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NITEL’s Fibre Optic Cables Still ‘Active’

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Broadband Internet access underpins all the important advances Nigeria is making in building a thriving economy. The government of Nigeria has set a national broadband target of 30% penetration by end of 2018. Presently, the results are around 21%.

Major cities around Lagos, Port Harcourt, Enugu, Kaduna, etc, have witnessed uptake in installation of dark fiber and conduit system in its roadways — fiber-optic cables that could be leased or put to use by private companies to sell service to enterprises and residents.

It is a no brainer that infrastructural provisioning for enhanced broadband penetration will assist the future industries around autonomous vehicles, drone delivery and ubiquitous wireless services or internet of things, among others.

So, the key thing is infrastructure, but several challenges are faced by companies in this regard. Interestingly, this is conspicuously captured in the Nigerian Communications Commission’s (NCC) eight-point agenda- under the leadership of Prof. Umar Danbatta, the Executive Vice Chairman.

In its wisdom, NCC has also gone ahead to adopt Infraco licences based on Open Access Model (OAM) in line with the National Broadband Plan (NBP) of (2013 – 2018). So far, MainOne Cable (Lagos), HIS (North Central), Zinox Technology (South East) and Brinks Solutions (North West) have been announced with three more licencees waiting for approval to bring total number to seven. These are for South South, North East and South West.

NITEL’s world

In the midst of all this, it is imperative to look at the possibility of harnessing the ‘enormous’ infrastructure left behind by the defunct Nigerian Telecommunications Limited (NITEL); which was the principal (government’s) telecommunications company in Nigeria. The Company and assets have been sold to NATCOM Development and Investment Limited through a “guided liquidation” process led by the Bureau of Public Enterprises (BPE).

Until 2003 the market was liberalised, it was NITEL’s world. Thus, the liberalisation marked the arrival of Global Satellite system communication (GSM) in Nigeria.

For forty-five years (1958-2003) NITEL was able to provide 450,000 subscriber lines for a population of 120 million. Today, with five major players in the market, the subscription base as at January 2018 stand at 147 million.

NCC Statistics continue to show positive movement in the provision of services with internet and phone penetrations standing at over 100 million.

Nevertheless, three years ago, NATCOM paid the $252 million acquisition price for Nitel and the sister company- Mobile Telecommunication Limited (Mtel). The new owners operating under the name- ntel has reportedly spent about $1 billion to revive the beleaguered national carrier.

NITEL left behind assets such as fibre optic cables with point of presence in almost every local government headquarters across the 36 States of the Federation and the FCT.

But, these assets aren’t answers to ntel’s prayer which seeks to aggressively roll out services across the country.

Why?

Nitel and Mtel assets acquired by NATCOM include licenses and spectrum, fixed wire networks, its international gateway, towers and transmission equipment.

Industry watchers have doubts about whether NATCOM can turn around the company. Most of the company’s infrastructure is obsolete and has been run-down for years, which was later confirmed by ntel official.

NITEL’s liabilities

Recall, NITEL owed creditors – mostly suppliers – around N400bn, before it was acquired by NATCOMS.

NITEL’s fixed-line subscribers have fallen to fewer than 100,000 from five times that number in 2001 and subscribers to its MTEL mobile unit had dropped to a few thousand from over one million.

Then, enters ntel

NATCOM acquired assets and licences of NITEL and MTEL, percentage interest held in South-Atlantic 3 (SAT-3) consortium, and identifiable assets capable of generating viable business units.

The Company commenced phased rollout of 4G/LTE services from Abuja, Lagos and Port Harcourt and hopes to expand to other parts of the country.

Looking at one of the critical infrastructure- fibre optic cables, TechEconomy.ng learnt from one of the engineers who installed the cables that at certain parts of Nigeria, ‘NITEL fibre cables are still active’. The engineer expressed confidence that the lines can be revived in two weeks!

This was confirmed by an executive of ntel, but swiftly added that they can’t rely on the infrastructure that have been redundant for many years and could have been affected by environmental factors.

TechEconomy.ng had an exclusive chat with the Chief Executive Officer of Teletok Nigeria Limited, Engineer Pradeep Kumar; he contributed in installation of switches and external line plant in Nigeria since 1979 till now, alongside Telecommunications manpower development for former P&T/NITEL.

He said that NITEL’s dearth was a huge blow to the Nigerian telecommunications sector.

Engineer Kumar believes that the Company had the best approach towards rural telephony, but political interference led to its liquidation.

In his words: “If NITEL were to be ‘alive’ it would have become the biggest player in the country today. To my understanding, the Abuja to Kaduna link is still functional; it can be revived in two weeks time.

“Kaduna to Kano can also be revived. But, the way NITEL was closed down I can’t say much, except one thing: NITEL had capable engineers”.

But, in his response, the Chief Financial Officer of ntel, Abhulime Ehiagwinai, said: “Our ‘father’ (NITEL) left us with a lot of infrastructure, but most of them have been affected by the fact they were laid decades ago.

He made the clarification at the recent breakfast meeting organised by ICT reporters in Nigeria under the auspices of NITRA.

Continuing, Ehiagwinai said, “For instance, we found that some of the metro (fibre optic) lines are active. But, there are reasons we can’t depend on them. First, because they were deployed many years ago, it becomes difficult to depend on such infrastructure due to the impact of environmental factors.

“For instance, if you are driving from Lagos to Mowe (Ogun State), on getting to Obafo, there could be some cuts. So, at intervals, you see such damages; in other words, though the lines are active but we prefer to invest on new cable so as to serve the customers better with efficient technologies”.

Engineer Kumar, however opined that NITEL exit of the telecom scene in Nigeria was due to political interference.

He also wished the new buys luck in reviving the moribund assets.

“NITEL was a very good company; solely managed by Nigerians which everybody ought to be proud about. I think it was unnecessary political interference that killed the Company.

“It is the wish of everyone who understands what NITEL represents, that the new buyers would revive the assets and offer Nigerians good quality service,” he added.