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Nigeria: Bridging the Infrastructure Divide
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 Telecomm
allowing Nigeria to leap-frog into the information age?
answers to these questions have to do with access to IT and Telecomm 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
A New Era
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?
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).
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.
NCC, deregulated telecommunications services include:
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
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
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 -
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
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.
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."
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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?
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?
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.
expertise in Nigeria
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 cyber café boom, management has been a major source of
concern for cyber café 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.
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
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 Publisher of Jidaw.com
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