Prof. Danbatta: Five years of Engineering Nigeria’s Economic Transformation through Telecom

Prof. Umar GarbaDanbatta, Executive Vice Chairman/Chief Executive, Nigerian Communications Commission [NCC], has been in charge of the most critical development infrastructure in a modern economy for the past five years.Globally, telecommunications has become the engine room that powers economic growth and development. Development of telecom infrastructure has therefore become a key element in the development agenda of nations.

Nigeria has registered one of the most impressive advances in telecom development under Danbatta to the point of being acknowledged as a model in telecommunications regulation in Africa. President Muhammadu Buhari’s economic development programmes needed a catalyst to achieve an inclusive growth – which NCC has provided through an unprecedented transformation of the Nigerian telecommunications industry in record time.

Sharing the vision of the President and giving it the much needed infrastructure backing is the high point of Danbatta’s mission at NCC. The economic agenda of the President has received a big boost through NCC’s provision of robust digital access to individuals, corporate and government institutions.

Danbatta took decisive steps early on his appointment in August 2015 to carve for NCC a path of regulatory excellence with firm and forthright leadership needed for the revolutionary changes that have happened in the telecoms industry. Out of his strategic vision for the Commission was born the 8-Point Agenda 2015-2020 – that has taken the telecom industry to an unprecedented development height.

The agenda is factored on a tripod of availability of service, accessibility of service and affordability of service as parameters for measuring success. It held a promise to confront headlong the many challenges bedeviling the industry and facilitate the development of a knowledge-driven, inclusive, globally-competitive and prosperous Nigeria through telecommunications.

8-Point Success

Following the implementation of the 8-Point Agenda, the country achieved and suppressed its broadband penetration target of 30 percent by the end of December 2018. This is a feat in driving the broadband process for which NCC has been widely commended.

The programmes implemented under the 8-Point Agenda have been geared to facilitate broadband penetration, improve quality of service, optimise the usage and benefits of spectrum and promote investment opportunity and ICT innovation. They have facilitated strategic partnership and collaboration, protected and empowered consumers, ensured fair competition and inclusive growth as well as operational efficiency and positive regulatory impacts in the Nigerian economy.

Assessing the vision this last year of the five-year plan of action, Danbatta said “we have recorded appreciable successes under each of the items”. Increased participation of Nigerians in the nation’s economy has been assured through the enabling force that telecoms sector has continued to provide. This is witnessed by a phenomenal growth in the subscribers’ base, revenues accruing to governments and increased contribution to gross domestic product (GDP) from 8.5 percent in August 2015 to over 14 percent in 2020.

Other landmark achievements include a rapid growth in teledensity and major inflow of foreign direct investments that have helped to build the $70-billion telecoms industry. Active mobile voice subscribers have increased from 151 million in August 2015 to about 191 million at the end of April 2020 with a teledensity of 99.96 percent.

Internet subscribers peaked at 138,733,733 at the end of April this year against 90 million in August 2015 and broadband penetration on 3G and 4G networks stood at 39.6 percent – indicating a subscriber base of 75,558,163 at the same period. It was only 8 percent at the point of Danbatta’s entry into NCC in 2015. This indicates the success of the Commission in enabling Nigeria increase its share of global online transactions.

NCC has attained great strides on consumer protection and empowerment through constant quality of service monitoring mechanism that put operators on their toes. This is given further boost through awareness creation on protection of consumer rights and privileges. The Commission has intensified its compliance monitoring exercises with the acquisition of efficient tools and capacities that have worked to bring a great deal of sanity in the industry.

The Commission is a driver of innovations in Information Communication Technology [ICT]. It has invested heavily in this respect in the academia and among technology innovators. It has in place a robust emergency response capability with 18 operational Emergency Commission Centres (ECCs) in 17 states of the federation and the Federal Capital, Abuja.

In pursuit of regulatory excellence, NCC has activated its Communications and Digital Economy Complex, Jabi, Abuja. This big move has placed the Commission in a position to leverage the various world-class facilities available within the complex. This has optimised its overall operational efficiency with enhanced cost-cutting measures in compliance with the federal government’s directive.

