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Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Inspiring rural inclusion, the NCC way

Special Reports by Remmy Nweke

Rural inclusion:

Unquestionably, the advent of Global System for Mobile communications (GSM) in 2001, obviously stimulated rural inclusion in the development of the Nigerian nation.

As a result, it was not surprising that over 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 even has gone on to claim an aspect of service extension to over 40 per cent rural dwellers in the country.

Role by the government:

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. Although this dream was not actualised before Obasanjo left office, but he has laid the foundation, which began in 2004, when his government was encouraged to take a grant from the Chinese government of $200 million (about N25,462,000,000.00).

Partnering Chinese:

Also, 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 disclosed that the second phase of the project, which began last quarter of 2006, was expanded with the addition of Messrs Huawei Technologies, observing that the first phase involved two-Chinese telcos that were adopted into the project primarily set aside for only Chinese firms, specifically 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, comprising 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 Nasarawa states into the project.

Expected rural deployment:

Mr. Ahmed explained that by deploying Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA) the contractors ZTE is billed to provide about 200,000, ASB fixed, 236, 256 and Huawei 200,000 lines.

And the government too through the industry regulator, Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), introduced the State Accelerated Broadband Initiative (SABI) to further drive Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) penetration in the 36 states, even as the Universal Service Provision Fund (USPF) was established with Mrs Lolia Emakpore as the pioneer Executive Secretary, which has since been taken over by Mr. Nnamdi Nwokike.

Despite the initial efforts in 2001 which saw to the withdrawal of a British firm, Rural Radio System (RRS), after collection of 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 774 nationwide, in addition to over payment of $.6 million, the federal government, however, did not relent in ensuring rural inclusion as the wind of telecom revolution continues.

Telcos input:

Since its commercial launch in August 2001, MTN for instance, had declared deployment in estimated 223 cities and towns with over 10,000 villages and communities covered, including a growing number of highways.

Corporate Service Executive, MTN Nigeria, Mrs. Amina Oyagbola revealed that many of these villages and communities covered by the telco, are being connected to the world of telecommunications for the first time ever.

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

MTN also in 2006 unveiled its three-phased national Fibre Optic Transmission Network (FOTN) in Abuja, following investment of over $300m.

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 Nigeria.

Equally, 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. According to the Public Relations Manager at Celtel Nigeria, Mr. Emmanuel Otokhine, 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 objective of introducing Jembi was to improve rural telephony 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.

Globacom since launch on August 29, 2003, claims a revolutionary change into the nation’s GSM sector, just 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 Glo subscriber figure at the moment stands at over 13 million with coverage extending to over 40,000 cities, towns, communities and major roads, thus making the company the second largest operator nationwide, even as it has commenced operation into the West African sub-region with presence in Benin Republic, of which the telco assured to begin roll out before December.

Proactive NCC:

This development came as the Executive Vice Chairman (EVC), NCC, Dr. Ernest Ndukwe has 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.

Presiding over the telecom stakeholders forum recently on the theme: “Telecom Franchise & Virtual Operation: Accelerating Service Provisioning in Rural Nigeria,” in Lagos, Dr. Ndukwe said the years are gone when stakeholders would assemble for the sake of discussion and just to listen to government officials’ presentations.

He enjoined the gathering to ensure that they optimised the event by detailing the government with strategies to move the industry forward.

He also noted at the forum organised by the Association of Telecommunications Companies of Nigeria (ATCON) in collaboration with NCC and Universal Service Provision Fund (USPF) that many rural communities are yet uncovered despite the efforts by telcos, and 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.

He reminded stakeholders that coverage in this instance means providing voice and data through broadband solution.

As said by Ndukwe forum like that 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.

Realising rural telephony:

For him, the government has no intention to compete with the OPS, which paved the way for the initial privatisation steps for the Nigerian Telecommunications Limited (NITEL) before liberalisation of telecommunications sector in 2000.

“Government does not have the intention to compete with the OPS in achieving this goal of accelerating ICT in rural areas,” he declared, pledging 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 a button-up structure.

Dr. Ndukwe, therefore, extended a hand of fellowship to ICT companies so as to avail them the opportunity of being displayed by USPF through ensuring that they submit proposals when the plan is published.

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

Some of these include how many of the telcos are ready to deploy services to these under-served communities, waive their profits by seeing rural telephony as Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) among others.

NigCom SAT hullabaloo:

The aforementioned position, industry watchers said gave impetus to the position of NCC when the management of Nigeria Communications Satellite (NigComSat-1) wanted to venture into the market place with unsuccessful campaign against the commission; with the theorem that its entry and deployment of service through the satellite, would crash the price of telecommunications services.

Notably, stakeholders stood strongly behind NCC in opposing this attempt, pending when NIGCOMSAT has undergone due process of getting privatised, because as Dr. Ekuwem would say, ‘Government has no business doing business.’

The partnership that works:

The viability of this partnership between government and the private sector should be emulated and no doubt, brings about lots of energy in telecom penetration into the hinterland. As of date, 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 few communities.

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