An African Leadership Magazine Exclusive Interview with The Nigerian Communication Commission.

Informed by the monolithic economy since the 1980s which has been persistently threatened by the instability in crude oil prices in the international market, the government has come to terms with the growing need for economic diversification. Economic liberalization has drawn investors worldwide, and the non-oil sector is growing at a healthy clip.

Digital technology is helping to drive growth in promising non-oil sectors, from media and entertainment to finance and fast-moving consumer goods. Digital technology could play a more enabling role in increasing access to government services like health and education, improving financial inclusion through mobile money, and helping businesses overcome infrastructure deficits. 

In an E-interview with the African Leadership Magazine, the Nigerian Communication Commission emphasized the role of digital technology in Nigeria’s economic growth and diversification. They also touched on issues ranging from women’s inclusion in tech, Fintech, and the effects of the pandemic.

Excerpts:

QUESTION 1: Nigeria recently launched the national broadband plan 2020-2025: can you share some of the short and long-term expected benefits of this strategic plan? 

Nigeria is the largest mobile telecommunications market in Africa. The top position of the country in the telecommunications market of the continent can be traced to the rapid expansion of the sector which followed the successful auction of Digital Mobile Licenses (DML) in 2001.  

 

As of December 2019, the market served over 184 million Mobile lines, with 126 million of those lines connected to Internet services. According to our records, telecommunication services in the country have grown from a teledensity of lower than 1% on fixed wireline and wireless networks before the DML auctions, to reach approximately 89% population coverage for voice services in 2019 primarily for 2G/2G+ networks. 

 

Internet services in the country are currently provided on 2G, 3G, and increasingly 4G mobile networks. However, though 4G coverage is available to 37% of the population, download speeds in the country are noted to be generally uncompetitive with other countries in the same income bracket.  

 

In recognition of the tremendous economic growth opportunities afforded by the deployment of broadband technologies, Nigeria established its first broadband plan in 2013 for five years. The plan set out to achieve broadband access, defined as minimum download speeds of 1.5Mbps with at least 30% coverage, and an objective of achieving 3G coverage to at least 80% of the population.  

Given the current state of technology, development, and applications of broadband technology, the 30% penetration achievement lags the aspiration of the country as the developed world marches towards widespread deployment of 5G technologies, while the country is yet to achieve significant 4G coverage and adoption.  

 

On June 12, 2019, Democracy Day address, President Muhammadu Buhari pledged to lift 100 million Nigerians out of poverty in 10 years. In October 2019, to further the achievement of this objective, he expanded the mandate of the Ministry of Communications to address the development of the Digital Economy in line with the Economic Recovery and Growth Plan (ERGP) with a focus on accelerating growth and social inclusion. 

 

Digital technology offers Nigeria the opportunity to grow and diversify its economy from the overdependence on oil & gas export proceeds. With a teeming population estimated at 203 million according to the United Nations (UN), where over half of the population is under 25 years of age, the country is faced with the tremendous challenge to put this largely unemployed and underemployed population to work. 

 

To this end, in December 2019, the Federal Government inaugurated a committee to draft a National Broadband Plan (NBP) for Nigeria (2020-2025). The 32-man committee has a mandate for the rapid rollout of broadband services which will address various socio-economic challenges faced by the country, including the need to grow Nigeria’s economy, create jobs, rapidly expand the tax base, and improve digital literacy and educational standards. This will also address identity management and security challenges through the effective use of technology, increase financial inclusion and deliver a broad range of services to its people to improve the quality of life and work towards the attainment of Social Development Goals set by the UN for 2030.  

Therefore, the nation faces an urgent imperative to deploy a new Broadband Plan in line with these objectives, which have been proven in other countries to make significant contributions to lifting citizens out of poverty. 

 

The new Broadband Plan is designed to deliver data download speeds across Nigeria of a minimum 25Mbps in urban areas, and 10Mbps in rural areas, with effective coverage available to at least 90% of the population by 2025 at a price not more than N390 per 1GB of data (i.e. 2% of median income or 1% of minimum wage). 

