Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Improving service delivery via co-location

Experts in the Information and Communications Technologies (ICT) sector agreed on the fact that infrastructure sharing also known as co-location could immensely improve service delivery, reports REMMY NWEKE.

At the recently held three-day Information and Communications Technologies (ICT) summit organized by the Commonwealth Telecommunication Organisation (CTO) in Abuja, the Executive Secretary of the Economic Community for West African States (ECOWAS), Dr. Mohammed Ibn Chambas, lamented the high cost of accessing ICT on the continent and attributed this to lack of proper national and regional infrastructure.

For him, it’s extremely lamentable due to the progress made in the region in recent times, as he canvassed for an open access to the available infrastructure so as optimize sharing or co-location.

Sharing leverages on harmonized policy:
He noted that policy provision for ICT framework, application and services is a huge challenge, but by harmonizing telecommunications policies, legal and regulatory frameworks it would boost development of a regional and international reliable modern telecommunications infrastructure.

Chambas said that ECOWAS is working towards integrated regional infrastructure that could promote development in a peaceful and democratic environment, disclosing that the telecommunications infrastructure project known as SatCom-2 was designed to establish regional information and communication infrastructure for the community, and is steadily being executed by member states.

Shareable infrastructure:
Also speaking at the summit co-organised by the Ministry of Information and Communication and Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), which is on its sixth year, the Managing Director, Galaxy Backbone Plc (GBP), Mr. Gerald Ilukwe, advised on some shareable telecommunications infrastructure on the continent, more so in the country, where there is dearth of infrastructure.

Ilukwe who dwelt on “Pursuing Successful Infrastructure Sharing Strategies in Africa,” noted there are some immediate and most viable infrastructure that could be easily shared among operators in the ICT sector, namely electronic and non-electronic. The electronic infrastructure includes base towers stations, micro wave radio equipment, switches, antennas, transceivers for signal processing and transmission. While the non-electronic comprises of tower, shelter, air-conditioning, standby power generating sets and back-up batteries, electrical equipment, technical premises and easement and pylons.

Others, Ilukwe said, are data centres, utility and middleware applications disaster recovery as well as business continuity facilities. Accentuating that it facilitates optimization of investment in infrastructure and the use of scarce national resources like right of way. Just as it reduces negative environmental impact through co-location of antenna farms to limit radiation, incessant digging up of roads and pavements as well as proliferation of telecom masts; thus focusing on service innovation instead of network deployment.

Co-location requires rational decision:
Commenting, Deputy Chief Regulatory Officer (CRO) in-charge of Regulatory Affairs for all of Zain’s 22 operating companies in the Middle East and Africa, Mrs. Lynne Dorwood, said at the summit that successful co-location of infrastructure in telecommunications sector require rational decision.

Zain Group, she said, is currently co-locating infrastructure in Saudi Arabia and has even signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) in Kuwait for a similar offer.
“Infrastructure sharing needs to be a rational business decision that should be taken into account at all times,” she asserted, mostly considering the amount of investment that existing operators have already incurred which is vital for a successful co-location of infrastructure.

Mrs. Dorwood stressed that technical and operational concern should include spare capacity and cost of adding and upgrading facilities, even as the environmental decisions, is relevant to satisfy regulatory objectives of free and fair competition and ease of consumer access while at same time respecting operator’s investment made and risks taken, hitherto.

She also called for a collaborative approach by operators working together, so that telecom industry would continually witness sustainable growth.

“Let’s take a collaborative approach and work together,” she said and traced the origin of co-location of telecom infrastructure to Chile in late 1980’s due to extreme length and narrowness of the country, noting that before now this concept has taken root in the Third Generation (3G) site sharing in Germany and Sweden.

She emphasized that multiple mobile network operators in India already engaged in effective site sharing, and recalled that as the third operator in Saudi Arabia, Zain already is using site sharing, while it recently signed an MOU with Saudi Telecom Company (STC) to provide same in Kuwait.

Co-location, a natural evolution:
While on official visit to Champion House, recently in Lagos, the chief executive officer, Zain Nigeria, Mr. Adebayo Ligali, said his firm is disposed to co-location of infrastructure with other operators among service providers in the nation’s ICT sector.

Co-location, he said, is a natural evolution and Zain is presently co-locating facilities in some parts of the country, even with some competitors. “We’re currently leasing fibre optic from a core competitor among other ICT firms.”

N3bn for co-location:
However, the Federal Government in July this year announced its intensions to invest the sum of N3 billion (about $25.4m) to subsidize the cost of providing co-location infrastructure for telecommunications service providers in the country.

Chief Executive Officer, NCC, Dr. Ernest Ndukwe, who made this disclosure in Abuja, at a Co-Location Infrastructure Project (CIP) forum under the Universal Service Provision Fund (USPF) Accelerated Mobile Phone Expansion (AMPE) initiative of the government, said that the project is aimed at facilitating the construction of shareable infrastructure such as masts and towers, land perimeter fence, generators, storage tanks for fuel, and shelter.

He explained that the concept of co-location would assist greatly on the extension of telecommunications and Information and Communications Technology (ICT) services to the underserved communities in the country.

Ndukwe further said the project was to consolidate on the progress made on Base Transceiver Stations (BTS), which were designed to take the advantage of the opportunity that the ease of deployment of wireless based technologies presents, to encourage the rapid deployment of mobile communication and associated ICT services to rural communities.

Government’s efforts:
He said, “the new initiative when properly implemented will also reduce if not totally eliminate the need for each service provider to construct and own individual masts and towers, generators and so on as well as reduce the usual concerns about associated impact on the environment.”

