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Broadband: Speakers at ATCON Dialogue seek improved PPP arrangements to drive infrastructure deployment

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Since the dawn of digital era in Nigeria, communities and cities were divided into “digital haves” and “have nots” by whether or not they had “broadband”.

Nowadays, although cables and DLS networks cover a large part of urban communities, a new divide has emerged, the gigabit divide (basic vs developed broadband connectivity).

For instance, according to Internet Association, a national trade group representing leading Internet companies including Amazon, Dropbox, Facebook, Google, Paypal and Twitter “Access to the Internet is today the modern equivalent to access to railroads, electricity, highways and telephony in previous eras.

And just as the federal government recognized and executed its role in encouraging, promoting, and facilitating universal access to those services, the federal government now recognizes its role in promoting and facilitating access to broadband services.”

All these factors lead more and more communities to searching for an active role in shaping the future of local next-generation Internet access.

Interestingly, a growing number of municipalities are turning to public-private partnerships (PPP) to finance and build broadband networks, given that building such networks is extremely expensive.

This was the centre of a panel session at the Association of Telecommunications Companies of Nigeria (ATCON) recent National Dialogue on Telecoms & ICT Sector in Nigeria, under the (panel’s) topic: Private-Public Partnerships and Development of Mechanism for the Seamless Management of Inter-Ministries and Agencies: an Imperative for Broadband Infrastructure Development in Nigeria.

The discussants include the Director/CEO, Abuja Geographic Information Systems (Agis), Dr. Isa Jalo, representing head of ICT at FCTA, Zakari Yau Bala and The General Manager/CEO, Lagos State Infrastructures Maintenance & Regulatory Agency (LASIMRA), Engr. Funsho Elulade.

The session was chaired/moderated by the General Manager, Business Development, Galaxy Backbone Limited, Engineer Dumalik Suleiman.

Setting the ball rolling, the Suleiman, said that currently statistics from the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) shows the country isn’t doing badly in the areas of broadband penetration.

He, however, said that despite Nigeria’s broadband access gap clusters reduced to 114 from 207, there is a need for the Federal and State Governments to move further through PPP arrangements for urgent deployment of broadband infrastructure in these cities and upscale the penetration.

Suleiman said, “We heard from the EVC of the NCC, about 6 years ago, penetration was at best six per cent. Record shows that as at May 2019, that six per cent grow to 33 per cent. In May 2020, we are at 39.5 per cent. Again, as at September 2020, we are at 43.2 per cent. If you ask me as somebody who was formally in the University system that is a ‘D’. Nevertheless, the nation is making progress, but the question is how do we improve on this achievement taking into cognizance the fact that all the undersea cables landed in Lagos.

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“So far, the banks and the telcos are the major consumers of the infrastructure. We have teeming unemployed youths and most of them are in the hinterlands which perhaps, they do not have access to this broadband.

When asked how public and private sector can partner seamlessly to improve on the statistics, the LASIMRA boss, Engr. Funsho Elulade said that presently the State has a smart city initiative that is driven under PPP arrangement.

In his words, “Lagos State believes that is the way to go because when you look at the model, it enables you to have innovation that extends to a very long time. At the same time, within that period, you can harness the longevity in other areas. Lagos State partnered with a company (name undisclosed) to lay fibre optic cables. Eventually, people will use the infrastructure – that is, people in the private and public sector.  By the time Lagos State finishes the Smart City initiatives I am sure the broadband penetration will increase because all the Mobile Network Operators (MNOs), Internet Service Providers (ISPs) will all join in using the ducts.

“The advantage of the Smart City Initiative in Lagos State is that as part of the deal signed, the concessioner is even giving back to the government because some of the POI – Points-of-Interest will have free internet service. For example, they have identified a lot of schools, secretariat; all the headquarters of the Local Government Areas and CDAs, hospitals, judiciary, etc. This is one of the examples why PPP is the right way to go in this country to enhance broadband deployment”.