To achieve these ambitious targets, the plan is focused on recommendations in 4 critical pillars: 

 

  1. Infrastructure:Critical National Infrastructure (CNI) – Issuance of Executive Order to Declare Telecoms infrastructure as CNI and full implementation of Plan Establish a coordinating body for Fibre Builds – to ensure open access, prevent overlap, and facilitate RoW issuance at statutory rates. Satellite – Leverage existing NIGCOMSAT infrastructure to reach unserved/rural areas 

 

  1. Policy Implement and enforce national uniform RoW charges for fiber builds at a rate of N145/m and ensure Open Access/Accounting Separation. Base Station Site Acquisition – Work with States to implement One-stop Shop to accelerate approvals and harmonize fees. Spectrum: Ensure efficient use of Spectrum; Use it or Lose It Policy, Open and transparent spectrum planning including TV White Space deployment for broadband  

  

  1. Demand Drivers: Affordability – Incentivize low-cost smartphone devices and promote local assembly /manufacturing of Telecom network and end device components. 

 

  1. Funding & Incentives: Co-ordinate Government spending, Schemes, and Programs to ensure access in public institutions g. schools, hospitals, and MDAs  

 

This plan has been developed with the commitment of a wide range of Nigerians with expertise across the public and private sectors and assistance from global institutions and industry partners. The plan also draws on the experience of over 150 countries that have developed similar plans which have been made available in the public domain, as well as significant work by the World Bank, the UN Broadband Commission, ITU, and GSMA to assist countries in the development of their broadband plans. 

 

QUESTION 2: Following the existence of the digital divide in the world, what are some of the sustainable strategies by the commission to create an all-inclusive digital economy to promote the tech ecosystem in th­e country?

 

Answer: Sequel to the name change from Ministry of Communications to Federal Ministry of Communications and Digital Economy in 2019; the Ministry now reflects the new vision of the Federal Government for a truly digital economy. The Nigerian Communications Commission, NCC, which falls under this Ministry has been working tirelessly to bridge the digital divide and sustain an all-inclusive economy which in turn will help to promote the tech ecosystem in Nigeria. Some of the steps taken will be discussed here briefly.

 

Following the renaming of the Ministry, the Commission quickly created a Digital Economy Department under the supervision of the Executive Vice Chairman, (EVC), Prof. Umar Garba Danbatta, with the sole responsibility of implementing programmes and policies intended to support and promote the national digital economy agenda of the Federal Government.

 

NCC is working in line with the eight pillars of the National Digital Economy Policy and Strategy (NDEPS) document, developed by the ministry to enhance the performance of the ICT industry in Nigeria.

 

Still, on the strategies put in place by the Commission to create an all-inclusive digital economy geared towards promoting the tech ecosystem in the country, the infrastructure companies (InFracos) gave license in the six geopolitical zones including Lagos. They are expected to add 38,296 Km of Optic Fibre Cables (OFC) to the transmission, while 3G & 4G Base Transceiver Stations (BTS) increased from less than 30,000 to 53,460.

 

Also, broadband services remain the foundation on which the digital economy strives. The broadband penetration in the country no doubt has grown from 6 percent in 2015 to 41.18 percent on March 30, 2021.

 

The Commission also gave attention to guidelines on the use of TV White Space (TVWS) for broadband deployment in Nigeria.

NCC has also succeeded in harmonizing the Right of Way (RoW) charges, Dr. Isa Ali Ibrahim Pantami was able to discuss with the Nigerian Governors Forum (NGF), and this led to the adoption of a maximum of N145/m RoW fees.

 

The Commission also ensured that Subscriber Identification Module, SIM, is properly registered by telecommunications operators.  NCC SIM Registration 2011, clearly states that every SIM must be registered before it is activated on any network. Individuals who lack formal identification documents to access digital financial services can now have access via their SIM cards.

 

A breakthrough was achieved recently when the Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Dr. Isa Ali Ibrahim (Pantami) disclosed that Nigeria can produce SIM cards and smartphones that can be used in the continent. He further noted that this will reduce the importation of SIM cards and other items needed in the telecommunications sector by 60-70 percent, stressing that all these will now be produced locally.

 

Conclusively, “We are confident that achieving targets of the digital economy policy and broadband policy will help us achieve increased digital access, reduce the digital divide, enhance digital culture and ultimately ensure the realization of a knowledge-based economy for the country,” Danbatta said.