Danbatta has taken decisive measures to capture every bit of the industry under its regulatory orbit. The latest is the regularization of the activities of all satellite operators, both earth and space station operators. NCC has issued landing permits to space stations beaming signals over Nigeria’s territory.

The Commission has also taken steps to ensure a credible database of telephone subscribers. It has successfully scrubbed over 24 million invalidly registered subscriber records through Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS). This is a landmark accomplishment in fulfillment of its mandate.

Deepening broadband penetration

Developing broadband infrastructure is one great mission that Danbatta has pursued and realised at NCC. Driven by his understanding of the quickening impact on the nation’s GDP, the EVC made it one of the key elements of his agenda to deepen broadband penetration among individual and corporate consumers of telecoms services.

For him, access to broadband has become the fundamental metrics for measuring development growth and development in Nigeria, as it is the driver of service automation and digitisation in every other sector of the economy.

The great success that Danbatta has recorded at NCC reflects largely his understanding of the role of the Commission in the implementation of the government’s economic development agenda. He has placed the institution as a vehicle to break barriers and act in its own right as an enabler of socio-economic transformation, growth and modernisation across all sectors of the economy.

The Commission has been blessed with a management quality that has deliberately embarked on initiatives, serving as digital fulcrum and catalyst that propels the inter-sectoral implementation of the socio-economic transformation agenda of the Buhari-led government.

One of such initiatives is the licensing of infrastructure companies (InfraCos) to provide additional robust broadband infrastructures across the geo-political zones of the country. It has issued six of the InfraColicences to five geo-political zones and Lagos – which was carved out as the sixth zone because of its commercial status.

The seventh and last licence, which is for the North Central region, is in process, according to the Commission. A number of other strategic initiatives have been embarked upon by NCC to address sundry challenges confronting telecoms infrastructure deployment by existing licensees.

Digital support for Buhari’s Next Level Agenda

President Muhammadu Buhari’s Next Level Agenda clearly needs next level digital support that NCC has built the capacity to provide over the past five years. The Commission is alive to its mandate to connect Nigeria and create an information rich society that permits increased economic opportunities to the people.

The challenge is big for the government going forward as Mr. President navigates the ship of state through the turbulent waters of economic diversification. However NCC stands ready to provide the necessary digital impetus to the actualization of government’s objective of freeing the economy from the volatility arising from oil and gas dependence.

The Commission aptly demonstrated its capability during President Buhari’s first term in office when it positioned telecoms as the baseline enabler for the realisation of the government’s Economic Recovery and Growth Plan (ERGP) 2017-2020. The effort has moved on for the second term for the next level and NCC has once again positioned itself to provide the digital impetus for government’s Next Level Agenda.

The President has restated commitment to the cause of advancing and consolidating on the gains of his first-term economic transformation agenda. His Next Level Agenda focuses on improving security, stimulating the economy, reducing poverty as well as fighting corruption. The application of telecom infrastructures to ensure the realisation of government’s objective is on NCC’s priority list.

New National Broadband Plan

Internet is marked one of the critical infrastructures for development in the Next Level Agenda of government. To this extent, the recently launched New National Broadband Plan (2020-2025) aims at delivering data download speeds across Nigeria at a minimum speed of 25Mbps in urban areas, and 10Mbps in rural areas. Effective coverage is to be available to at least 90 percent of the population by 2025 at a price of not more than N390 per 1GB of data – 2 percent of median income or 1percent of minimum wage.

Implementation of broadband connectivity, deployment of 4G across the country as well as the development of a digital economy has been identified by the Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Dr. Isa Ali Ibrahim Pantami, as government’s priorities for implementation assigned to the ministry.

The development of a broadband technology aligns with global best practice as a platform for the economic and social development. NCC is therefore on course in the implementation of the plan with the objectives of job creation, improvement of socio-economic development and sustenance of economic growth.

