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Wednesday, January 14, 2009

ICT: Of shackled strides, missed opportunities (1)

You have heard that the Internet, mobile phones and other ICT tools are changing the world. Please add ‘truly’ between ‘are’ and ‘changing’.

Dateline: Lagos, Sallah Day. It is usual for various neighbourhoods to find which ‘malam’ would help slaughter their rams. Those who have had to do the business themselves know how frustrating it can be when no ‘malam’ shows up by 12 noon on Sallah day.

This last one was a different one. One neighbourhood’s resident mentioned the need for a ‘malam’ to a ‘maiguard’ and the chap turned in a piece of paper, photocopy of a slip on which there was a crude drawing of a ram, a knife, some Arabic inscription, a phone number and a name.

Apparently, one Suleiman had turned in the piece of paper to all the ‘maiguards’ in the vicinity in anticipation of Sallah day – indicating anyone could use the mobile phone number to their advantage. This number dialled, Suleiman showed up in a jiffy.

He slaughtered the ram, left the details for his subordinates and moved on to other places where his services were needed. Suleiman took advantage of ‘access’ to boost his business. He didn’t need to be told to do so. He needed no campaign by anybody as to what he could do with his phone.

All he needed was the phone and access on it and the remaining could be left for him. For his services, he charged N2,000 instead of the traditional N1,000 and his clients were glad to have got a good and fast solution. Give broadband access to Suleiman and wait to be amazed what he is capable of doing with it.

And the coming of Barrack Hussein Obama! Visit www.change.gov and see how a young man is changing the world using access to the web. The rest needs not be told. How about his almost impossible story of grassroot campaign, fundraising and eventual victory all fuelled by the power of the web and mobile applications.

Like no one else before now, he used social networking websites (isn’t almost everyone now on FaceBook?) and other web tools such as YouTube to build an army of young people whose excitement – and driven action – played not just a small part in giving him a much-deserved victory seeing he livened up the floor of even American presidential politics with his promise (and delivery) of a 21st century campaign.

His choice of a running mate was made using SMS broadcast, (mark the word ‘broadcast’), he was always on his phone cracking away at eMail, and he kept the world following his every step with up-to-the-minute updates through his campaign website. In 2008, politics and governance were redefined through new technologies!

Lesson: It is leadership, not followership – especially as the Nigerian case has shown in 2008 – that needs a campaign on what is achievable with broadband access.
The good: Access improved considerably during the year, with efforts of providers who introduced products such as iZAP, for instance, to bring fast internet access to individual phone level. In Ijebu-Ode, where the first leg of this review was fine-tuned, Izap did all the trick. But in Igbara-Oke where the second leg was to be firmed up, Starcomms is yet to show up.

Maybe in 2009! Other vendors – mobile and fixed wireless service providers – have stepped up the game by providing access options that have kept many Nigerians online more than before.

The performance review table of operators who ever played in the industry shows that as at close of business on December 31 2008, 9 operators are running full stream, eight are ailing, one was bought substantially into while six were bought over 100 per cent.

Four have since closed shops, seven are begging for buy-over and two are fit for merger while the performance of one is indeterminate as its subscribers are largely unknown. Today, 19 are trudging on in the market.

Etisalat finally executed the Mubadala mono-selection license of 2006 and rolled out services in Lagos, Abuja, Kano, Kaduna, Port-Harcourt, Ibadan and Ogbomosho, several months after the promised date. It does not matter when, point is that it came at last.

It is still in search of the joker that could repeat what Globacom did when it arrived in 2003 with the per-second rate of charging, a feat which one operator had said was impossible -- as if anything is impossible in engineering. 2008 was indeed full of action, slowed down by executive slow motion right from the top.

The Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), nation’s regulator must have had a busy year. For long, it conceived the ideas of the Wire-Nigeria Initiative (WIN), State-Accelerated Broadband Initiative (SABI) and so on, certainly for the purpose of connecting Nigerians to such possibilities as 2008 demonstrated.

Now, Nigerians cannot wait to see it happen. The telecom regulator came up with a code and practice regime on standard three-digit code number which shall serve the purpose of emergency services in Nigeria. Ditto for pre-registration of phone subscribers and number portability except that the matter spent the entire year being on the drawing board.

A ban was announced on products’ promotion of GSM mobile telephone service providers in Nigeria as the regulatory authorities hinted that measurement of phone quality revealed unsatisfactory performance of all GSM operating networks. The regulator discouraged operators even from placing advertisements that are capable of adding more subscribers or result in additional airtime usage on their networks in the face of un-abating congestion.

Two mobile operators, which instituted a court case against a directive of NCC to compensate consumers for poor service, had the case thrown out by the Court and they have gone on appeal, although they paid the fines under various degrees of insubordination to the directive. Chances are that the National Assembly has taken notice of this and gone working, not to rest after the unnecessary battle some of those in the lower House went into with the regulator the previous year.

Nigeria’s Globacom made its way into Benin Republic, towards the fulfilment of the promise of building a truly African network. Transnational Corporation, Transcorp, which bought into Nigeria’s ailing national carrier, the Nigerian Telecommunications Limited (NITEL) in 2006 was threatened with withdrawal of license if no remarkable improvement was recorded in NITEL’s and Mtel’s, services. There was no improvement but the license was not withdrawn either. There was also the rebranding of two major players.

Amidst all the good news, there was a threat of a probe of the Rural Telephony Project (RTP) which was never to be. The threat gave way to a solution which is neither here nor there as government handed over RTP’s remnants to five telephone service provider upstarts which it said are the ‘operators’. The RTP is a $200 million telecommunications loan packaged by a consortium of Chinese investors in 2002 for provision of telephone service in 96 rural communities in Nigeria. It finally stalled after several months of inaction.

There was encouraging activity with Nigeria’s Top Level Domain, .ng, as the Nigeria Internet Registration Association (NIRA) finally announced institutional structures and major framework under which the association would operate.

Namely four institutional elements: The Secretariat, Policies & Procedures, Technical Infrastructure and Service Provider Partners. Several draft documents, which sought to map the way forward were reviewed and pioneer registrars came alive.

Then the bad. The big disappointment for Nigeria’s ICT space in 2008 was the fact that the Federal Ministry for ICT did not emerge. Very senior IT practitioners expressed serious concern about the direction, or lack of it, that government trudged in the year under review.

It was widely believed that just as many were clamouring that IT be raised to the level of a Ministry in a converged regime for regulation and project implementation, the IT sections of Federal Ministries were about being merged with the Departments of Planning and Statistics!

Government in 2006 commenced a desire to restructure the information and communications industries when it set up a Committee to examine the wherewithal of a converged industry. It, however, impulsively went ahead to create the Ministry of Information and Communications ahead of the work of the Committee only to realise that restructuring in a true sense was more than mere name-changing and merging of Ministerial portfolios.

It is understood that the Committee completed its work and advised government on the amount of work required to effect a true change that will take advantage of the march of science and technology in the years ahead.

Work has since stalled on the project and the Yar’ Adua government, since take-over in 2007, has operated as if the issue never mattered.

Proponents of a restructured industry argued that because of the radical changes that Internet Protocol (IP) has offered, it will be contentious if not totally difficult to determine what is telecommunications, broadcasting or IT service, and especially to distinguish between where one stops and the other commences. A clear view and sharp industry management shall resolve this and enhance smooth management, reduce cost of doing business and ultimately cost and options of service provision.

On the other hand, a continuous application of legacy systems and management of new systems using the old methods will create confusion, increase cost of doing business and ultimately impose severe cost on consumers.

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