By Olayinka Oduwole
I recently wrote a piece on the global outlook on 5G and there was an interesting comment about meeting the last mile connectivity in Africa. In this new piece, I address some of the barriers towards achieving last mile connectivity in Nigeria and conclude with some recommendations that may help address these barriers.
In recent times, there has been an appreciable number of submarine cables landing in Nigeria delivering a capacity of about 15-19 tbps to the country (this number is subject to verification). However, a noticeable challenge that has been highlighted is that most of these cables land in Lagos. The Government has pointed out the need to establish other landing points outside this major city (e.g. Ondo, Delta, Rivers, Bayelsa) to drive down costs and for security reasons.
Furthermore, it has been noted that multiple operators have island of cables that are not interconnected within similar regions of high traffic; this therefore implies that regions like Lagos have multiple fibre coverage while other regions e.g. rural areas lack fibre coverage. This poor network planning is one of the main factors contributing to the poor last mile connectivity in Nigeria.
Furthermore, from a telco’s perspective, the poor return on investment means that telcos’ are discouraged from deploying telecommunication infrastructures in rural or under-served areas.
In order to address the last mile connectivity, it’s important that the Government create incentives that would encourage telcos to invest in connectivity in rural areas and other less profitable regions. This can be achieved through the efficient use of the Universal Service Provision Fund (USPF), a fund representing mandatory contributions from mobile operators and telecommunication service providers to address the digital inequalities. For instance, USPF can be used to cover the costs of deploying extended fibre coverage to rural areas; this would then encourage telcos to invest in rural connectivity. Data from A4AI shows that the USPF in Nigeria is spent annually on various projects within the country. Perhaps, a transparent system of documenting and providing information on the exact projects and cost of projects funded by USPF annually should be encouraged.
Besides, technological solutions such as the deployment of low cost small antennas with green initiatives can be deployed in rural areas to help address the poor rural connectivity. This would no doubt help drive down costs associated with CAPEX and OPEX. The use of Satelites, as an alternative technology, can also help address this connectivity challenge; however, the huge cost associated with this technology may hinder its deployment in rural areas. Companies looking to deploy rural connectivity solution should also be offered incentives by the Government to encourage their investment in these deprived areas.
The Government should also consider policies that would support both an active and passive sharing of infrastructures among operators whilst supporting net neutrality. Passive infrastructure sharing is already prevalent in Nigeria, with the likes of IHS Towers acquiring towers belonging to MTN, Airtel and 9mobile. Active infrastructural sharing, on the other hand, needs to be encouraged and would require a close knit collaboration among mobile operators. It may squeeze operators’ margin but would no doubt help in pushing broadband prices down.
Poor network planning was mentioned as a barrier contributing to the poor last mile connectivity. The rapid explosion of the telecommunication sector in Nigeria was not anticipated by the Government; this therefore means that little or no plans were in existence to deal with the rapid explosion. Market forces thus became the driving force determining where and when to deploy new networks. This has thus created a digital divide among different regions of the country. In order to address this challenge, it is important for the regulator to work alongside telcos to plan new networks and perhaps encourage the deployment of fibre layout during the construction of new infrastructures like roads, homes, buildings etc.
As earlier stated, market forces are incapable of bridging the digital divide that currently exists in Nigeria. Achieving last mile connectivity in Nigeria no doubt requires a concerted effort among Government, Civil Society Organizations, Policy makers, mobile operators, service providers, academia etc. It also requires a combination of solutions ranging from policies to technologies, transparency to regulations etc. As the United Nations has stated, ‘Access to broadband is a human right’. Hence, it is important that Nigeria looks into achieving last mile connectivity and most importantly ensure that none of its citizens are left behind in the digital race, especially as the world looks to move into an era of ubiquitous connectivity, massive data and internet of things.