Reaffirmed the global acceptance of infrastructure out-sourcing through co-location as a more popular alternative to adopt in ICT service delivery, and would enable ICT providers to focus more on their core business of service provision thereby improving the over all operational efficiency.

This, he said, has become imperative in view of the amount of human and material resources that are expended for the construction and maintaining such infrastructure mechanism by individual operators especially in rural areas.
“It will obviously be a win-win situation for the operators, the co-location providers and the subscribers if the project is fully embraced by all stakeholders,” Ndukwe anticipated.

NCC vows to protect telecom infrastructure:
NCC also vowed to protect telecommunications infrastructure in the country, so as to reduce vandalism, stressing that vandalism sets back the development in the sector and noted that operators have a great deal of responsibility too as far as protecting their infrastructure is concerned.

“This means that they must take the security of their data and network seriously,” he said, advised them to set up corporate security plans and look for ways to work together on critical infrastructure protection. Insisting that the federal government considers telecommunications infrastructure as public property of strategic importance, hence, it is criminal to vandalize them.

As said by him, NCC would seek support of the police among other relevant security agencies in training those who would assist in safeguarding the infrastructure, counseled operators to minimize competition and look at the inadequacies of each other and join forces in finding solution for the benefit of their customers.

The Commission, he said, is thinking of revisiting the law of willful damage and enforces same to deter vandalism.

Collaborating with other ministries:
Mr. Val Amadi of Etisalat, suggested that NCC directs operators on how best to construct their cables as a way forward and avoid damaging of competitors’ cables. “Operators should submit their drawings to the commission to help identify the defaulter when one damages each other’s cable.”

For Mr. Martins Oluwale of Globacom the Commission should collaborate with the ministry of works, states and local governments to help ensure that telecommunication infrastructure are not damaged while constructing roads. He recommended a harmonized policy for cable installation and laws that would make operators live up to their responsibilities, advocating the need to demarcate routes where cables are installed to avoid duplication of installation by operators.

Regulators promoting infrastructure sharing:
Noteworthy is that at the eight session of global telecom regulators in Pattaya, Thailand, March 2008, under the auspices of Global Symposium for Regulators (GSR-08), the focus was on best practices in regulatory measures to foster and encourage sharing of infrastructure resources as a means of stimulating investment and growth in the ICT sector.

Addressing participants at the meeting organized by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) in collaboration with the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology (MICT) presided over by the Chairman, Thailand’s National Telecommunication Commission (NTC), General Choochart Promphrasid, with over 600 participants from 96 countries, the Secretary-General of ITU, Dr Hamadoun TourĂ©, said that innovative business models and services are helping to drive the take-up of mobile communications in emerging markets in the Asia-Pacific region, Africa and the Americas.

As such, “Pro-competitive and open access strategies are needed to cut the cost of deploying ICT networks, thus take a big step towards achieving the targets set by the World Summit on the Information Society as well as the United Nations Millennium Development Goals.”

Dr. Touré said that sound regulatory frameworks would establish the enabling environment for telecommunications and ICT infrastructure development to help meet the connectivity targets.

GSR arrived at a consensus on a set of best practice guidelines aimed at fostering affordable broadband access through innovative infrastructure sharing and open access strategies related to pricing, efficient use of resources, spectrum sharing, licensing, neutral, fair and non-discriminating interconnection, transparency in information sharing, and sharing with other infrastructure industries; such as electricity, gas, water, sewage, railways to distribute the cost of civil works.

Six degrees of sharing and surplus fund:
Dwelling on the theme of the Symposium “Six Degrees of Sharing: Innovative Infrastructure Sharing and Open Access Strategies to Promote Affordable Access for All emphasizes,” GSR, of which Nigeria was represented by the Executive Vice Chairman of NCC, Dr. Ernest Ndukwe, identified basic and passive infrastructure sharing, open access to international capacity, business-sharing regulation, active infrastructure sharing, end-user sharing, and policy and regulatory harmonization.

They also recognized the need for regional and international harmonization to ensure widespread use of best practice regulatory policies on sharing, especially in areas dealing with cross-border effects. And in order to encourage universal access and bridge the ‘digital divide’, regulators tend to consider incentives for service providers who share infrastructure, including financial subsidies on a competitive basis.

At the end of the Global Industry Leaders’ Forum (GILF), the first-ever interaction between industry and regulators which preceded GSR meeting in Thailand, it was recommended that surplus funds raised through levies, such as Universal Service Funds running into billions of dollars, should be extended to ICT access to underserved regions, support infrastructure sharing, stimulate investment by reducing taxes, tariffs and duties on handsets and telecom equipment.

This is in addition to the release of unused spectrum for productive and innovative commercial applications and services as well as strengthens any emergency communications by harmonizing rules and regulations to facilitate trans-border relief efforts as outlined in the Tampere Convention; while exploring feasibility of a single global emergency call-in number.

As the six degree agenda of GSR takes root among member nations, Nigeria inclusive, there is need to fast-track this agenda if the 2012 plan for meeting up the self-imposed Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) is anything to go by, then infrastructure sharing must be encouraged by all stakeholders, at least, by coming up with time table on how operators and infrastructure laying firms could benefit from the incentives, practically, including the supposed surplus USP Fund.

Therefore, the private sector that has been driving this laying of infrastructure till now, needs backing to remain steadfast. And the earlier steps are taken in this direction, the better for the industry, after all time waits for no man and 2012 is just round the corner.

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