The Future of Nigeria’s National Broadband Plan 2020-2025

Nigeria launches Broadband Penetration plan for 2020-2025
The new National Broadband Plan 2020-2025 embodies strategies that will accelerate broadband penetration to facilitate the growth of Nigeria's Digital Economy. Photo credit: Dr Isa Pantami, Twitter.

In March 2020, Nigeria’s Minister for Communication and Digital Economy, Dr Isa Ali Pantami, officially launched Nigeria’s 2020-2025 National Broadband Plan, as a successor to the now-defunct 2013-2018 broadband plan.  To achieve this, the minister commissioned a 25-man committee comprising of industry experts and stakeholders from the government, public and private sectors, headed by Ms Funke Opeke, Managing Director/CEO of Main One Cable Company Limited, to coordinate the development of the new National Broadband Plan targeted for the next five years (2020-2025). 

 

The committee examined the 2013-2018 plan and adjusted for new trends in the telecommunications industry to draft the new plan. It is, therefore, necessary, to examine some of the flaws of the previous document, and which ones have been noted for the new document.

The 2013-2018 broadband plan

As the scheduled timeline for the plan was about to lapse, Paradigm Initiative, a social enterprise made a review of the document towards highlighting the successes and failures. Notably, PI observed that important policy promises like the fixed broadband coverage were not only unsuccessful, but the recorded data by Nigeria Communications Commission (NCC) had been misrepresented. 

When the document was published in 2013, Nigeria’s target was a 30% broadband penetration from an initial 6%. In representing the success of the plan, NCC reported that it had achieved 22-27% and was on course to achieving 30%. The International Telecommunications Union, responsible for global regulation of the industry, in its 2017 State of Broadband Report, puts Nigeria’s mobile broadband subscription at 21.8 per cent. 

Paradigm Initiative, however, noted that “the first basis for the Nigerian ICT industry’s dissonance is that the NCC sweepingly equates mobile broadband penetration with broadband penetration, as though mobile broadband were the only vehicle of broadband delivery envisaged in the development of the National Broadband Plan in which the NCC was a key stakeholder. Simply put, mobile broadband penetration is not the same thing as broadband penetration, a fact even acknowledged by data by the ITU, when it disaggregated its data for Nigeria by distinguishing mobile from fixed and correcting placing mobile broadband penetration for Nigeria at 22.9%. Fixed broadband penetration for Nigeria is 0.1%. In essence, Nigeria’s National Broadband Plan did not set a target of achieving a 30% mobile broadband penetration by 2018. Rather, it set a target of achieving a 30% penetration for broadband in its entirety. And although the Broadband Plan envisaged that mobile broadband will be the fastest mode of broadband delivery across Nigeria, the plan also set detailed and well-reasoned plans for other important modes of broadband delivery such as fixed (fibre) access.” 

This jarring failure was acknowledged in the new plan when it noted that “current broadband penetration rates of 37.8% indicate the objective was achieved as measured in terms of 3G and 4G connections divided by [the] total population. Mobile broadband connections account for approximately 99.8% of the broadband base while fixed connections are at 0.2%”.

The plan did not promise 99.8% mobile broadband, nor 37.8% mobile and fixed broadband, the plan’s promise was for a 30% broadband penetration. 

Another notable miss for the previous plan was the inability to regulate the payment for the right of way, affecting the rate of broadband penetration in the country.  PI once again noted in its document that “state and local governments have required right of way charges over and above what is officially stipulated (N145 per metre for fibre), thus driving up the cost of investment required to expand Nigeria’s Fibre broadband network. States charge between N1,500 and N6,000, per metre, for the right of way charges. This fact alone has even constituted a deterrent to investors in Nigeria’s broadband network, who have been discouraged by the bad business case occasioned by very high right of way charges. As a result, it is reportedly four times cheaper to transmit fibre Internet from Lagos to London than from Lagos to Abuja. According to the NCC, Nigeria needs 120,000km of metropolitan fibre networks but currently has 38,000km (as at 2018). We can learn a lesson from the rapid development of Nigeria’s Global System of Mobile Telecommunication (GSM) which was aided largely by foreign investment, to understand that removing barriers to foreign investment can greatly stimulate the development of fibre broadband infrastructure in Nigeria.”

