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Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Addressing political questions via USPF


The on-going USPF stakeholders’ regional forums are pathways of addressing political questions of how to drive ICT penetration based on the needs of the people, reports REMMY NWEKE.


THE former Minister of State for Information and Communications, Alhaji Ikra Aliyu Bilbis recently declared that the Universal Service Provision Fund (USPF) was the Federal Government’s major political response to addressing the Information and Communications Technologies (ICT) needs of the citizens.

The Minister who was speaking at the presentation of documentation by internationally reputed research firm, Pyramid Research, on the impact of mobile communications on the socio-economic lives of the citizens, in Abuja, noted that this concept was to improve the spread and use of modern ICT facilities to aid national development.

“That decision taken at the time and subsequently well executed, has led to the telecom revolution that we are all too familiar with today,” he declared, adding that government is ever ready to ensure that the policy environment is structured for competition and investment. While emphasizing that government is aware of the digital divide between developed and developing nations, and also aware of the divide which exists within countries, between the cities and rural areas and between the young and old. Hence, this informed the policy of government to create the Universal Service Provision Fund (USPF) in line with the global clamour, to take services to rural and under-served communities in the country.

USPF:
A total of 377 schools nationwide have been earmarked to benefit from the Universal Service Provision Fund (USPF) educational intervention initiative in the 2009 fiscal year, even as 506 others have either benefitted in the exercise or on-going.

The USPF concept is in consonance with the Nigerian Communications Act of 2003, Section 112, which requires the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) to “design, consider and determine a system which shall promote the widespread availability and usage of network services and applications services throughout Nigeria by encouraging the installation of network facilities and the provision for network services and application services to institutions and in unserved, underserved areas or for underserved groups within the community.”

The USPF mandate includes the creation of an enabling environment by raising public awareness on the uses and benefits of ICTs, building capacity among communities to participate in and take advantage of the economic opportunities in ICT, while contributing to national economic and social development via enhancement of universal accessibility and availability of telecommunications and ICT infrastructure as well as services among others.

The Universal Service Fund is a global phenomenon with 50 countries as signatories to an International Telecommunication Union (ITU) agreement to set aside funds to provide access to technology to the citizenry of their countries, while the USPF is the organ of the Nigerian government saddled with the responsibility of achieving the mandate under the supervision of NCC.

Spio-Garbrah led speakers:
To make the forums worthwhile, the Chief Executive Officer, Commonwealth Telecommunication Organisation (CTO), Dr. Ekwow Spio-Garbrah, addressed participants at the event alongside his former counterpart from the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), Dr. Ernest Ndukwe and the Executive Secretary, Universal Service Provision Fund (USPF), Mr. Funso Fayomi, at the first-ever consultative forum on Information and Communication Technology (ICT) with the theme ‘ICT for all consultation’ series by USPF.

Head, Corporate Services, USPF, Mr. Okoh Aihe, told ITRealms Online that the forum was a major interface with the Nigerian public in form of series of consultations to engender capacity building for stakeholders, just as it would be held across all the six geo-political zones of the country.

The series tagged ‘Stakeholders Consultative Forum and Capacity Building,’ he said, is one of the series, planned to afford various stakeholders, who are the beneficiaries of USPF projects, financial institutions, ICT entrepreneurs, community-based organisations, opinion leaders, network operators and other development partners, the opportunities to suggest ways of improving implementation of ICT programmes of USPF.

Major quest for ICT Access for all:
Also, Aihe said, it is a major quest by the agency to actualize its vision of “ICT Access for all” as well as meet the objectives of the Federal Government on ICT access to the unreached and disadvantaged people in far-flung parts of the country.

So, he said, USPF has taken ICT access to the populace, even as they are partnering CTO to make it a success, pointing out that the consultation serves as channels for frank talks and above all, learning in order to take USPF to a new level of performance.

Other issues addressed during the first two series, were the presentation of USPF mandate and strategic plan 2007 – 2011, Key Issues impacting Rural Connectivity, Rural Connectivity Finance, Financial Models for Rural Connectivity, Appropriate Technologies for Rural Communities Off-the-grid, Available Rural Connectivity Solutions, and a host of other issues.

He explained that USPF was prepared to hear from representatives of selected communities who will speak about their community needs and priorities in ICTs, assuring that information received from the forum would assist these communities to better articulate those needs.

He enjoined Nigerians to take advantage of the consultations series and come out with more creative ways that could help USPF to be more relevant to the country, especially for local dwellers.

Implementation of template:

In his remark at the occasions, Executive Secretary, USPF, Mr. Funso Fayomi, said that the agency is working assiduously in line with its original mandate as outlined in the Nigerian Communications Act 2003. Noting that USPF found that collaboration between governments, community based organisations, the private sector and other stakeholders is the best approach, hence, it embraced the strategy, saying that the public sector would typically provide the financial backbone while the communities and the private sector remain the primary drivers for the implementation and sustenance of services.

