CYBER ERA OPINION

Cheery Signals From Their Excellencies Over Telecommunications RoW Charges

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“Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.”  John Fitzgerald Kennedy, often referred to by his initials JFK and Jack, the American politician who served as the 35th president of the United States (POTUS), from January 1961 until his assassination in November 1963, made these remarks on the first anniversary of the Alliance for Progress,  March 13,  1962.  It is in the spirit and letter of the statement by the great JFK that many telecommunications analysts and watchers view the revolutionary decision taken by the National Economic Council (NEC) on Thursday, July 20, 2017, by its approval of a broad policy to harmonize right of way (RoW) charges payable by the telecommunications companies and related public utility infrastructure providers to Local Governments, States and Federal Highways.

Minister of Communications and Digital Economy
Dr. Ibrahim Ali Isa Pantami
Chairperson of the Presidential Committee on National Broadband Plan(2020-2025)
MS Funke Opeke
ATCON President
Olusola Teniola
ALTON Chairman
Gbenga Adebayo

The then Minister of Communication, Adebayo Shittu, briefed State House correspondents at the end of the NEC meeting chaired by Acting President(Vice President)Yemi Osinbajo at the Presidential Villa, Abuja, north central , Nigeria, while being flanked by Abia State Governor Okezie  Ikpeazu, former Ministers of Trade and Investment, Okechukwu Enelamah, and State Budget and National Planning, (and now Minister of Finance and National Planning) Zainab Ahmed.  Shittu said that the new policy would encourage co-location of the companies’ fibre optic cables.  Just like the telecommunication masts which were harmonised after long years of defacing the environment, he said, that the government wanted to do the same for the laying of fibre optic cables which were becoming a burden on the Nigerian roads. According to Shittu, the trend was causing high cost tariffs due to multiple taxes charged telecommunications companies by the Federal, States and local government authorities.

The Director-General of National Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA)
Kashifu Inuwa
Lagos State Governor
Babajide Sanwo-Olu
Ekiti State Governor
Dr. Kayode Fayemi

The new policy, he added, would minimise the spaces occupied, burden on the roads and reduce taxes payable by the telecommunication firms, saying “the memo spelt out roles/responsibilities of LGCs, States and telecommunication operators in the management of ROW issues.

“Most States are still charging different and higher rates, despite NEC’s resolution that mandate States to adopt and implement Federal Ministry of Works guidelines for grant of Right of Way to ICT service on Highways.

“Current practice in Nigeria where various telecommunication operators design, survey, dig, deploy and manage their individual fibers networks amounts to duplication of efforts, multiple earthworks and trenches as well as increased administrative and licensing costs.

Imo State Governor
Sen. Hope Odidika Uzodinma
Katsina State Governor
Aminu Bello Masari
Plateau State Governor
Simon Bako Lalong

“The Memo invited all stakeholders to consider, adopt and approve the use of shared duct strategy, managed by a designated Agency in all tiers of government for the deployment of public utility infrastructure for effective and efficient service delivery and accelerated socio- economic development of the country, particularly the transformation of our various cities, towns and villages to a smart status.

“Council asked the Ministry of Communications to liaise with the States and relevant stakeholders for the smooth implementation of the Right of Way project.” Shittu said.

It was in the news that agencies and ministries of many states in the country had increased RoW charges from the initial fee of between N300 to N500 per linear metre to between N3,000 and N6,000 per linear metre, or what industry associations have rued at 1200 per cent. But the NGF in a landmark decision pegged the RoW at N145 per linear meter and committed to its implementation.

Kaduna State Governor
Nasir El Rufai
President, NATCOMS.
Chief Deolu Ogunbanjo,
EVC/CEO, NCC
Prof Umar Garba Danbatta

On January 3, 2020, Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Dr. Ibrahim Isa Ali Pantami wrote a letter to the Governors of the States requesting them to be in full compliance with the earlier NEC resolution on RoW charges. Nineteen(19) days after, at a meeting with Pantami, the Governors, through the Nigerian Governors’Forum(NGF) Chairman Dr. Kayode Fayemi, agreed to implement the NEC recommendation. Others in attendance were the Executive Vice Chairman and Chief Executive Officer(EVC/CEO), Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), Prof. Umar Danbatta; the Director-General of National Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA), Kashifu Inuwa, and the Chairperson of the Presidential Committee on National Broadband Plan (2020-2025), Ms. Funke Opeke.

According to a statement by the Ministry of Communications and Digital Economy, and signed by the Technical Assistant on Information Technology to the minister, Dr. Femi Adeluyi, the minister noted that one of the key benefits is the rapid growth in the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of any country that increases its broadband penetration.  “In response, the governors acknowledged the benefits of broadband penetration and the Chairman of the Governors’ Forum(NGF) , and Ekiti State Governor, Dr. Kayode Fayemi, stated that the minister should consider the matter resolved. There will no longer be any need to appeal to the governors on the issue of RoW.”

On July 20, 2020, it will be exactly three years that NEC took that potentially transforming decision, considering the high-wire furore the subsisting scary RoW generated in the country’s political economy landscape. Now, conspiracy theorists that hitherto romanticized statements like ‘Nigeria is a lesson in the impossible’, ‘Nigerians are good at talkshops and not at workshops’, among others, have every reason to swallow their words in shame.  For cheery signals are emerging from the states that it cannot be business as usual, as far as RoW narratives are concerned. From Lagos State came assurances early in the year from His Excellency Babajide Sanwo-Olu to substantially discount RoW charges, that till date, are promissory notes.  In concrete terms, however, Dr. Fayemi, Governors Hope Odidika Uzodinma of Imo State, Aminu Bello Masari, Katsina State and Simon Bako Lalong, Plateau State, have made strides with respect to RoW charges, by agreeing to implement the N145 per linear metre.  However, the controversial Governor of Kaduna State, Nasir El Rufai added an uncommon dimension to the issue when he announced he was going to eliminate RoW charges as a way to encourage telecommunications companies to invest in his state and wrought the benefits of the digital economy on the Kaduna people.  By this action, El Rufai has not only signaled his intention to implement the agreement reached among the governors, but also raised the bar for his colleagues.

