Telecommunications sector regulator, the Nigerian Communications Commission, has an ambition to achieve 120,000kilometres of fibre by the end of 2025, in its stride to ensure copious availability of broadband services in the country, but unless state governors agree to reduce the cost of right of way for the laying of fibre, this ambition might just be a tall order, holds OLUSOLA TENIOLA. He spoke with Arise Television’s Global Business Report.
GLOBAL BUSINESS REPORT: Is 5G evil; does it help the spread of COVID-19?
OLUSOLA TENIOLA: Thank you for giving us this opportunity to clarify certain issues surrounding 5G and rare protocol trends that are making the rounds and have gone viral. The straight answer to your question is that 5G is not evil. 5G is another generation of other generations of technologies that that is renown worldwide and has been deployed globally, where we have more than billions of devices that exceed the population on this earth. We currently have more than 6.8billion devices that depend on this technology and 5G is just the next iteration. So, yes, 5G is not evil. What I can tell you is that 5G does a lot of good and also 4G in the case of Nigeria, because, that is the country where the trend has been quite tremendous in terms of spreading fear. We only have 37 per cent 4G deployment. The National Broadband Plan, that was launched by the President last year, in Abuja, stated from 2020-2025, that we want to increase the deployment of 4G technology to every local government area in Nigeria, which will represent 90 per cent coverage by the end of 2025 and, therefore, translate to broadband penetration, that is, people penetration, by 70 per cent by 2025. So, until we get there, 5G is not an issue, because, 5G is not present in Nigeria as we speak.
GBR: The Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Dr. Ali Isa Ibrahim Pantami put out a press statement that he has heard some reports about the health hazards associated with 5G and that he wanted to state for the records that no licenses had been issued to any telecommunications companies. Were you satisfied with his response, because, he was at the 5G demo that took place in Abuja, in November of 2019, hosted by MTN Nigeria, where he stated in his press release that there was a study that had being conducted by his ministry and other outside parties, that was ongoing and upon conclusion, he would release a statement about that. Seeing that he has a PhD and the science being out with regard to 5G, was his response satisfactory, because, some are saying he should have just come out and stamp his authority stating: this is not factual but fake news. What is your take on this?
OT: Before I come on to that particular question, I would like to put a few things into context. 5G as a technology has been rolled out in 378 cities around the world. The first deployment ,I believe, was in the second half of 2019, just before certain events and , before then, there had been studies around 1G, 2G, 3G, 4G and now 5G and other complementary technologies namely WiFi, WiMax. These are technologies that demonstrate high speeds on radio frequencies. So, the World Health Organisation (WHO), and other research bodies have not found any correlation between health issues in human beings and these technologies that are being deployed. So, 5G, itself, is not hazardous to health. The Minister’s statement was correct and, the Minister, in his position as the representative of the government, has to be cautious. There have been fears sowed into the citizens of Nigeria and rightly so, because, the source of generation is very powerful; it is based on the Internet, it is based on access technology we take for granted, which is the mobile phone. Over the history of the mobile device, there have been attempts by certain bodies in the world to try and link radiation with the evolving technology. There has not been any empirical evidence or proof to substantiate those claims. These are opportunistic people who are out there to stretch scare mongering . The Minister’s statement is apt and correct at this point in time. Clearly, there isn’t any 5G commercially available in Nigeria, so that’s the point they are making right now. He further stated that there would be studies , as the launch of 5G, which will come to Nigeria within the timeframe that they deemed fit, for the citizens to adopt these technologies, after careful studies with the industry, academics, and other civic societies have put in their expert opinions into this matter.
GBR: Moving away from 5G but still sticking with telecommunications, I would like to ask you about right of way(RoW) charges. The Minister way back in January 2020 complained that certain states were hiking RoW fees on telcos, who are of course part of your association. He argued for a downward review but the argument of some of the states is that there is a revenue crunch in the country so they needed to raise their IGRs one way or the other. Can you speak to how RoW charges are affecting what telcos are trying to do with regards to spreading broadband and other services across the country?
OT: We have to realize that the Honourable Minister has also tried to address the issue of Critical National Infrastructure, so, there are two big elephants in our ability to roll out much needed infrastructure for the deployment of technology that is required to connect those that are in the rural areas of this country. Right of Way is one form of obstacle or hurdle to achieving that. As you know, we have various thousands of kilometers of fibre across the country ; we are yet to attain the goals that NCC would like to achieve which is 120,000kilometres of fibre by the end of 2025 and in order to do that, we have to ensure that the cost of rolling out is normalised . And, what do I mean by that? It is essentially that investments are made and that taxes do not become inpunitive to those investments. Hiking of RoW is against much needed infrastructure, like laying of optic fibres, is an impediment to the penetration of broadband which, as I stated previously, we are trying to attain a 70 per cent broadband penetration by 2025, but what is currently just under 38 per cent. So, if we are not able to harmonise and normalize the fees paid which, if we go back to previous ministers, who have ran the institution, then, we would understand that since 2012, we have tried to attempt to address this issue of having a normal fee of N155 per linear meter. This is what is deemed to be reasonable and if we are able to convince the state governors that this much needed infrastructure is important to the development of the country and the future of the youth, then, it will be N145 per linear meter and nothing more . What we need to do is to still continue to dialogue with the state governors and the Minister has kick-started that. In the 2020-2025, National Broadband Plan, we have identified that as one of the priority initiatives that we have to undertake to ensure that the reality of achieving broadband deployment to 774 LGAs in the country is achieved by 2025.
GBR: I would like to ask you about COVID-19 lockdown. Some persons have said that telcos should reduce data costs on phones to Nigerians since most of them are stuck at home. What’s your take on that?
OT: My take on that my members are contributing and are being appreciated; there have been palliatives done by various members (I won’t mention their names), but you can see it in the media that there have been overtures in terms of SMSes distribution to civic centres and medical centres, especially, the NCDC in the fight against COVID-19. We have continued to be looking to raise funds to assist them in this fight and the pandemic. We have also continued to balance it against infrastructure needs; we are very convinced that congestion on our networks is a reality. We have to balance the fact that if we do drop prices or we offer freebies on data, it might adversely affect the networks and since we understand this, we need to increase capacity and our members are doing everything to ensure that networks are operating during this period of lockdown.
* Olusola Teniola, ATCON President spoke to Arise TV’s Global Business Report on Monday, April, 6, 2020.