(A Review of Nigeria’s telecommunications industry in 2008)
‘gbenga sesan and titi omo-ettu
You have heard that the Internet, mobile phones and other ICT tools are changing the world. Please add ‘truly’ between ‘are’ and ‘changing’.
Dateline: Lagos, Sallah Day. It is usual for various neighbourhoods to find which ‘malam’ would help slaughter their rams. Those who have had to do the business themselves know how frustrating it can be when no ‘malam’ shows up by 12 noon on Sallah day. This last one was a different one. One neighbourhood’s resident mentioned the need for a ‘malam’ to a ‘maiguard’ and the chap turned in a piece of paper, photocopy of a slip on which there was a crude drawing of a ram, a knife, some Arabic inscription, a phone number and a name. Apparently, one Suleiman had turned in the piece of paper to all the ‘maiguards’ in the vicinity in anticipation of Sallah day – indicating anyone could use the mobile phone number to their advantage. This number dialled, Suleiman showed up in a jiffy. He slaughtered the ram, left the details for his subordinates and moved on to other places where his services were needed. Suleiman took advantage of ‘access’ to boost his business. He didn’t need to be told to do so. He needed no campaign by anybody as to what he could do with his phone. All he needed was the phone and access on it and the remaining could be left for him. For his services, he charged N2,000 instead of the traditional N1,000 and his clients were glad to have got a good and fast solution. Give broadband access to Suleiman and wait to be amazed what he is capable of doing with it.
And the coming of Barrack Hussein Obama! Visit www.change.gov and see how a young man is changing the world using access to the web. The rest needs not be told. How about his almost impossible story of grassroot campaign, fundraising and eventual victory all fuelled by the power of the web and mobile applications. Like no one else before now, he used social networking websites (isn’t almost everyone now on FaceBook?) and other web tools such as YouTube to build an army of young people whose excitement – and driven action – played not just a small part in giving him a much-deserved victory seeing he livened up the floor of even American presidential politics with his promise (and delivery) of a 21st century campaign. His choice of a running mate was made using SMS broadcast, (mark the word ‘broadcast’), he was always on his phone cracking away at eMail, and he kept the world following his every step with up-to-the-minute updates through his campaign website. In 2008, politics and governance were redefined through new technologies!
Lesson: It is leadership, not followership – especially as the Nigerian case has shown in 2008 – that needs a campaign on what is achievable with broadband access.
The good: Access improved considerably during the year, with efforts of providers like Starcomms who introduced products such as IZAP to bring fast internet access to individual phone level. In Ijebu-Ode, where the first leg of this review was fine-tuned, Izap did all the trick. But in Igbara-Oke where the second leg was to be firmed up, Starcomms is yet to show up. Maybe in 2009! Other vendors – mobile and fixed wireless service providers – have stepped up the game by providing access options that have kept many Nigerians online more than before.
The performance review table of operators who ever played in the industry shows that as at close of business on December 31 2008, 9 operators are running full stream, 8 are ailing, 1 was bought substantially into while 6 were bought over 100%. 4 have since closed shop, 7 are begging for buy-over and two are fit for merger while the performance of 1 is indeterminate as its subscribers are largely unknown. Toady, 19 are trudging on in the market.
Etisalat finally executed the Mubadala mono-selection license of 2006 and rolled out services in Lagos, Abuja, Kano, Kaduna, Port-Harcourt, Ibadan and Ogbomosho, several months after the promised date. It does not matter when, point is that it came at last. It is still in search of the joker that could repeat what Globacom did when it arrived in 2003 with the per-second rate of charging, a feat which one operator had said was impossible — as if anything is impossible in engineering. 2008 was indeed full of action, slowed down by executive slow motion right from the top.
NCC, Nigeria’s regulator must have had a busy year. For long, it conceived the ideas of the Wire-Nigeria Initiative (WIN), State-Accelerated Broadband Initiative (SABI), etc, certainly for the purpose of connecting Nigerians to such possibilities as 2008 demonstrated. Now, Nigerians can’t wait to see it happen. The telecom regulator came up with a code and practice regime on standard three-digit code number which shall serve the purpose of emergency services in Nigeria. Ditto for pre-registration of phone subscribers and number portability except that the matter spent the entire year being on the drawing board.