Driving transformation across sectors

The InfraCo project has turned out as a proactive initiative to propel the attainment of the Next Level agenda of government through accelerating increased digital access to Nigerians across the country. The minister has acknowledged the achievements of the Commission in the areas of job creation support to the country through telecoms, improvement in security and efficiency as well as in making life easier and better for Nigerians.

Sustained efforts by the Commission in driving major initiatives, programmes and necessary regulatory interventions, has deepened access to telecommunications services- voice and data – across the country. This has impacted positively on other sectors of the economy such as healthcare, education, agriculture, finance, transportation, commerce, governance, and so on.

The economy has developed new frontiers such as e-commerce, e-banking, e-agriculture, e-healthy, e-transportation, e-education and more. Entirely new types of players leveraging different technologies to offer services have been let into the economic arena.

The result is an unprecedented growth recorded in the telecoms sector with a multiplier effect quickening other sectors of the economy. The credit goes to NCC for the sound regulatory regime which has been consolidated in the last 19 years. Over the period, it has come up with a number of frameworks, regulatory measures, guidelines and policies that have provided an enabling environment for future of telecommunications services in Nigeria.

To the Commission, the future is promising and as an effective regulator, it sees great prospects ahead for the industry, especially in the area of utilizing broadband penetration to accelerate the transformation of Nigeria into a truly knowledge and digital economy. NCC underscores the future of telecommunications in Nigeria and globally as broadband driven and assures that it is well positioned to drive this digital frontier.

New standards for the new economy

Over the last five years, the Commission has placed a lot of emphasis on deepening broadband penetration and has done a lot in creating an environment that allows operators to deploy the newest technologies that can offer Nigerians better service experience with greater efficiency. Going forward it has set a new standard for telecom service capacity to power the new economy.

The new standard requires that all new sites to be built by mobile network operators (MNOs) should be Long Term Evolution (LTE)-compatible. A harmonised Right of Way (RoW) charges on state and federal government highways at the cost of N145 per linear meter has been defined for the industry.

The measures have also addressed the vexed issue of multiple taxation and regulations – which will be eliminated. Also, population coverage of 3G networks will be extended from 56.4 per cent of the population to at least 80 per cent.

The capacity enhancement plan also includes the upgrade of 2G base transceiver stations to 3G; spread of 4G/LTE services to 100 per cent of the population with a minimum broadband speed of 1.5 megabit per second (Mbps). At least, an access point of fiber with a 10 gigabyte per second (Gbps) capacity will be deployment in all the 774 local government areas (LGAs) of the federation through the InfraCo project.

5G: The next digital revolution

Danbatta is leaving no stone unturned to ensure that Nigeria is not left behind in the deployment of the fifth generation – 5G technology. He has set for himself a target to deliver within the shortest possible time. “We want to ensure spread of 5G to, at least, five per cent of the population”, he said.

In November 2019, NCC pioneered 5G trials in Nigeria and became the first telecoms regulator in West Africa to proactively begin such trials toward unleashing greater digital revolution. The whole idea behind the trial, according to EVC, is to be able to see what the challenges are with regards to 5G deployment in the country.

The main areas of concern are “security challenges, the level of radiation power density, whether this is within the acceptable limits provided for the international non-ionization radio Radiation Protection Agency as well as to address whatever challenges that we need to come to terms with preparatory to commercial rollout of 5G services in Nigeria”, he said.

The 5G era is coming with an upswing in the use of new technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), the Internet of Things (IoT), Blockchain, Big data, Augmented Reality and many more. These technologies are set to advance development processes through digital transformation it will usher into the economies of nations.

NCC has defined three usage scenarios with 5G, which include enhanced mobile broadband applications, ultra-reliable low latency applications and the machine to machine (M2M) applications. Danbatta understands that all of these will require reliable broadband infrastructure, which has been the pre-occupation of the Commission.

Danbatta is quite confident about the future of telecommunications in Nigeria, describing it as incrementally bright. His optimism is based on the high capacity at the command of NCC as the industry regulator that enables proactive measures in providing the right environment for the deployment of cutting-edge technologies to further push Nigeria ahead in the digital revolution. He believes the coming years will be exciting for Nigerians, who will, through 5G network deployment, have access to faster broadband speed to carry out personal and official activities.

