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Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Developing rural telephony through PPP

Features of the week:

The need to boost rural telephony in the country through public-private partnership (PPP) has become imperative, writes REMMY NWEKE.

Introduction

OVER the years, Nigeria is known as the top black concentration on the continent, with over 140 million population, according to the 2006 population census. This goes to strengthen the declaration by some concerned experts that over 75 per cent Nigerians currently reside in the rural communities.

Apparently at this era of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) no worthy state will declare an experiential growth without first advancing well-being of her citizenry.

Undoubtedly, the advent of Global System for Mobile communications (GSM) in 2001, spurred rural inclusion in the development of Nigeria as a country. So, it was not surprising that six years down the lane, most of the leading GSM operators, namely the MTN Nigeria Communications Limited, Celtel Nigeria Limited and Globacom Limited are already thinking rural and have claims of extending their services to these communities.

Hence, there is need to examine what stakeholders described as Public-Private Partnership (PPP) in developing rural telephony with focus on Nigeria.

Efforts by the government:

Prior to the new government of Alhaji Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, it was a dream of the erstwhile president, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo to increase telecommunications access and precisely on telephony with an estimated 636,256 lines across the three zones of the National Rural Telephony Programme (NRTP) roadmap before May 29, 2007 when he handed over leadership to his successor.

Although Obasanjo’s dream for rural telephony was not realised, but based on the project and relative facts before him in 2004, his administration was encouraged to take a grant from the Chinese government to the tune of $200 million (about N25,462,000,000.00).

Equally, Nigeria was expected to achieve rural penetration in 36 states of the federation including the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) Abuja, according to the director of NRTP at the Federal Ministry of Communications (MoC), Mr. S.S. Ahmed.

He noted that the second phase of the project, which began last quarter of 2006, was expanded with the addition of Messrs Huawei Technologies, noting that during the first phase, two-Chinese telcos were adopted into the project being executed by only Chinese firms, namely ZTE Corporation, and ASB Fixed.

The director emphasised that zone one made up of Kano, Kaduna, Bauchi, Yobe, Gombe, Borno, Katsina, Zamfara, Sokoto, Kebbi, Jigawa and Plateau, would be managed by ZTE. While zone two, comprised of Lagos, Oyo, Osun, Ogun, Ondo, Ekiti, Kwara, Niger, Kogi, Edo, Delta and Bayelsa states, to be administered by ASB Fixed. Just as Huawei is handling zone three through linking Enugu, Abia, Imo, Anambra, Ebonyi, Rivers, Akwa-Ibom, Cross-River, Benue, Taraba, Adamawa and Nassarawa states into the project.

He explained that by deploying Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA) the contractors; ZTE would deliver about 200,000, ASB fixed, 236, 256 and Huawei 200,000 lines respectively.

The government too via the industry regulator, Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), introduced the State Accelerated Broadband Initiative (SABI) to further drive ICT penetration within the 36 states of Nigeria, even as the Universal Service Provision Fund (USPF) has been established with Mrs Lolia Emakpore on the steering.

Notwithstanding the initial efforts in 2001 which saw to absconding of a British firm, Rural Radio System (RRS) after collecting over 80 per cent of its contract price worth, $3.2 million (about N4.2 billion) to supply radio to the NRTP in 125 Local Government Areas (LGAs) out of the 740 nationwide, coupled with over payment of $.6 million.

Efforts by telcos:

Since launch in August 2001, MTN Nigeria, for instance, claims to have steadily deployed services across Nigeria and precisely in 223 cities and towns, more than 10,000 villages and communities and a growing number of highways across the country, spanning the 36 states of the country and FCT.

According to Corporate Service Executive, MTN Nigeria, Mrs. Amina Oyagbola, “Many of these villages and communities are being connected to the world of telecommunications for the first time ever.”

She recalled that MTN’s digital microwave transmission backbone, measuring 3,400 kilometre also known as Y’elloBahn, was unveiled by former President Obasanjo in January 2003.

For Celtel Nigeria, a company that prides itself as pan-African with operations spanning over 14 countries, its aggressive network rollout has advanced the desire towards ‘Making life better’ as it claims coverage in over 600 towns and 8,000 communities across the six geo-political zones of the country.

Also, Celtel Nigeria, last May introduced GSM payphones called Jembi Public Calling Office (PCO), expected to create over 60,000 jobs especially in the rural areas.