In response to this,  the new plan referenced the challenge by stating that “Challenges common to operators in the telecoms sector have been identified as; the high costs of right of way resulting in the high cost of leasing transmission infrastructure; long delays in the processing of permits; multiple taxations at Federal, State, and Local Government levels and having to deal with multiple regulatory bodies; damage to existing fibre infrastructure as a result of cable theft, road works and other operations; and the lack of reliable, clean grid electricity supply.” 

While there were other challenges, including policy and regulation, absence of adequate customer survey, infrastructural support and a burgeoning private-public partnership, the focus for this analysis will be on the basic challenges of broadband coverage, right of way and the underlying policy challenges. 

How the new plan intends to overcome fundamental challenges

Satellite

One of Nigeria’s novel way of addressing broadband coverage and overall internet penetration is satellite technology. Under the  Strategy Matrix for Unserved, Underserved, and Served Areas, the new plan effectively reflects on the importance of satellite, especially for unserved and underserved areas in Nigeria. While this is a seemingly important step, Nigeria has launched six satellites, two out of which are communication satellites. Despite the heavy financial investment on Nigeria Communications Satellite Limited (NigComSat) the percentage of total landed satellite capacity (in Nigeria) is 0.2%. Although Dr Abimbola Alale, NigComSat’s CEO has blamed the previous inadequacy of the communications satellite to reflect on Nigeria’s coverage on the fact that the previous broadband plan did not cater for satellite broadband coverage. She has however mentioned that NigComSat will be providing interventions to help fulfil Nigeria’s internet plan, following the 2025 connectivity roadmap Nigeria is working with. 

While this seems admirable, Mr Hendrick van der Berg, the Senior Sales Director at Intelsat, a private communications satellite service provider, has mused that electricity, roads, and other social infrastructure affect how broadband reach rural communities in Nigeria. Nigeria is still largely dependent on fibre connectivity, and only networked places can have access to such connectivity. Without roads and electricity, it isn’t easy to reach rural communities.

This means that the inability of Nigeria to provide these social infrastructures also means that there is a likelihood that the new plan may not be able to achieve its 100% coverage plan — 10% by satellite and 90% by fibre by 2025. The success of broadband coverage is not dependent only on the communications ministry, but also on general infrastructural support.

Right of way

The new plan’s measure for overcoming the RoW challenge was to ensure top-level engagement directly driven by the Minister with the Vice President, (NEC chairman) and the Nigeria Governors Forum to negotiate the implementation of the N145 per linear meter RoW fees resolution in all 36 states; develop a framework to encourage operators to collaborate and stay within the agreed RoW fee of N145N/m; adopt an approach to incentivize the implementation of State’s adoption of N145/Linear Meter for Right of Way. (e.g. rewarding states with USPF social intervention projects around security, health and education); Non-compliant states should be denied government interventions. The timeline for achieving these was Q3 2020, which passed already.

In January 2020, a meeting with Governors seems to have reached a promising end towards achieving a uniform RoW payment system. However, by June, only seven states had agreed to the N145/m system. The delay has been adduced to several inconveniences, including the COVID-19 pandemic, but communication is a top priority in Nigeria and negotiations should have continued regardless. 

The delay in a uniform RoW system means that the country has lost a year out of its five-year plan, and may have to either cover up for it by hastening other plans or have to suffer for the delay by 2025. This is not a great first step towards addressing such an important issue. 

Other issues

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). This is a laudable projection for Nigeria, considering the introduction of satellite broadband, and a framework to remove barriers for entry, it is, however, a long shot. 

The initiatives set in place to address infrastructural, policy, demand driver and funding challenges do not seem to take into account the bureaucracy of executing policies in Nigeria. The uniformity of an RoW payment, for instance, ought to have been achieved but is still being negotiated. Working with States to implement One-stop Shop to accelerate approvals and harmonize fees is also an important strategy that is currently delayed. Nigeria’s income and poverty indices are also important factors to consider in encouraging demand in the sector. 

The first year in the five year plan is in Q4, and several preliminary plans are yet to be executed. While the five year period might seem a long shot, time flies, and only if Nigeria can seize the day will it be able to achieve the lofty broadband plans. Otherwise, this will become a repeat of the 2013-2018 plans.

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