" ITREALMS: The bridge across digital divide

Thursday, August 18, 2005

The bridge across digital divide

ITrealms features of the week:

Finding an alternative fund route to improve the Information and Communications Technology (ICT) infrastructure in the country could help in bridging the digital divide. REMMY NWEKE in this report examines the way out.

FRUSTRATED at trying to reach out to her business partner, Ms Nneamaka Odiegwu in the city of Port Harcourt, for an urgent assignment on mobile phone, Ms Aminat Tunde, received a voice prompt that the number was out of the network coverage area.

The mobile phone has since become a form of identity for city dwellers but still a luxury for rural dwellers.

Ms Tunde had thought it was a network problem and decided to send her partner an electronic mail (e-mail), but two-days later Ms Odiegwu was no where to be seen or heard.

On the third day, Ms Tunde made up her mind to report to the nearest police station by mid-day that her partner was missing.

Fortunately by 11.30am, she got a call on her handset and on reaching the phone, she saw Ms Odiegwu’s Global System for Mobile communications (GSM) number, just for Ms Odiegwu to give apologies for the French leave she took without intimating her before travelling on an emergency to her village, Umuosite, a rural community in Anambra State over night.

According to Ms Odiegwu, there was neither GSM nor an internet access any where near the community, which is about 25 kilometres from the capital city of Anambra State, Awka. Therefore, she could not access any of those facilities whilst at the village.

This goes to reaffirm the report by the Nigerian Population Commission that estimated 75 per cent of the nation’s population reside in the rural areas. It goes further to stress the need to extend telecommunications infrastructure to these areas if the drive to really bridge the digital divide is anything to go by.

Defined as the gap between the rich and poor, the ‘haves and have nots’, digital divide has become a thorn in the flesh between the even ICT development in the cities and rural communities as well as their dwellers.

This problem has continued to hurt developing countries like Nigeria where if you dare travel from the city to a rural area, one is automatically cut off from the evolving global village built on Information and Communications Technology (ICT).

Lamenting this disparity, telecom expert and President, Nigeria Internet Group (NIG), Dr. Emmanuel Ekuwem, advocated for the leveraging of the Small and Medium Enterprises Equity Investment Scheme (SMEEIs) by stakeholders, which is 10 per cent after tax fund pool of Nigeria companies, saying a better percentage should be made available for ICT companies and investors at large to support infrastructural growth.

According to the telecommunications regulator, the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), as at March 31, 2005, the nation has 32 licensed Local Exchange Operators and 37-fixed telephony in the Private Network Link (PNL).

Equally within the PNL category, NCC has 58 licensees deploying Very Small Aperture Terminal (VSAT) for domestic market and another 47 VSAT firms to serve as hubs and the international market; four National Long Distance operators, two national telecom carriers, three metropolitan fibre cable network providers, coupled with 22 fixed wireless access (FWA) operators.

Worrisome though, is that all of these licensees have offices located in most cities such as Abuja and 36-state capitals and a few in urban centers like Onitsha. This leaves about 34 states to scramble for any telecom service that comes their way.

Apart from the GSM companies trying to lay telecommunications infrastructural pipes nationwide, brought about by sector deregulation over four years ago, and now led by the second national operator (SNO), Globacom Limited, the nation in the words of some operators, has virtually no infrastructure in existence.

This was traced to high-handedness of the management of the first national operator, Nigerian Telecommunications Limited (NITEL) by the government over the years, which still left the organization apparently at a stand-still, despite several changes done in recent times and its unveiling of the Internet Protocol (IP) wholesale, of which the dividend is yet to be seen especially in infrastructure provision and rural areas precisely.

While some ICT experts were asking for 50 per cent of the granted debt relief gains to be used for backbone development, it would also be wise enough for the nation to use the same percentage from any loot recovered, such as the Abachas and Tafa-gate among others, when eventually rested, as well as some percentages from the crude oil excess money, which has been the major export of Nigeria.

In addition, National Assembly needs to expedite action by passing the National Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA) bill, currently before it, which includes among others the setting aside of two per cent, after tax from companies whose profits are in excess of N100 million turnover in the country.

The two per cent is to be channelled into National IT Development Fund (NITDF), just like the Education Trust Fund (ETF) is to the education sector which provides relevant development facilities including infrastructure.

NITDA was set up in March 2001 to implement the National IT policy of the federal government and up till now the bill is yet to receive green lights in spite of the efforts of the pioneer Director-General, late Prof. Gabriel Ajayi.

This is more apt now that Digital Solidarity Fund (DSF) is being touted as a solution for Least Developed Countries (LDCs), which is expected to get contributions from a penny per international communication tool sold in United States, $1 each per purchase of a personal computer, software and piece of network equipment among voluntary contributions from the private sector.

And by endorsing NITDA’s bill an alternative funding for the industry, the scanty fund currently experienced would become an old story while improving and making funds available to facilitate the backbone infrastructure for ICT penetration locally, in our nation that has over 150 million people and is still growing.

Based on experience, most development funds are mismanaged despite the obvious implications in today’s economies, which are knowledge-based. This further demonstrates the need to enthrone ICT into governance, beyond political deliverables at campaigns and public functions.

Moreso, as this year in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) declaration represents the first milestone of the eight goals with a focus on goal 3, targeted at Gender Equality by the end of 2005.

On the other hand, most hit by the yearning gap of digital divide are women and children in rural areas, and regardless of the wisdom beneath the adage; ‘Train a woman, you train a nation’ this group still suffers various forms of marginalisation including lack of information.

For instance, the maternal mortality rate of Nigeria, according to the Senior Special Assistant to Mr. President on MDGs, Mrs. Amina J. Ibrahim, at the National Economic Summit Group (NESG) policy dialogue on Nigeria and MDGs last July in Lagos, ranks among the top, especially with the literacy rate just over 50 per cent, leaving over 50 million people, most of whom she said, are illiterate women.

Despite the presence of the Assistance for the Development of Telecommunication Industry in Africa, (INDAFTEL) in collaboration with the African Telecommunication Union (ATU), International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and the federal government under the Ministry of Communications, the nation’s entrepreneurs are yet to tap into this initiative after over one year of its proclamation.

From Nigeria to Zaire, from Cote d’Ivoire through Kenya down to Malawi, the story of looting of public funds and corruption is the same and most democracies at this time support recovery of such funds, therefore, nations like Nigeria could definitely find her way out of the woods of digital divide by proper utilization of some of these monies, at least, for public good and future of the country.

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