In his contribution on how to promote innovation with the current broadband penetration from perspective of land administration, the Director/CEO, Abuja Geographic Information Systems (Agis), Dr. Isa Jalo, said that Agis, is working in line with the mandate to build Special Data Infrastructure (SDI) and be able to provide services in land administration in the FCT.

“We are very much aware that the dream of the founding fathers of the FCT is to build a world class city. If you are going to achieve that then Special Data Infrastructure is a critical requirement for the management of the city for planning and decision-making a well as other services that are going to be enjoyed by residents in the FCT”, he said.

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“So, dating back in 2004 our Agency was established; a lot of investment made to enhance the infrastructure. Presently, we are going much more”.

He said that a critical requirement of the broadband policy and digital economy is the GIS.

In his words, “You need location information to be able to deliver goods; that is, to drive ecommerce. Also, in terms of deployment of masts in the city, you need the GIS information. Aside that, the Big Data that we have been talking about, can now be captured for analysis and visualization for decision-making; improve on security of lives and property.

“In the last three years, we have been able to upgrade our data infrastructure; which is a critical requirement in the FCT to be able to bring the latest technology in GIS that we need in the city.

“Now, we need to bring on board, some of the stakeholders that are needed for critical management of this GIS data base; in fact, our functions start with land administration.

“The permanent Secretary representing the Minister mentioned about lifting the suspension of issuance of license for masts for telecom operators need to deploy broadband infrastructure. And as part of the policy, this is coming on board to make it easy for telcos to be able to acquire land and be able to build their masts. It requires the information being captured in our data base. For them to also apply, they need to go through a department which will also connect to our data base.

“There are other sectors we are trying to make things available to them. You know Agis started in 2004 and some of the technology we were using became obsolete, but in the last three years, we have been upgrading this giant software so that we can create the PPP arrangement to be able to grow and digital economy. We have concluded plans for the deployment of web-based GIS platform that will enable telecom companies connect to our infrastructure because they need the data to determine the location of the mast and be able to conduct analysis.

“I believe if similar agency like Agis can be replicated in various State, it will be a big relieve for the telecos. The Abuja Agis is a model for all the States. It is commendable that most of the States are now developing their Agis and we must incorporate into the digital economy. So, we have to digitise the land administration in various States and convert them to digital records for easier usage.

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“We have also done a lot in terms of enhancement of the application we are using and we are willing to support other States with the software as means to promote local content and improve government processes. Since 2014, we have developed the capacity and built indigenous software developers on improving the land system. We have really developed local capacity. We are working to convert out work from desktop to web-based data.

“There is an initiative that place in another department that is critical in the development of the FCT – the Development Control Department (DCD) of the FCT that is responsible for granting approval. Year back we partnered with NigComSat and they have been able to develop software that is fully customised for the services of DCD. This is also available for other States to utilise. This can also be improved upon as a web-based platform.

“So, our strategy is to create enabling environment for the digital economy to thrive.

“We are also working on street naming and house addressing. If e-Commerce will thrive we must have proper street naming and proper house addressing scheme. If not, there will be difficulties in ‘delivery’ sub-sector in the digital economy ecosystem. We already have in our database the districts that are fully served; we have the data. What we are trying to do it make these data available so that the e-commerce environment can access them. It will become seamless by the time we move to web-based application.

“Also, we are connected to the Galaxy Backbone since its inception in 2007. We are now trying to integrate other departments to connect to the GBB so that once we are connected to GBB we are connected to other Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs) of the Federal Government.

The discussants unanimously agreed that PPP is the right route to deploy infrastructure to increase broadband penetration in the country.

Earlier, the President of ATCON, Engineer Olusola Teniola, said that dialogue shows the Association’s commitment to promoting an enabling environment for the telecom and ICT Sector in Nigeria.

He urged the government to show more commitment to assuaging the challenges faced by operators such as removal of multiple taxation; provision of seed funds for indigenous players; provision of forex to enable operators acquire critical equipment and ensure policy stability as reassuring measure to persuade foreign investors to trust the Nigerian market.

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