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ICT: Still on a tortuous road

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ICT: Still on a tortuous road

With several challenges yet unaddressed, the Nigerian ICT sector continued its slow-paced, but steady growth in the first quarter. However, stakeholders warn of dire consequences if the current impediments are not removed, SAMSON AKINTARO reports

 

Smartingfrom the turbulence of previous year that almost claimed one of the leading operators in the sector, the Nigerian ICT sector began 2018 on a brighter note with telecom subscriptions going northward after consistent downtrend. Indeed, with over 2 million additional subscriptions recorded last January alone, bringing mobile subscriptions to 147.2 million, the sector appears set to witness a rebound in the year, albeit, amidst myriads of challenges that have seen quality of service deteriorate consistently.

 

With that also came the stark reality that Nigeria may not meet its 30 per cent broadband target this year. The first quarter was not however, rancour-free in the sector as the umbrella body of all Information Technology (IT) professionals in the country slugged it out with the government agency in charge of ICT regulation over the latter’s move to register IT contractors.

 

 

Impetus for Broadband Currently at 22 per cent penetration, Nigeria’s broadband target of 30 per cent penetration is obviously becoming unattainable. But the telecoms regulator remained undaunted as it continued to do everything possible to achieve broadband ubiquity. As part of those efforts, the board of the Commission licensed two additional infrastructure companies (InfraCo) to deploy broadband infrastructure. The two new licensees included Zinox Technology Limited for Southeast and Brinks Integrated Solutions Limited for Northeast, which brought the number of InfraCos so far licensed to four.

 

Again, by early March, the Commission also commenced the process of opening up 60GHz spectrum band to help address the shortfall in the spectrum band, as well as boost the country’s broadband penetration. Addressing stakeholders at a consultative forum in Lagos to announce the opening of the 60GHz spectrum, the Executive Vice Chairman of NCC, Prof. Umar Garba Danbatta, said frequency spectrum is the fundamental resource for the provision of wireless communication services and has increasingly become scarce due to the emergence of new technologies and the growing demand for wireless services.

 

According to Danbatta, the spectrum would allow operators and enterprise sectors of the telecom Industry to effectively meet their broadband needs.

 

The band also possesses characteristics such as the lcense-free 60GHz radios that have unique characteristics that provide operational advantages over other solutions; Narrow beam antennas: associated with 60GHz radios enable multiple radios to operate on the same rooftop or mast, and provide interference immunity from other 60GHz links; Easy to install and align by non-expert installers with the use of a simple visual alignment tool provided with the product; High data transmission security that allows small beam sizes coupled with the oxygen absorption properties of 60GHz spectrum, make the signal highly secure.

 

 

NCS, NITDA faceoff

 

Moves by the National Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA) to start registration of Information Technology contractors in the country drew the ire of industry stakeholders under the aegis of Nigerian Computer Society.

 

NCS, which is the umbrella body of all Information Technology (IT) professionals in Nigeria, faulted the agency while insisting that the body (NCS) is the only entity that has the right to register or license IT professionals and contractors in the country. In a statement signed by its President, Prof. Adesola Aderounmu, the NCS said any attempt for another agency of the government to embark on IT registration would likely bring about conflict of roles and interest.

 

 

Part of the statement released by NCS stated: “Our attention has been drawn to a policy statement released by National Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA) Director General, Dr. Isa Ali Ibrahim Pantami on the 12th February, 2018, which on general principle is to register and license all IT contractors in Nigeria. Our position is that this is not part of NITDA’s mandate because as the name suggests, this agency is to plan, promote and develop regulatory framework and guidelines as stated in NITDA Act 2007, section 6a.”

 

The statement further said that Computer Professionals Registration Council of Nigeria (CPN) Act 49 of 1993 is saddled with the mandate to register, license, supervise and control the profession as stated in CPN Act section 1 (2).

 

But NITDA in a counter statement insisted that it had the mandate contrary to the claims by the NCS. Reacting to the NCS’ argument on its role, NITDA in a statement signed by its Director General, Dr Isa Pantami, insisted, “the registration of IT Contractors and Service Providers by NITDA is in line with NITDA’s mandate as specifically stated in Section 6 (a, f) NITDA Act 2007, which mandates it to create a framework for the planning, research, development, standardization, application, coordination, monitoring, evaluation and regulation of information technology practices, activities and systems in Nigeria; and to render advisory services on all information technology matters to the public and private sectors”.