We are aware that partial RoW charges reductions have been and are being extended to telcos in some states but urge for a total realignment with the NGF position and implementation of the  harmonized and approved RoW charges. We are particularly gratified  by the implementation model pushed by the Ondo State Government and advise on its scaling nationwide as it perfectly gels with prescriptions at the national level. The Senior Special Adviser to the Ondo State Governor on Information and Telecommunication Technology, Olumbe Akinkugbe, who is in charge of State Information Technology Agency (SITA), said the agency had designed a policy to reduce the cost of operations for the telecommunication companies.

“What we are planning to do is to encourage what we call ‘One Dig Policy’. ‘One Dig Policy’ is a situation whereby we partner with reliable organisations to actually develop a fibre rollout plan on these right of way at a discounted rate such that when various telecoms operators are coming in there is already a laid down path.

“What that will do is that it will prevent a situation where MTN wants to expand their fibre infrastructure, they come and apply for right of way and dig; that Airtel wants to come, they come again, they open up the ground and start digging,” he stated.

For their individual and collective strides on RoW charges, Pantami has given the governors a pat on the back.  “The actions of the Governors are truly commendable.  They also align with the resolution of the State Governors under the auspices of the Governors’ Forum on the 22nd of January 2020 to address the lingering issue of Right of Way (RoW) charges in a bid to deepen broadband penetration in the country and promote a Digital Economy for a Digital Nigeria,”, the Minister said in a statement signed by his Technical Assistant (Information Technology), Dr Femi Adeluyi.

We join Pantami and other well meaning Nigerians at home and in the diaspora to commend the Governors for their individual and collective visions and political will to put their states and, by extension, the whole country on the global digital map and ensure they remain there.  Industry bigwigs who spoke with us have said that these governors have sent a bold message to the world that they are ready to run open governments and remain accountable to the people that voted them into power.

There are other reasons, we believe, that the state chief executives deserve commendation.  Before now, ICT industry associations chiefly led by the duo of the Association of Telecommunications Companies of Nigeria(ATCON) and the Association of Licensed Telecommunications Companies of Nigeria(ALTON), have argued the reason that the quality of service(QoS) in the national network has remained poor is because of multiple taxations from the national and sub-national governments.  Now, that burden is being removed and would hopefully translate into a better QoS in the national network. ATCON in a statement, by its Executive Secretary, Ajibola Olude, praising Governors Fayemi and Uzodinma for their exemplary gesture, articulated some of the benefits that the states stand to have as follow:

  • Unlocking of the inherent digital potential of these states-: these States are set to enjoy and maximize the opportunity that pervasive broadband penetration can offer as the people of these States can now leverage on uninterrupted telecommunications services which they have not been enjoying before now. The reason for this is that telecom infrastructure would give them the opportunity to express their gifts and talents.
  • Fast-paced of development enabled by robust Telecom and ICT Infrastructure-: the direct multiplier effect of this pragmatic executive order is that these States will experience a noticeable development both in the private and public sector which is expected to push the revenue of these states forward and it will also make companies that do not have presence in these states to consider opening a branch in the state which will lead to employment generation thereby reducing rural-urban migration.

ATCON advised those States that had not implemented the approved and harmonized Right-of-Way price of N145 per linear meter, to take a clue from these States and together telecom and ICT infrastructure would speed up the needed development in Nigeria.

Fundamentally, it would appear state governments are beginning to appreciate the negative press that characterizations like “under-served areas” and “unserved areas” (since these areas are technically part of their constitutional jurisdictions, nevermind, Nigeria is a federation),   bring to them, as a result of their actions and inactions, as well as the negative optics these create for Nigeria at international fora, and by this collective resolve, are jettisoning them for a more ennobling toga of “connected cities” or “smart cities” that, for them, remain a most welcome aspiration .

We advise that it is imperative for state-level actions to align with federal-level guidelines, going forward.  Governors must shun partisan politics and prevarication and embrace the desperate need to, at least, keep RoW charges southwards, or, at best, as El Rufai has shown leadership, waive the RoW charges.  Beyond lowering and or waiving RoW charges, we urge governments at the national and sub-national levels to collapse their influences and truly designate telecommunications and vertical industries’ infrastructure as critical national infrastructure and put the mechanism in place to ensure their integrity at all times.  Specifically, we urge Distinguished Senators and Honourable Members of the National Assembly to rise to this challenge and pass the National Critical Infrastructure Bill into law without any further delay!

While we note disparities in the internally generated revenue(IGR) profiles between and among states, we see the harmonized and approved N145 per linear meter as a fair deal that all the states  should embrace and must implement without delay.  If they cannot emulate the El Rufai example, they should not hesitate in following the likes of Fayemi and Uzodinma.

We admit that provisioning and protecting telecommunications and allied infrastructure are the business of all stakeholders, but equally hold it to be self-evident that consumers have an overriding responsibility to protect these assets, since they would ultimately be the ones to lose most if the integrity of these infrastructure is impaired in any way.

It is our informed view that lowering and or waiving the RoW charges , as signaled by the governors of some states already, would free telecommunications in particular and ICT in general, to make the anticipated robust contribution to the growth of the national GDP and, by extension, fast-track the achievement of the Economic Recovery and Growth Plan(ERGP) of the government.

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