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Sunday, January 19, 2020

Broadband: Beyond the Cost to Access - ITREALMS

Today, everyone is talking broadband. Everyone is talking about the advantages, the benefits and need to make it more available and accessible. The importance is becoming more evident each passing day. Indeed, it is becoming general knowledge that as access to broadband internet grows quality of live improves, productivity increases and Gross Domestic Product (GDP) expands. The significance is immense.

Reports indicate that a 10 per cent increase in broadband penetration yields an 0.8 per cent increase in GDP per capita. That is, increasing broadband penetration by 10 per cent will automatically almost double GDP per capita. GDP per capita is a measure of a country's economic output that accounts for its number of people. It is a good measurement of a country's standard of living.

So clearly, broadband access is no more a luxury. Without a doubt, it has become a basic necessity for economic and human development. It should become a full-blown human right.

If you think of one indispensable tool for the delivery of essential services such as education, healthcare and financial services, today, broadband comes to mind every time. It offers, as experts say, previously unimagined opportunities for citizen empowerment, community engagement, and nation-building. The deployment of broadband in government (think e-governance) promotes transparency, accountability and efficiency.

Those who should know reveal that broadband has become a foundation for the digital infrastructure precipitating the digital economy. It is also helping to create jobs, jumpstarting job skills development and boosting rapid socio-economic development.

In Nigeria, there is a growing awareness of the humongous promises of the digital economy. For instance, the federal government recently converted the Ministry of Communication to the Ministry of Communication and Digital Economy.

And only in December, the Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Dr Isa Pantami inaugurated a 25- member National Broadband Penetration Committee. The objective is to chart a path to achieve 70 per cent broadband target in the next five years.

The committee has its work cut out for it, as the current broadband penetration stands at a measly 37.8 per cent.

Then in a separate but related development, Bloomberg recently reported that “Nigeria plans to invest 265 billion naira ($732 million) in broadband infrastructure over the next four years as the government sets its sights on nationwide coverage and to boost an economy recovering from a 2016 contraction.”

According to the report quoting Professor Umar Danbatta, the Chief Executive Officer of the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), “The government will provide 65 billion naira for the project and six private infrastructure companies the balance under a public-private partnership.”

The funds would enable the country to roll out an additional 30,000 kilometres (19,000 miles) of fibre across its 774 local governments, taking the total to 71,000 kilometres by 2024.

Why is it beginning to look like the NCC is running its own race? The Minister is filled with passion but is struggling to assert his authority. He needs to know that he cannot do it alone. Synergy is required. The Minister, its agencies and commissions must find a way to work together for the common good. Broadband is too important to be handled haphazardly.

According to Benton Fellow, Denise Linn Riedl, “Broadband’s fundamental value doesn’t come from connecting computers to networks; its value comes from connecting people to opportunity, and society to new solutions. When a broadband network is available but a person who wants to use it can’t do so, then the network is less valuable to everyone else who does use it.”

Broadband adoption, he explained, benefits people in concrete and practical ways. Children can do homework at home. Parents can become more involved in their child’s school. Families can stream educational content. Adults can obtain digital skills training, including improving workforce skills and connecting with potential employers. The benefits are endless.

Since broadband is so important, the objective must be to constantly explore ways to ensure availability. For indeed, everyone using broadband makes broadband better for everyone else.

Again, it bears repeating, broadband is important. Its importance stems from how it enables connections, strengthens networks and expands opportunities. This is why when broadband internet is available but not accessible it is almost as bad as been unavailable.

Access to available broadband is a function of cost - the cost of device and cost of data to connect the service. While there are cheap smartphones today to connect to broadband they are still beyond the reach of a lot of people. Imagine 90 million people living below the poverty line.

This is the sad reality. So, there should conversations around credit facilities, lease arrangements and payment by instalments for devices to grow access to broadband devices.

Additionally, we cannot run away from the need to have more affordable data. Yes, it has to be more affordable but it shouldn’t have to happen by fiat. For this to happen, the regulator, NCC, must offer financial breaks to service providers and actively work with other relevant regulatory agencies to reduce the burden of multiple taxations. The Minister must continue to push issues around reasonable right of ways (ROW) approvals, preferential access to foreign exchange for infrastructure equipment, the designation of telecommunication infrastructure as critical national infrastructure with relevant protection, and tax exemption for extending services to under-served areas among others. He should involve the President directly where needed. This is how to ensure genuine process is made not just motion.

Broadband should not just be available but equally affordable. Broadband is too important to leave to chance. The government must be involved and yes even lead charge, it should, however, be private-sector driven.

This is the only way to truly create widespread availability of affordable broadband. This is the best preparation for Nigeria to be ready to play in the Fourth Industrial Revolution – the digital and information society.

Let there be BROADBAND!

*Elvis Eromosele contributed from Lagos.

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Pix: Isa Pantami

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