 

QUESTION 3: Despite the rapid growth in Nigeria’s technology sector, the country’s tech ecosystem is still largely dominated by men, only very few women have the opportunity to participate as founders or employees of tech businesses. Is NCC working to support women’s inclusion in the tech industry?

Gender equality is not only a fundamental human right, it is also a keystone of a prosperous, modern economy that provides sustainable inclusive growth. It is important to recognize that gender equality is essential for ensuring sporadic growth in the country’s Information Communication Technology (ICT), industry for the betterment of our society and economy.

Digital transformation provides new avenues for the economic empowerment of women. Women are under-represented in ICT jobs, top management, and academic careers. Women are the primary caretakers of children and elders in every country of the world. International studies demonstrate that when the economy and political organization of a society change, women take the lead in helping the family adjust to new realities and challenges.

However, despite the rapid growth in Nigeria’s technology sector the country’s tech ecosystem is still largely dominated by men, only very few women have the opportunity to participate as founders or employees of tech businesses.

There is no doubt that women have been historically central to the socio-economic and political development of any nation, thus, the need to focus more on how ICT can be leveraged for increased empowerment for women. There has been a general concern that unless the gender divide between men and women is specifically addressed, there is a risk that ICT may worsen existing inequalities between women and men which could create new forms of inequality.

However, if the gender dimensions terms of access and use, capacity-building opportunities, employment, and potential for empowerment are explicitly identified and addressed, ICT can be a powerful catalyst for political, economic, and social empowerment of women, and the promotion of gender equality.

What is the Nation’s apex telecom regulatory body, the Nigerian Communications Commission, NCC, doing to support women’s inclusion in the tech industry? NCC has continually reaffirmed its commitment to promote and empower young women and girls in the use of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) in the country. For NCC gender equality and diversity are key issues for improving competitiveness and building a more inclusive society. 

The Commission aligns with the International Telecommunication Union, ITU, Resolution 70, which advocates gender mainstreaming and promotion of gender equality, empowerment of women through ICT.

NCC has consistently encouraged Nigerian girls to venture into ICT careers. They also sensitize students in secondary schools on safe cyberspace, digital skills, gender-based violence as well as developing initiatives for the protection of children and girls’ rights online. The commission has carried out several sensitization campaigns to raise awareness on empowering and encouraging young women and girls to consider studies and careers in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM).

As part of efforts to mark the International Girls in ICT Day, organized by eBusinesslife in collaboration with NCC and other stakeholders in the industry, held in Lagos recently, the Commission during the event emphasized grooming more young girls that will take up the challenge of exploring ICT-related careers.

In the same vein, during separate sensitization campaigns on the aforementioned event held at Government Girls’ Science School (GSS), Kuje, and Nobel Hall Leadership Academy, Abuja respectively, the commission restated its support for gender inclusion.

The annual event is an initiative of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), designed to raise global awareness on empowering and encouraging young women and girls to consider studies and careers in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM).

Asides from the sensitization campaigns held in Abuja, NCC held similar events, in its zonal offices, across the country in furtherance of its commitment to promote the empowerment of young women to more opportunities in ICT for their personal and career development. 

Other locations where the Commission carried out the sensitization include Girls’ Academy Senior Secondary School, Lagos Island, and Girls’ Senior Secondary Grammar School, Obalende Keffi, Lagos State; Model Girls’ Secondary School, Rumueme and Government Girls’ Secondary School Rumuokwuta, Port Harcourt, Rivers State; Kano Capital Secondary School (Girls’ section), Matan Fada Road, Nassarawa and Mairo Tijjani Girls’ Science and Technical College, Kano State.

In addition, NCC has provided laptops, computers, and ICT gadgets to women and girls as part of its Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) to aid them in capacity building.

There is no doubt the ICT sector remains a buoyant and growing sector for employment, and a key economic factor reinforcing both national and international development. Any professional job we can think to have today has a strong tech component. Technology has become a critical tool in fields as diverse as art, history, archaeology, law, primary teaching, etc. 

Tech qualifications will give an advantage in a competitive job market, earn a high salary, give career mobility for women, make the founders and employees of tech businesses, based on this NCC are doing all that is within its mandate to support women inclusion in the tech industry so they can key into the future of the ICT sector.

To be continued ……

Access full interview in the African Leadership magazine October 2021 Edition