Public Relations Manager at Celtel Nigeria, Mr. Emmanuel Otokhine, informed that Jembi is an exciting brand promise-inspired product that leverages Celtel’s proposition to her subscribers, declaring, “It’s another tangible experience of Celtel customer centric brand.” He added that one major objectives of introducing Jembi was to improve rural telephony countrywide and give a boost to the economy. Pointing out that Jembi, is a complete business tool, offering the user several services including voice calls, Short Messaging Service (SMS) and Value Added Service (VAS) in either pre-paid or post-paid mode.

“It also has unique security features, flexible record keeping attributes, ability to connect with printers and scanners and a high capacity internal battery which provides over seven hours talk-time. The battery can be recharged easily,” he said.

He further said that Jembi payphone comes in plastic frame body with built-in billing functionality, dual power mode which means it could work with battery or electricity, durable keypad and display features, secured and simple to use with Subscriber Identification Module (SIM) and network lock features among others.

On the other hand, Globacom since launching on August 29, 2003, claims a revolutionary change into the nation’s GSM sector, even as it had in the first year of operation, grown GSM network to a record of over one million subscribers and covering in excess of 87 towns within nine months.

The subscriber figure at the moment stands at over 12 million with coverage extending to over 40,000 cities, towns, communities and major roads, thus making the company the second largest operator in Nigeria, even as it eyes extension into the West African sub-region as it is concluding negotiations with two neighbouring countries.

NCC connection:

This is coming as the Executive Vice Chairman (EVC), NCC, Dr. Ernest Ndukwe recently tasked the Organised Private Sector (OPS) within the telecommunications industry to be proactive on proffering solution that would boost the rural ICT penetration in the country.

Dr. Ndukwe who presided the occasion told participants at this year’s telecom stakeholders forum on the theme: Telecom Franchise & Virtual Operation: Accelerating Service Provisioning in Rural Nigeria,” in Lagos, that it is no longer debatable if the nation’s rural areas are yearning for telecommunications services, but how to cover them should be top on the OPS list of items.

The forum was organised by the Association of Telecommunications Companies of Nigeria (ATCON) in collaboration with NCC and Universal Service Provision Fund (USPF).

While recognising the fact that many rural communities are yet uncovered despite the efforts by telcos, he assured them of the commissions support.

“It’s worthy to note that many rural areas are still uncovered,” he said, stressing that his commission is working hard to ensure that the universal access to all parts of Nigeria is achieved within a short period, just as he reminded stakeholders that coverage in this instance means providing voice and data through broadband solution.

According to him, forum like this should not have more than two government agencies making presentations, but rather, OPS should use that as an opportunity to inform the government and its agencies of their expectations in moving the country and the industry forward by proffering solutions, mostly on the theme.

Actualising rural telephony via OPS

“Government does not have the intention to compete with the OPS in achieving this goal of accelerating ICT in rural areas,” he asserted, assuring that both State Accelerated Broadband Initiative (SABI) and USPF were established to readily work with the OPS to actualise this goal.

He used the opportunity to disclose that USPF would soon publish its plan for the extension of access to rural Nigeria, which must be from button-up structure.

Dr. Ndukwe therefore invited ICT companies to avail themselves the opportunity being displayed by USPF through ensuring that they submit proposals when the plan is published.

Also, the special guest of honour, former Minister of Science and Technology, Prof. Turner Isoun, counselled participants to reach out to rural communities in the country through establishing presence in all the council areas.

Represented by Director of Technology Acquisition and Assessment in the ministry, Dr. Umaru Bindir, Prof. Isoun equally noted that about 70 per cent of the population, which is in the rural areas are yet to have various access as far as telecommunications is concerned.

He advised participants at the forum to ensure that they channel their desire to develop rural communities in the country by engaging other industry groups rather than the major operators, emphasising that this way, they would be attracting interests from other industries into telecommunications sector.

“I want to see industry groups talking to groups of people outside this sector such as farmers so that they would know where fertiliser is and at the most affordable prices,” he said.

And for the ATCON president, Dr. Emmanuel Ekuwem, the desire may be there to involve the rural communities in the country in telecommunications evolutions, but there are questions begging for answers to motivate the step.

These, he said, include how many of the telcos are ready to deploy services to these underserved communities, waive their profits by seeing rural telephony as Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) among others.

Conclusion:

The viability of this partnership between government and the private sector should be emulated and no doubt, has brought lots of energy in telecom penetration into the hinter-lands as of today, Nigerians could travel from East to West and North to the South without switching off their phones because of lack of network access, except for very interior areas.

As matter of fact, in Nigeria where the market is now are the rural communities, as the minor and big networks battle the major cities like Lagos, Abuja and Port Harcourt.

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