Govt slowing down efforts to develop telecom sector – Opeke – Punch Newspapers

The Chief Executive Officer, MainOne, Ms. Funke Opeke, speaks on the status of the national broadband plan and what the nation stands to lose if broadband infrastructure is not deployed urgently, in this interview with IFE OGUNFUWA

What is your assessment of the progress made to achieve 30 per cent broadband penetration target by 2018, considering that only 21 per cent penetration was achieved last year?

Frankly, we still have a long way to go. When we look around the continent and indeed globally and see what progress others are making, we realise we are being left behind. To put things in context, the 30 per cent fixed broadband penetration target is the fallout of the National Broadband Plan developed in 2013 during former President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration.  It is a modest objective targeted at accelerating high-speed Internet and broadband access to boost the nation’s economic growth in tandem with the government’s vision 20:2020.  The National Broadband Plan urged the licensing of operators to fill critical gaps in national infrastructure (regional, metropolitan area networks and last-mile infrastructure) and increased spectrum allocation and optimisation.

Unfortunately, only two out of the seven licences have been awarded; MainOne for Lagos zone; and the IHS for the North-Central. As yet, neither operator has been able to commence the build-out of these networks due to the absence of permits. In the absence of an aggressive infrastructure rollout, we are only playing lip-service to 30 per cent broadband implementation. The regulator, the Nigerian Communications Commission, has been helpful towards addressing these challenges but we need more support from the government towards effective policy implementation.

It is important we expedite critical elements of the broadband plan to address our recent decline in global ICT rankings as published by the International Telecommunication Union where Nigeria was rated 143rd globally, and 15th in Africa behind South Africa, Kenya, Gabon, Ghana, Zimbabwe and Cote d’Ivoire. Nigeria has no business lagging behind, especially at a time when we want to transform our economy and so many of our youths are unemployed. If we cannot use technology to change the narrative, I wonder what hope there is once the oil market totally collapses.

 As one of the InfraCos licensed to enable retail operators to enjoy shared infrastructure in Lagos, what is delaying the commencement of work?

As you are aware, the bid was held in 2014 and managed by the KPMG’s international offices. We were announced as winner for Lagos in January 2015 and were awarded the licence in July 2016.  We have continued to engage with the key stakeholders on the project – the Nigerian Communications Commission for the closure of the rollout subsidy agreement; and the Lagos State Government for the issuance of the right of way required to roll out the infrastructure in the state.

With the right of way issue, we are also making significant progress, more in the last few weeks than in the past year due to the ongoing broadband and Smart City infrastructure policy harmonisation plan in Lagos State. This led to the suspension of the issuance of the right of way in Lagos State for over a year which was lifted recently. Granted, there have been delays in closing out these major project requirements, but we have since made significant progress with both entities. With the NCC, we are at the last leg of engagement on the agreement and this should be signed off in a few weeks, as we are already through to the execution version with only a few more issues to resolve.

How will the delay in licensing other Infrastructure companies affect the objectives of the National Broadband Plan?

The InfraCos are supposed to fill critical infrastructure gaps and enable broadband services on a wholesale basis across regions. In the absence of these companies, obviously the objectives of the broadband plan cannot be achieved. We have seen the impact of broadband in Yaba, where we built about 30km of fibre infrastructure in partnership with the Lagos State Government. This has helped local entrepreneurs connect with local and global investors across the world, attracting more opportunities, significant inflow of Foreign Direct Investment, increasing economic growth and skilled employment.

What does Nigeria stand to lose without effective InfraCo fibre deployment to drive broadband?

The first will be the jobs directly created in building out these networks, which is something we have not been able to do for more than two years now. Next is the connectivity as well as the various benefits in education, trade and commerce, and increased local entrepreneurship across the country. These generate the FDI, more jobs and taxes.

All the telecommunications companies also have stranded assets as a result of these embargoes – 4G base stations with no fibre are largely underutilised, submarine cables are stranded in Lagos unable to push capacity to the hinterland. Our economy suffers the consequences. It is very similar to how we generate power but do not have the grid to deliver it to consumers. In this instance, since telecommunications is fully deregulated, private companies are ready to build but government is holding on to permission.

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