A Case for a National Broadband Policy for Nigeria
Main One Cable Company, a leading broadband provider in West Africa recently presented an insightful policy paper titled “Broadband Nigeria – the Next Frontier” at the Nigerian Communication’s Commission’s Stakeholder Consultative Forum held earlier in April. After getting through the first few paragraphs, it was obvious I was into something insightful, and by the time I was done, I found myself from grinning ear to ear. The paper is truly a poignant piece of work and it gets to the heart of the issues that plague Nigeria’s efforts in expanding connectivity and achieving deeper broadband penetration.
It is indeed a refreshing read and I encourage everyone to give it a read. I did however feel compelled to distill its content in this blog post in a comprehensive and amusing way (and for your reading pleasure of course!).
The article starts with a breakdown of the realities of the Nigerian ICT sector. Mobile telephony, it explains, thrives due to the effective regulations and policies put in place, and the results have come in the form of everyone (and their mamas) having two or more mobile numbers, and Glo Mobile, a major mobile provider, constantly assuring me that I will be a millionaire any day now. Data and broadband penetration, however, have been abysmal in Nigeria and the irony is that the challenge is not in bringing the capacity to the country but in getting capacity distributed cheaply across the country since there is no national or open backbone network (Oh NITEL, how thou art failed us!). The ultimate effects of poor distribution networks have given rise to what I’d like to call the “Last Mile Marauder”. This is a term mainly referring to companies (primarily ISP providers and telecom operators) that have taken advantage of the void of a national backbone and have invested in building extensive terrestrial fiber optic networks and are subsequently charging exorbitant prices for access across them.
Main One Cable, the authors of the paper, also did an great job highlighting what they feel should be key indicators (Availability, Low-Cost/High Quality, Competition & Consumer Protection) that can help measure the progress broadband penetration given the current state of things; quite frankly, the state looks grim. Moreover, the broadband provider follows up on its constant message of encouragement in developing of a National Broadband Policy, and I must say, it did not miss a beat in identifying ‘Needed Imperatives’ which are:
Specifically, there is no cost based rationale for bandwidth from Lagos to Abuja or Port Harcourt to be more expensive than bandwidth between Lagos and London but such is the reality because there is no enforcement of the existing regulations for infrastructure sharing
This statement I believe speaks for itself. The crux of the matter is that the current state of play will certainly be a race to the bottom. Everyone trying to build their own private national backbone is surely akin to crabs trying to make it out of a steam pot. Building out a private network is a huge investment and charging others a lot to gain access to it may be beneficial in the short term, however in the long term, it will not only stifles competition but inevitably be a hindrance to broadband penetration, which ultimately discourages innovation and is a disservice to the nation (Oh Telco, why art thou so stingy!?!). Sound policies that would regulate access and control pricing in support of broadband penetration is not only needed but is simply good governance.
Policy and Investment Incentives
… if we continue to deliver satellite based communications services to our schools, where is the opportunity to migrate to fiber and ensure that our students have enough bandwidth to support learning in today’s environment and that gets our educational institutions once again competitive?
Again, I give kudos to Main One Cable for highlighting the fact that market forces are not the only ones with a role to play, but government can be an instrument for good given its assets (Spectrum & Right of Ways) and its power to push policies/initiatives that promote broadband penetration. Sadly, we find that the current state of affairs is simply one of exploitation.
Governments worldwide (and even in recent history) have played major roles in the development their nations’ ICT sectors (the paper gives some examples including the inception of the Internet which was pioneered by a U.S. government initiative called NSFNet). So it isn’t a farfetched notion that Nigeria can also adopt a national policy that could help stimulate the demand for broadband access by supporting initiatives that ultimately require broadband access i.e. education and research programs as well as promoting ICT intense initiatives across its departments and agencies. Such actions are sure to demand an improved and world-class ICT infrastructure; hence broadband penetration.
Bottom line, Nigeria is a nation of great potential and has a market that most African nations would die for. It is also clear that technology and broadband access will place a major role in any country’s effort to propel itself in being a leading economy in the future. Having been recognized as an N-11 country and may very well be on its way to joining the BRICS, it would be a travesty if the nation cannot address the issues hindering the progress of broadband penetration like it did to bring about its mobile renaissance.
There is a need for a comprehensive national policy for ICT in Nigeria… and the need is now.