A ban was announced on products’ promotion of GSM Mobile telephone service providers in Nigeria as the regulatory authorities hinted that measurement of phone quality revealed unsatisfactory performance of all GSM operating networks. The regulator discouraged operators even from placing advertisements that are capable of adding more subscribers or result in additional airtime usage on their networks in the face of un-abating congestion.
Two mobile operators, which instituted a court case against a directive of NCC to compensate consumers for poor service, had the case thrown out by the Court and they have gone on appeal, although they paid the fines under various degrees of insubordination to the directive. Chances are that the National Assembly has taken notice of this and gone working, not to rest after the unnecessary battle some of those in the lower House went into with the regulator the previous year.
Nigeria’s Globacom made its way into Benin Republic, towards the fulfilment of the promise of building a truly African network. Transnational Corporation, Transcorp, which bought into Nigeria’s ailing National Carrier (NITEL) in 2006 was threatened with withdrawal of license if no remarkable improvement was recorded in NITEL’s and Mtel’s, services. There was no improvement but the license was not withdrawn either. There was also the rebranding of two major players.
Amidst all the good news, there was a threat of a probe of the Rural Telephony Project, RTP which was never to be. The threat gave way to a solution which is neither here nor there as government handed over RTP’s remnants to five telephone service provider upstarts which the government said are ‘operators’. The RTP is a $200 million telecommunications loan packaged by a consortium of Chinese investors in 2002 for provision of telephone service in 96 rural communities in Nigeria. It finally stalled after several months of inaction.
There was encouraging activity with Nigeria’s Top Level Domain, .ng, as the Nigeria Internet Registration Association (NIRA) finally announced institutional structures and major framework under which the Association would operate. Namely four institutional elements: The Secretariat, Policies & Procedures, Technical Infrastructure and Service Provider Partners. Several draft documents, which sought to map the way forward were reviewed and pioneer registrars came alive.
Then the bad. The big disappointment for Nigeria’s ICT space in 2008 is the fact that the Federal Ministry for ICT did not emerge. Very senior IT practitioners expressed serious concern about the direction, or lack of it, that government trudged in the year under review. It was widely believed that just as many were clamouring that IT be raised to the level of a Ministry in a converged regime for regulation and project implementation, the IT sections of Federal Ministries were about being merged with the Departments of Planning and Statistics!
Government in 2006 commenced a desire to restructure the information and communications industries when it set up a Committee to examine the wherewithal of a converged industry. It however impulsively went ahead to create the Ministry of Information and Communications ahead of the work of the Committee only to realise that restructuring in a true sense was more than mere name-changing and merging of Ministerial portfolios. It is understood that the Committee completed its work and advised government on the amount of work required to effect a true change that will take advantage of the march of science and technology in the years ahead.
Work has since stalled on the project and the Yar’ Adua government, since take-over in 2007, has operated as if the issue never mattered.
Proponents of a restructured industry argue that because of the radical changes that the internet and indeed Internet Protocol (IP) has offered, it shall be contentious if not totally difficult to determine what is telecommunications or broadcasting or IT service, and especially to distinguish between where one stops and the other commences. A clear view and sharp industry management shall resolve this and enhance smooth management, reduce cost of doing business and ultimately cost and options of service provision. On the other hand, a continuous application of legacy systems and management of new systems using the old methods will create confusion, increase cost of doing business and ultimately impose severe cost on consumers.
Those who are opposed to change argue issues which surround ‘who gains what’ and ‘who loses what’. They talk about persons when the argument is about issues. These are usually enough to confuse a government that has no view of its own.
But while government was seen as taking the proverbial two steps backwards, the private sector remained active even in the face of clear signs of a global financial meltdown and stock market slowdown.