 

 

Poor QoS as challenges persist Like in the previous quarters, telecom operators continued to lament about myriads of challenges confronting their operations, chief among, which are the issues of Right of Way and Multiple Taxation.

 

Despite the efforts of an industry working group set up by the telecom regulator to address the problem of multiple taxation by reaching out to concerned agencies, the year 2017 saw introduction of various forms of taxes and levies by state governments, most of which were directed at telecom operations. But that was not all as far as challenges confronting the telecom operators are concerned. The Association of Licensed Telecommunications Operators of Nigeria (ALTON) had to come out plainly to declare that there might not be any improvement in quality of services being rendered by its members.

 

According to ALTON Chairman, Engr. Gbenga Adebayo, that was because the telcos had been unable to import equipment for the expansion of their networks due to forex scarcity. Speaking on behalf of all the telecom operators, Engr. Adebayo said the telcos were finding it difficult to settle many obligations due to high rate of forex. “We are in a country where every component of our operation is imported, even from the SIM cards and even when you make an international call, we pay our part of the termination rate in dollar to the networks abroad.

 

 

All these require forex, yet we are not considered on the priority list of the government for easy access to dollar. Many of our members are forced to source for forex at the black market and at the end of the day, operating costs becomes very high” he lamented.

 

Adebayo noted that with the forex challenge, operators had been unable to purchase new equipment to optimize their networks. “With the present situation, it would be difficult for any operator to optimize network. We must note that no industry is immune to failure and this is why we are telling the government that they should not allow telecoms to go the way of textile and tyre industries” he said.

 

 

Fate of 9Mobile

 

Incidentally, the same operator that trended last year for its inability to repay bank debt remained in the news throughout the first quarter.

 

The bidding process to sell the 9Mobile to new investors in order to settle its debts has been enmeshed in controversies as the acclaimed preferred bidder, Teleology Holdings and the reserved bidder, Smile Communications tried to outplay each other. With the announcement of Teleology as the preferred bidder, Smile Communications picked holes in the process and called for a review.

 

Smile, in a two-page letter to Barclays Africa, financial advisors to 9Mobile, had expressed surprise and disappointment at the manner in which the selection process for the Preferred Bidder and Reserve Bidder was conducted.

 

That notwithstanding, Teleology in late March announced it had paid the required US$50 million nonrefundable deposit to the Trustee for the bank syndicate presently holding ownership of 9Mobile, and ready to take over. But that is also in contention as the two regulators overseeing the process, Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) and the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) had denied knowledge of such payment.

 

The controversies had prompted the House of Representatives’ committee on Telecommunications, to the raise alarm, warning that it might be forced to stop the sale process.

 

Call masking issue

 

While it is a practice that had gone unnoticed for some time now, the NCC showed its ruthless side by sanctioning three companies suspected to be engaging in call masking.

 

The Commission also barred 750,000 numbers found to be connected to call masking. These sanctions, according to the regulator, became necessary as a result of the negative implications of such activities on national security.

 

Besides, telecom operators were reportedly losing huge revenue due to call masking activities.

 

Call masking is a technique used to hide numbers when making calls or sending messages. In some cases, international numbers are masked with local numbers which are not charged, because the caller’s identity is completely hidden on the network. Mr Tony Ojobo, Director, Public Affairs of NCC, while announcing the sanctions, had noted that the sanctioned entities were found to be directly and indirectly involved in several infractions.

 

“Including covertly allowing organisations with expired licenses to transit calls, failure to undertake due diligence on parties seeking to interconnect, deliberately turning a blind eye to masking infractions by interconnect partners, and using a licence issued to another organisation to bring-in and terminate international calls, which were masked as local calls to other operators.”

 

NCC had previously warned that it would suspend the licensees of companies suspected of call masking.

 

Last line

 

 

With huge prospects for growth, the Nigerian ICT sector is seen as the   next best alternative to the oil sector. However, for these potential to translate into economic gains for all and sundry, the government and all stakeholders still have a lot to do by addressing current challenges inhibiting its development.

 

 

Over the years, operators in the sector have been complaining about the issues of Right of Ways, multiple taxation and dearth of infrastructure. All these obstacles have led to poor quality of services, low broadband penetration and even slow growth for the sector and until they are addressed, the sector may remain in the shadows of its expected glory

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