT to be given ANY and ALL frequencies that it might wish for eg 800 MHz all the way to 3.5 GHz, which many other companies have competed and paid heavy sums of money for over the years. That would be giving it undue advantage even as a government company. In effect it would become a STNO – a Super-Third National Operator – since the Dominant National Operator (NITEL www.nitelnet.com ) and Second National Operator (Globacom www.gloworld.com ) do not even have their own satellite in space!
Furthermore, one also thought that government had decided to get out of the business of providing terrestrial communications services – hence it got out from NITEL and privatized it. So why the flip-flop here?
In any case, none of the satellite service providers that NIGCOMSAT mentioned in its advertorial (Intelsat, Eutelstat, Telenor Network, Singtel/OPTUS, Korea Telecom, ASTRA Thuraya and SES AMERICOM) is listed as being licensed for any frequencies by NCC in Nigeria. So what gives?
WHAT IS TO BE DONE?
What NIGCOMSAT wishes to do – make additional satellite bandwidth available more affordably to the Nigerian community - is laudable. It is how it is going about it that is not so laudable.
So some suggestions are in order here.
First, the spat between it and the NCC must stop and negotiations between the two parties should be held forthwith behind closed doors. The uncertainty that such controversy engenders will simply scare away both potential investors as well as potential consumers of its services.
Secondly NIGCOMSAT (or more accurately its parent, the NASRDA National Space Research and Development Agency www.nasrda.org ) should create – or cause to be created - two separate arms:
- NIGCOMSAT Satellite Services, Inc., (this appears to be the current NIGCOMSAT) with a subsidiary, for example
- NIGCOMSAT Terrestrial Services, Inc. to provide other services, including last-mile.
The Satellite Services may at the beginning have majority government ownership (it is now fully owned by government) but it should have a clear plan to wean itself from such majority ownership in the earliest possible time and let the world know it. Its major aim should be to sell SATELLITE bandwidth more inexpensively than the Intelsats, Eutelsats etc. of this world to ANY consumers/customers in Nigeria, ECOWAS and African market. The Terrestrial Services subsidiary - similar to subsidiaries created by Eutelsat, Intelsat, SES Americom, etc. - could then be MINORITY-OWNED by government simply in its attempt to maximize/demonstrate the impact of the Satellite Services – but should compete for and pay for frequencies to the NCC just like ANY OTHER private company.
Thirdly, rather than depending on just one satellite "bird" aloft to offer all possible offerable services as listed in Table 3, NIGCOMSAT should plan to increase its fleet of satellites in the shortest possible time, establish several teleports and Points-of-Presence (POP) in and outside Nigeria and seek its own (or rent from Globacom etc.) fiber optics capacity if it wishes to re-coup government expenditure on it - an alleged $450 million investment by the Federal Government, in addition to (or including?) a 9-year, $200 million 3.08% interest rate loan from China in February 2006. (see http://www.nasrda.org/news_and
Finally, in the interim NIGCOMSAT should concentrate on a few of those satellite services that Nigeria needs most and do them well, efficiently and inexpensively. Anything to crash our GSM costs, reduce raw bandwidth costs as well as increase Internet penetration in Nigeria are welcome.
The broad effort of Nigeria's National Space Research and Development Agency (NASRDA www.nasrda.org ) under the directorship of Prof. Robert Borrofice to give the country space presence – initiated with the weather observation satellite NigerSat-1 (designed and manufactured by a British Company Surrey Satellite Technology and launched in Russia on September 27, 2003) and followed up by the launching of telecommunications satellite NigComSat-1 (designed, built in China by the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation., and also launched in China on May 14, 2007) - is commendable. Domesticating the design, building and operation of these satellites should constitute major efforts for the future, beginning now. More importantly, however, NASRDA should take into consideration the very healthy skepticism of the Nigerian public about the nation's space efforts in the presence of gnawing infrastructural inadequacies here on Earth, and therefore avoid unnecessary controversies.
Tables referred to in the above essay can be found in: