In today’s world as digital transformation fully takes hold, access to the internet and broadband has become the foundation for transformation to a knowledge-based economy. Such access is critical for knowledge acquisition and service delivery, enablement of entire new industries, improving education, health care provision, energy management, ensuring public safety and security, government/citizen interaction, and the overall organization and dissemination of information. Research has established a link between broadband access and Gross Domestic Product. It is said that every 10 percent increase in broadband penetration in developing countries results in a commensurate increase of 1.3 percent in GDP.
It was in that light that Nigeria developed a five-year strategy to drive internet and broadband penetration in 2013 to scale up the nation’s broadband growth by 30 percent in 2018. The plan, developed by the Presidential Committee on Broadband with full representation of the various stakeholder groups in the sector and co-chaired by former Executive Vice Chairman of the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) Ernest Ndukwe and Zenith Bank Chairman, Jim Ovia, was to provide the private sector with an enabling environment to provide Nigerians with quality access to broadband.
The vision behind the Nigerian broadband plan seeks to accelerate high speed internet and mass broadband access, and in its wake, prompt socio-economic growth for the nation and prosperity for its citizens. The strategic thrust is to harness and maximize investment in broadband infrastructure, promote competition, unleash new spectrum, and remove barriers to expanding services to the mass market for deeper penetration and adoption.
The plan recommended the licensing of infrastructure companies (InfraCos) for the six geo-political zones in Nigeria and Lagos as a stand-alone zone (due to its huge population and revenue-generating potentials) to build fiber infrastructure, the licensing of wholesale wireless operators and licensing of additional retail spectrum, and new spectrum licenses and refarming of existing spectrum to accelerate 4G services . Consequently, one wireless Infrastructure Company (Bitflux) and two Fiber Infrastructure Companies – MainOne for Lagos zone and IHS for North Central zone were licensed through an open bid in 2015 with a mandate to build open access fiber within their zones. Plans were also initiated in 2016 to license five other Fiber Infracos for the other zones in the country. In addition, there was a 2.6 Ghz spectrum licensing round in which only MTN was successful.
Four years later, the impact of the National Broadband plan is yet to be felt. The additional five InfraCo licensees expected to deploy metropolitan fiber-optic networks across the country are yet to be licensed, while the already licensed InfraCos have not been granted approval to start work.
Predictably, the inaction is affecting Nigeria’s capacity to make progress on so many of the indices by which the nation’s economy and current diversification efforts are judged. While we commend the progress made on the Ease of Doing business, more work needs to be done in ICT. For example, Nigeria continues to be ranked among countries with the lowest broadband penetration in the world. In the International Telecoms Union (ITU) ICT Development Index published in September 2017, Nigeria was ranked 143 out of the 176 member states, which was exactly the same ranking as 2016 and behind many other African countries including South Africa, Kenya, Ghana, Egypt, Morocco and Cote D’Ivoire. In addition, the country’s mobile broadband penetration only inched up to 22% from 21% the previous year, thus showing almost no progress.
Clearly, the current status is unsustainable and belies Nigeria’s aspirations to be a leading global economy. Globally, countries with higher levels of broadband connectivity continue to drive investment in infrastructure in order to improve economic growth. As stated by the African Telecoms Union Secretary General AbdoulkarimSoumaila at the AfricaCom conference in Cape Town recently “all people must be able to access the internet to enjoy a better quality of life…governments have a responsibility to ensure that internet access is available to all”.
Thus, it is imperative that the Nigerian government aggressively implements strategies to drive internet and broadband penetration. Nigeria’s position as the biggest economy on the continent may be in jeopardy in upcoming years if the country does not acquire the digital tools that are a necessity for economic growth in the 21st Century. Even as the Buhari administration acknowledges that ICT will be key to creating much needed jobs, Government needs to urgently address the current challenges, grant permits to allow licensed InfraCos to operate, license additional InfraCos and fully implement the existing framework for broadband development without further delay.
Lagos in particular has the unique opportunity to become Africa’s gold standard for a Smart City, joining globally acknowledged cities such as Singapore, Boston, Seoul, London, and San Francisco in creating world class opportunities for its citizens. But unless we enable private sector build and operate the critical infrastructure required for sustainability, we will remain unable to unleash the broadband impact so required for the Nigerian economy to grow beyond oil.