Monday, November 30, 2020
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Monday, November 30, 2020

Of Telecom Infrastructure and Heroes of Digital Economy

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The ongoing lockdown imposed by the Federal Government to halt the spread of the virulent virus, Covid-19 has presented an uncommon opportunity to reflect over the invaluable role of telecommunications in upholding the Nigerian economy.

Now that nearly every sector of the economy has been forced to a halt, Nigeria is able to see the value of the enormous investment that the private sector has put in the sector over the years, especially in the last decade and a half.

Without a warning, the industry has in the last few weeks become the Greek mythical Atlas efficiently bearing on its shoulders the burden of an economy robbed of its nimble limbs by a stubborn and rapacious contagion. To its credit, the industry has risen to the occasion and discharged itself creditably, thanks to the visionaries and heroes who saw tomorrow and had painstakingly put in the necessary investment to build a solid infrastructure Nigeria can be proud of.

The country has come a long way. It has been gruelling work building the expansive network that Nigeria now enjoys. It has come with its headaches for citizens too. But for anyone who has ever had to complain about the unending digging of the ground by telecom operators to lay fibre optic cables, this is the time to see the value of that exercise and even encourage the industry to do more.

Fibre optic cables have revolutionized the world of network communications ever since their inception nearly four decades ago. They are a more advanced alternative to the traditional methods of networking which use metallic wires.

Indeed, fibre optic cables have been part of Nigeria’s telecommunications infrastructure for decades. Any Nigerian who is about 40 years of age and with any technical background would readily recall the famous South Atlantic 3 (Sat-3) cable which the then National Telecom Carrier, NITEL, owned together with a consortium of over 30 telecommunications companies from across the world. It provided a link between Nigeria and the rest of the world. For many years it was the best thing that happened to Nigeria’s telecom sector and any misfortune that befell it by way of damage to it by ocean liners translated into massive disruption in Nigeria’s business environment, as many major companies relied either directly or indirectly on the connectivity provided by the infrastructure for their smooth operation.

One such incident in late July 2009, caused internet blackouts in multiple west African countries including Benin, Togo, Niger, and Nigeria. The banking sector was destabilised, as other sectors of the economy that relied heavily on internet connectivity for their operations. The economy and security of Nigeria was threatened.

Thankfully, a year later, Nigeria’s Second National Carrier, Globacom, saved the country from this precarious situation by launching a higher capacity submarine cable called Glo-1, a wholly-owned facility that brought unprecedented bandwidth from Europe to Nigeria and other West African countries. The arrival of that facility marked the beginning of the crashing of bandwidth costs in Nigeria and the rest of West Africa, thereby facilitating more access to broadband internet. Besides Glo-1, there are a slew of other fibre optic cables criss-crossing the Atlantic Ocean and delivering international bandwidth to the West Coast of Africa.

Broadband penetration in Nigeria currently stands at about 38 percent, solely driven by major players in the telecom sector, such as Globacom, which has not only brought in the required international bandwidth, but has also invested generously in the infrastructure to deliver the last mile to end-users, while also breaking the cost barrier by introducing affordable tariffs. To be sure, Nigeria has not met its target yet. The private sector is required to facilitate the realization of the objective of taking Nigeria’s broadband penetration to 70 percent by the year 2021 by making additional investment. This explains why there will continue to be digging of the ground and laying of fibre optic cables across Nigeria.

Already, the industry has invested massively in fibre optic deployment in the major cities and across the entire country. Nigeria’s second national carrier, Globacom, for instance, has a fibre optic cable network spanning thousands of kilometres covering almost every part of the country, giving its subscribers crystal clear voice calls and seamless internet connectivity. Together with the microwave network, the fibre network delivers the connectivity that people require to boost their productivity at work or enhance their entertainment at home or on the go.

People who are abreast of developments in the telecommunications sector would recall that Globacom equally recently announced that it was finalizing a massive fibre network expansion to cover more parts of Nigeria and contribute its quota to achieving the broadband penetration target of 70 percent by the year 2021. The operator which was the first to implement a nationwide 4G LTE deployment is expanding the ultra fast data network to cover the fringe cities and settlements across the country. Achieving the 70 percent broadband penetration target will provide internet access to millions of Nigerians especially in the hinterlands and this will in turn boost the economy as the link between broadband penetration and economic prosperity of a country has been conclusively demonstrated in many studies.

The unceasing fibre network expansion by the operators is also aimed at improving the experience of telecom users. In essence, when you see workmen trying to install fibre optic cable, there is nothing to be afraid of. They are working in the interest of every telecom user, nay, every Nigerian, because the service they are rendering directly impacts the lives of a man in the street with a phone in his pocket.

Even for people who do not use a phone, if any such person exists in today’s world, they are still beneficiaries of the telecommunications infrastructure in question in many other ways. For instance, the Automatic Teller Machines (ATMs) that dispense cash to bank customers across Nigeria communicate with their back servers through the massive telecommunications infrastructure including the several thousands of kilometres of fibre optic cables that have been laid or will still be laid across Nigeria by the likes of Globacom. The old man or woman in the village who is able to talk to his children and grand children thousands of kilometres away in the US or Europe and see them via video calls is enjoying the benefits of telecommunications infrastructure.

So many cable television and streaming services that people are enjoying in the comfort of their homes or offices today are all riding on this self-same telecom infrastructure.

The Nigerian telecom industry has done pretty well in the circumstances and deserves deserve commendation. The telecom workmen out in the street labouring to put fibre optic cable in the ground are helping to build critical infrastructure that will help Nigeria to play efficiently in the fast emerging digital economy.

New technology indeed excites some level of fear in many people. In 1877, the New York Times published an article agonizing over what the writer called the ‘atrocious nature’ of the telephone that Alexander Bell had just invented. The misgivings and phobia the article expressed were re-echoed by other writers of the time. Today the story is different.

Nigerians should ignore any message aimed at demonizing telecommunications infrastructure. Instead, all efforts should be geared towards prevailing on the state governments and other authorities to make it easier for the telecom industry to obtain right-of-way and other permits necessary to advance and expand the existing telecom infrastructure.

However, on the strength of what Nigeria has achieved in telecoms so far, one cannot but conclude that the Globacoms of this world deserve our undiluted adulation.

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