Serving the, un-served and the underserved

The Commission worked with stakeholders to develop guidelines on the use of Television White Space (TVWS) to extend affordable broadband penetration to underserved and un-served areas. TVWS is the unused broadcast spectrum which can be deployed in the telecommunications sector to provide cost-effective broadband services to people in the rural, underserved and un-served areas of the country. The purpose is to achieve universal access and universal service in line with the country’s digital agenda.

Infrastructure development initiative

Danbatta has drawn correlation between 5G networks and effective telecoms infrastructure neededto support the actualization of the President’s Next Level agenda. He has taken proactive steps to develop the much needed pervasive infrastructure through his InfraCo project. What this means is that the dream of rollout of 5G services isn’t going to remain just a dream.

Apart from the supporting infrastructures, EVC also speak highly of NCC’s “excellent initiative of spectrum trading, to allow efficient utilization of licensed and existing spectrum through leasing or transfer to other operators from a licensee instead of keeping such spectrum idle.

In considering the big capacity that NCC has built in a highly capital-intensive telecom industry, Danbatta said the support of the President has been the critical success factor. By addressing the many challenges inhibiting investment into the country’s economy, the Commission has successfully attracted big investments into the telecoms sector.

“Yes, we have recorded major milestones in our telecoms sector. But are we satisfied as a Regulator? The answer is ‘No’” Danbatta said. Looking ahead, he still sees infrastructure deficit in the sector and he has a response to it.

He said NCC has identified 220 clusters of access gaps in the country and the real challenge behind connecting this large population of about 40 million is infrastructure deficit. Again the Commission’s InfraCo project with public private partnership component embedded in it comes to the rescue.

Good progress has been reported in a recent update study carried out by the Commission in 2019. The number of people living in the un-served and underserved areas has dropped to 31.16 million and number of clusters has been reviewed down to 114.

EVC has assured that the Commission is committed to providing the enabling environment to attract the needed investment to expand 5G deployment while ensuring efficiency of existing technologies from 2G, to 3G and 4G towards providing the needed consistent digital impetus to the realisation of the Next Level Agenda of President Muhammadu Buhari.                              

Gearing up to global standard

Digital transformation in the country needs to gear up to the digital disruption that is happening globally. The world has entered a new era of machine to machine (M2M) communications, the Internet of Things (IoT), Over-the-Top (OTT) services, Artificial Intelligence (AI), Blockchain, 5G and so on. All of these are creating disruptions that will change the way people live and work.

Danbatta is taking the steps needed to keep Nigeria on same page with the advancing digital world. “We are already putting measures in place to deepen digital access to enhance efficiency and productivity across all sectors of the economy be it e-commerce, e-health, e-agriculture, e-transportation and so on”, he said.

NCC has positioned itself to play a key role in the implementation of the newly-unveiled National Broadband Plan 2020-2025 – which prescribes 70 percent broadband penetration for the country in the next five years. A big step in this direction is the building robust fibre infrastructure for the country through its InfraCo project. This is planned to create the needed digital infrastructure upon which all these emerging technologies would run.

In readiness for the IoTs, NCC has reviewed its national numbering plan in order to provide numbers that will meet the needs of the projected 500 million Nigerians to be connected and about 1 billion globally-interconnected machines and devices by 2050, among others. “So, we are ready to provide Nigeria the digital edge to also benefit from the technology-driven disruptions happening in e-services across the globe”, Danbatta assured.

EVC believes that by leveraging Information and Communication Technologies (ICT), Nigeria could join the league of the 20 most industrialized economies in the world by 2025, in line with Goldsman Sachs’ projection. He linked economic advancement of G20 nations to greater digital inclusion and cohesion – which is what NCC has been working to achieve for Nigeria.

Given all the various ICT-oriented projects and initiatives that are ongoing in the country backed by commitment of all the stakeholders, EVC is optimistic that Nigeria could be counted among 20 most industrialised economies in five years.