Amidst the challenge of poor quality service and inadequate telecoms facilities, Nigeria is pushing for national roaming for operators to leverage on available infrastructure for efficient services, delivery, but industry stakeholders are also keen on the removal of obstacles hindering telcos from importing more equipment. SAMSON AKINTARO reports
In the last 17 years, telecommunications in Nigeria has experienced a quantum leap from 450,000 connected lines in 2001 to over 147 million active mobile subscriptions. But despite the rapid growth, there still exist a wide connectivity gap in terms of un-served and underserved areas. In fact, the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) recently admitted that that there are more than 225 market gaps where no voice or data services have been enjoyed by millions of Nigerians in some parts of the country.
This explains why the Commission is now pushing for national roaming, which refers to the ability of a cellular subscriber to automatically make and receive voice calls, send and receive data, or access other services, including data services, when travelling outside the coverage area of the home network, by means of using a visited network.
One critical challenge facing the telecom sector in Nigeria is inadequate infrastructure and this has consistently impacted the quality of service such that subscribers on a journey even within a state experience several network blackouts. While the telcos have deployed about 40,000 base stations, the Executive Vice Chairman of the NCC, Prof Umar Danbata, recently noted that the sector is facing a major infrastructure deficit. According to him, the industry needs 80,000 base stations to achieve better services.
“Nigeria needs at least 70,000 to 80,000 telecommunication base stations to actualise its dream of joining the club of countries working toward making Internet of Things (IoT), a reality by leveraging 4G and 5G networks,” Danbatta had said.
Unfortunately, the telcos seems to have become incapacitated for a long time now to import more equipment needed to bridge the infrastructure gap due to high exchange rate. However, it is hoped that the national roaming, when it becomes fully operational, will help the telcos achieve better quality services, even with the current level of infrastructure as telecom subscribers would be able to connect to any available network within their locality.
Cost saving mechanism
Apart from promoting seamless communication among subscribers by improving quality of service, national roaming is also bound to bring down cost of network deployment for the operators. It was to that end the regulator held another consultative forum in Lagos last week on the development of framework for the service.
Speaking at the forum, NCC’s Director of Spectrum Administration, Engr Austine Nwaulune, noted that with national roaming, not only would there be noticeable reduction in network deployment costs, the industry would also witness acceleration in the take-up of broadband services and gradual elimination of the rural-urban digital divide.
Nwaulune added that the commission in 2017 inaugurated an Industry Working Committee to work out the procedure and modalities for implementing National Roaming and Active Infrastructure Sharing. “The past few years have seen the trajectory of the global telecommunications industry shift towards the implementation of cost-saving mechanisms, which facilitate the effective utilization of network resources for the provision of telecommunications services. National Roaming and Active Infrastructure Sharing are two of such initiatives, which have been successfully utilized to achieve improved coverage, cost reduction and the efficient utilization of scarce network resources by Regulatory agencies”.
The chairman Industry Working Committee, IWC, and Director, Projects, NCC, Abubakar Yakubu disclosed that following the consultation paper published in December by the commission, and a number of pertinent questions that were raised on the implementation of National Roaming and Infrastructure Sharing, ” the responses to these questions as well as comments and inputs including network service providers, experts and other interested parties formed the basis for stakeholders’ engagement held in Abuja in 2016, to commence discussions towards the development of a legal and regulatory framework for the implementation of roaming services in Nigeria.
“The setting up of the industry working committee to come up with the modalities for the implementation of National Roaming and Active Infrastructure Sharing in the country is not only a testimony of the commitment of the commission to policy of participatory regulation but also a demonstration that the commission can adopt the principle of self- regulation when it is exigent to do so” he said.
Meanwhile, while the regulator is putting finishing touches to the framework, one of the telcos, with the approval of NCC, has recently gone ahead to leverage on national for the expansion of its network. Ntel, the 4G LTE operator, recently disclosed that it had struck a national roaming deal with 9Mobile while also in talks with MTN. Already, Ntel has gotten approval for the two deals from the NCC, while a successful trial had been conducted on 9Mobile’s network. According to the Chief Executive Officer of Ntel, Mr Ernest Akinlola, the company, which rolled out 4G LTE service in 2016 across major cities is now set to go nationwide with the roaming deals.
Need for incentives
But in order for national mobile roaming service to work, the President of Association of Telecommunications Companies of Nigeria (ATCON), Mr Olusola Teniola, said the regulator would need to create more incentives for the operators to roll out more quickly and help in reducing the challenges facing deployment across the states. According to Teniola, national mobile roaming is only achievable if the country attains about 95 per cent nationwide coverage.
“There was a stakeholders’ forum not long ago where the issue was deliberated on extensively. National Roaming assumes that 95 per cent geographical coverage, because in its stopped simplicity form, you are making a call and suddenly the network goes down, so, the operator, under the national roaming, will be allowed to patch that call to go on another cell, which belongs to another operator.”
He however, advised the Federal Government to work out measures with both the states and local government on how best to support telecom operators to deploy infrastructure for improved quality of service. According to him, it is common knowledge that the recent placement of IT/telecoms equipment among the 41 restricted items from accessing foreign exchange at CBN rate, is stifling investment and development in the sector.
While national roaming is seen as a welcome development to alleviate the problem of inadequate infrastructure, it will definitely not take away the need for the operators to deploy more infrastructure, especially in under-populated areas, which is why government and the regulator need to remove the various obstacles to infrastructure deployment. It goes without saying that in an area where no single operator has deployed infrastructure, the roaming option becomes useless for the people.
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