Starcomms, for example, made its way to the Capital Market. NITEL still remained sick. Infact, terminally, maybe. Meanwhile, Kevin Caruso, a new hand who Transcorp hired to put NITEL to shape, said a turnaround of the company would be in the horizon. Few weeks into his assuming office, Caruso told an audience in Lagos: ‘We have studied the network extensively. We know what needs to be fixed. And it is not just a matter of fixing it but sustaining the tempo. We have identified the black spots on the network, in the switches, in the transmission and in the billing. Within three to four months, we will get the network running.’ The 4-month promise expired in November 2008 just about when Caruso’s workers went on strike telling the world their company’s ship was sailing in no direction. The verdict is therefore clear.
Still on NITEL: Pentascope showed up in the news again when the Senate said it would reopen the Pentascope file and review it. The Pentascope deal was a management contract which took NITEL from the stretcher to the mortuary all in 18 months a few years ago. If the Senate committee did the review, it never published the report. While that was going on, a Lagos-based analyst said although the value of NITEL’s assets might have plummeted, its true value was actually the worth of its First National Operator’s License which would have in no way devalued. Engr. Titi Omo-Ettu, a telecommunications engineer and consultant, told the media in Lagos that those who spent 8 years to gradually devalue NITEL didn’t achieve their objective after all because they were wrong to be rating NITEL as just any other company down the road. He gave a $2.2billion figure as the worth of the First National Operator License and counselled that it be retrieved from NITEL and placed on auction.
As the year was coasting home, DAAR Communications’ Digital Multi-channel Direct-to-Home Pay TV kicked off at Abuja. 40 channels covering a wide range of broadcast interests are provided for by the afro-centric media conglomerate.
What, however, was probably the most regrettable story of the year is the Nigerian Communications Satellite, NIGCOMSAT-1 which was declared troubled in orbit. It was not immediately clear what the remote cause was but bits of information which reached government and got refurbished for onward transmission to the public showed that the handlers apparently lost control of its tracking due to insufficient maintenance skills.
Thank goodness General Olu Obasanjo does not read newspapers. What appeared under the caption of ‘Nigcomsat apologises to customers’ in several literature would have made him break his seeming silence. The article was nothing too far away from share insult on the intelligence of Nigerians. The 42 kilobits of text could only have been crafted by those who purport to make image for the distraught government owned Nigcomsat Ltd and not likely by its own officials. Apart from the first two and the last paragraphs which feign true apology, the remaining 14 went cataloguing other satellite failures in a futile attempt to justify the waste which the past government threw upon the country as a result of autocracy, graft and egotism. The ‘apology’ kept talking about Nigeria being in space when in actual fact it is China, and not Nigeria, that is actually re-asserting itself in space using Nigeria’s petrodollars. It may be easier, however, for the authors to appreciate that Nigcomsat-1 is a project in commerce, not in science.
2008 was a year of dramatic events: highs and lows, private sector advancement, and missed opportunity. Government missed the unique opportunity of building on the 2007 momentum within the industry by being slow in everything including its response to the expectation that a ministry of ICT will be created. While the Ministry in itself would not have realigned Nigeria’s active participation in the information society, it denies the opportunity to harmonize government departments (and agencies) that continue to suffer from task replication in this new age of convergence. That could at least have prepared this society for the Information Society.
As the year drew to an end, a new Minister for the Information and Communication ministry was announced. A renowned drug-warrior and heroine of Nigeria’s professional class, Prof. Dora Akunyili is well known for her dynamic work in the Food and Drug agency; and all eyes are now on her to see if she would bring this same dynamism to the ministry which sits atop key segments of the nation’s ICT industry. For starters, she may want to sound out her boss and explain to the industry what the position of government is on industry restructuring, and why.
Technology promises to lead the march into future since, after all, IPV6 is already showing that IP will make further radical changes to our lives. The NCC has shown indications of retooling its structures and the private sector in spite of the global recession may look more inwards to make the best of a bad situation. The greatest challenge will be the speed that is originating from Aso Rock since the speed of the ship may not be faster than that of the Captain.
2011 may just be the next year of hope.
January 4, 2009