In this interview with CHIMA AKWAJA, the President, Association of Telecommunications Companies of Nigeria (ATCON), Engr. Olusola Teniola, speaks on the role of technology in the pandemic, broadband plan implementation
The Nigeria telecom sector has surpassed expectations, remaining resilient and helping the economy withstand and navigate the Covid-19 pandemic. What was behind this?
We are now 19 years after the liberalisation of our industry by the then administration of Chief Olusegun Obasanjo. If you look at the growth of the first 10 years of our industry, the impact it made on an average Nigerian has been immense in the sense that we’ve taken a lot of those that have never had access to basic communication. We were able to transform that significantly in the first 10 years.
The issue is that we have now observed that the current way we are servicing Nigerians on a network has not been able to capture more Nigerians on our network. It has meant that people now have a wider choice, if they are not happy with one provider, they go and pick up another SIM card from another provider. If they don’t like this dongle or MiFi that is giving them data services, they go and pick up another from another operator.
So you’re actually seeing a heavy concentration of SIM card ownership and also service provisioning in amongst a category of Nigerians which are located in the urban cities. And that’s the problem because it’s now demonstrating teledensity above a 100 per cent, meaning that it’s been saturated or is mature. If it is saturated, it is reflected in the network’s congestion.
And that demonstrates to you that we need to now focus on further investments, the sort of investments that were attracted in the first 10 years needs to be repeated in this current period and further going forward. It has been identified in National Broadband Plan of 2020-2025 that there are 114 market gaps as identified by the Universal Service Provision Fund (USPF) and those gaps needs to be closed and the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) is working on it.
The National Broadband Plan is a fantastic document. How can we make it realisable in light of what your members need?
The NBP 2020- 2025 document took some lessons out of the NBP 2013- 2018 document. They spoke about one important thing- funding. And it gave a range of $3 billion to $5 billion. We on the broadband implementation steering committee, feel it will be around $4 billion over a period of time or five years. So, the difference now is that we’ve been able to prioritise and focus on those issues that are really urgent to resolve.
The Honourable Minister of Communications and Digital Economy has identified that Right of Ways (RoW), Critical National Infrastructure (CNI) and other areas that will ensure that investors are comfortable to bring in the money are addressed, and as indicated in the Broadband Plan, we have already put them there.
We are very encouraged that the minister has taken the lead on CNI and the Right of Way. He’s now looking at multiple taxations. It is a balancing act. If the broadband plan doesn’t have the necessary funding or can’t attract the necessary funding it will not be implemented. So, we need stakeholder engagements and that’s one of the things that we’ve been focusing on.
Necessary stakeholder engagement will attract private sector buy-in because government has no money to actually push this. Whatever model you bring in, government can only give a conducive environment- ease of doing business and incentives that will encourage investments to come in. And once those investments come in, then there is prioritisations of what we want to do. One of the prioritisation is that we need to actually ensure that 4G networks are rolled out by the players to cover 90 per cent of the population by 2025.
We’ve also identified schools, educational centres, health centres, towers, the local government headquarters and other areas that we needs to address to achieve meaningful access to the internet by a larger population of the society to avoid what I refer to as the ‘have and have not’.
The federal government came out with the Nigerian Financial Act 2020, quite a lot of incentives and concessions were given. How will this affect the telecom companies that have been complaining of multiple taxations?
We appreciate the effort of the federal government, I think the Honourable Minister of Communications and Digital Economy is actually going to address with the Minister of Finance this issue around multiple taxes because we have a Tax Act that came out in 2015, which allegedly gave states and local governments the right to even further tax.
We as an industry still want and are calling for harmonisation of taxes, because that’s the single one that will actually alleviate our problem. If a member has paid a certain federal government agency and it’s in the coffers of the federal government, then the states and the local government should actually be taking from there. It is almost not even about multiple taxation, it is almost deemed extortion.
Because it’s not that our members have not paid tax, they’ve paid tax. What you’re saying is that because you’ve not seen it, that you now have a right. That’s the problem, we need to clear that extortionist, and it has to stop. For the states and local governments, I understand the pressures they are under- the oil revenue receipts are low, allocation is low, we’ve gone through one of the worst pandemics of recent living history. So, naturally, revenue will be constrained. The ability to offer services and operate is under pressure.
But they can’t use it as an excuse to just blazingly grab revenue from medium businesses and small-sized businesses who can barely survive, who need the incentives of government, because what you do is you end up killing them. A lot of our members are not just the huge conglomerates or the big multinationals companies, they are actually the small operators that are interconnecting the networks. They are doing many things that are not visible to the end-user but are critical to the actual running of the very complex and very dynamic ecosystem called telecoms.
The Central Bank of Nigeria recently released the final guidelines on Payment System Banks (PSB). What opportunities does it present to telecom companies?
When we have members that actually are in the mobile money space, they’ve been doing mobile money transactions eight years ago, and they employed people, they employed agents, create jobs. One thing it will do, and I agree with CBN in this case, it is a tool to ensure that we improve financial inclusion. We want to get to a target of 80 per cent financial inclusion. You need a policy framework to achieve that and it’s going to be telco-led.a
Nigerians are passing through the pandemic and the world is talking of the new normal post-pandemic. A lot of companies are now doing remote work, no longer using their offices and so on. How do you see the new normal?
I think that every country is going through a financial constraint and is challenged to balance the social economic developments of the country with the fact that now change has to happen. And that change is the digital transformational change. So, I see our industry be very critical to that. In fact, a lot of our businesses have always been digital. The business models now needs to be digital. Convergence has always happened. We now need to embrace that convergence in a meaningful manner.
The new normal needs to be full digital transformation. In Nigeria, we are on that journey, and we are at the beginnings of that journey. The Honourable Minister again has done his best to identify with us. We have a digital strategy. But the issue now is that that’s just the strategy, we now need to execute the strategy and imbibe it within the next five years to 10 years because the world of analogue or the way we used to do things over the last six decades now is going or almost gone. So, we need to change now into the new norm which is the digital realm.