He said, USPF has been designed to promote widespread availability and usage of network services throughout the country by encouraging the installation of network facilities and the provision of network services to institutions and to unserved and underserved areas and groups in the country.

USPF, he also said, holds in trust the interface of the government with the Nigerian people in facilitation and enhancement of network availability and service quality where otherwise it would have been impossible. Recollecting that at the last quarter of 2009, USPF began the implementation template, which paved the way for it to launch projects in different parts of the country.

Fayomi gave insight into USPF activities in recent times, saying that across the six geo-political zones of the country, the agency has 115 Community Communications Centres (CCC) and 76 subsidized Base Transceiver Stations (BTS) at different levels of completion. In addition to providing 476 government secondary schools with 100 computers, a 5KVA generator and broadband connectivity per school under the School Access Programme (SAP), 68 Tertiary Institutions with 100 desktops and broadband connectivity under the TiAP Project.

He explained that under the CCC project, USPF aimed at establishing centres that will extend voice, Internet, ICT training and other services to unserved communities on shared basis, with each of the centre provided with a public calling centre, cybercafé and ICT training courses, as well as serve as platform from which to wirelessly extend Internet access to surrounding communities.

On the BTS project, he disclosed that it has been designed to accelerate access to telephony and data services in unserved and underserved communities while the SAP projects are targeted at developing ICT capacity at the foundation level with the provision of computers, accessories and high speed internet connection to selected schools, including laptops for teachers.

10m skilled Nigerians before December 2010
As part of the strategy, USPF and the Commonwealth Telecommunication Organisation (CTO) disclosed plans to train about 10 million Nigerians on Information and Communication Technology for Development (ICT4D) scheme, in one year.

Affirming this, Director, CTO, Mr. Bashir Patel and board members of USPF present at the forum gave this hope to jointly set a target of training 10 million Nigerians nationwide under the USPF access for all project. This, Patel said is the target that USPF has set for itself for training within a 12 months period and that the training would include youths, children and people from all walks of life, describing it as very ambitious project.

Pointing out that the proposal of one community centre per local government area is a recommendation that USPF has decided to take up, but would require feasible proposal on counterpart contributions to make them sustainable. Advocating that Nigerian child should have the same level of education like counterparts in Europe or America, he enjoined the federal and state governments as well as private sector companies to make this happen, which actually is the right of the citizens to demand. Patel expressed excitement over the level of participation of the people, especially from the South West geo-political zone during the forums.

The founder, Growing Businesses Foundation (GBF) Dr. (Mrs) Ndidi Edozien, told participants that the forum has commitment by the board of USPF on training workshop and that it would not just be training but also exploring potential projects and partnership opportunities.

The projects, she said, would succeed on moving forward mostly as they were encouraged by the level of participation at the forum, stressing that there was a general consensus on the need to use ICT to build market linkages and that USPF would look into it, calling on communities with connectivity problem to share such information.

A role for rural communities:

Speaking to ITRealms Online in Yola, the Managing Director, Growing Business Foundation (GBF), Mr. Emeka Orjih, tasked rural communities in the country to take advantage of USPF, even as he explained GBF involvement in the forums.

According to Orjih, his organization plays the role of an intermediary, stressing that GBF is a leading platform for sustained economic development driving its activities through non-governmental and non-profit operations.

He noted that GBF works toward building a Nigerian private sector driven non-profit to promote a sustainable homegrown model for building viable partnerships that enable development at the community level, hence its participation actively in the USPF-organised stakeholders’ forum.

“Through various intermediations between the private sector and the bottom of the pyramid, we are supporting local cooperative enterprises, thereby facilitating meaningful development in several communities across the country,” he said, noting that by using a micro-lending as a platform, GBF has been able to facilitate direct contact with what he described as “smallholder and medium scale farmers and entrepreneurs over the years.

He said that GBF operates in 34 States of the federation with over 77 staff in six offices in order to be close to the rural communities, just as it builds on bottom of pyramid (BoP) capacity, which enhances productivity rate, helps in developing access to local and international markets by serving as a linkage between ICT, agriculture and entrepreneurship.

“We create linkages between the BOP and resources including financial, human and institutional resources. Intermediation from bottom to top, for examples the BOP linkage to USPF, appropriate government parastatals, ministries, public and private sectors, donors to mention a few is what BGF specializes,” he explained.

Nigeria rural communities, he said, must leverage on ICT for socio-economic development to be part of the digital revolution sweeping across the country, presently.

He assured that GBF has come to stay and ensure that this happens through creation of public private people’s partnership, which entails bringing local communities, public and private sector expertise and resources together to create and ensure sustainability of rural and income generating projects.

GBF, he pointed out functions as an intermediary linking BOP players, mostly farmers and entrepreneurs with inputs, and market information.

Conclusion:
It is expected that before the year runs off, the remaining four regions yet to be visited must have been concluded and relevant deductions made out of the forum to further position the organization for greater democratic or better still ICT dividends to continue to spread in the most populous nation on the continent.

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