Of digital apartheid and the promise of 5G By Louis Odion, FNGE - Paul Ukpabio's Blog


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Friday, 7 December 2018

Of digital apartheid and the promise of 5G By Louis Odion, FNGE

The announcement last week of plans to migrate Nigeria’s telecoms to 5-G technology in 2020 is bound to animate conversations in the nation’s ICT community in the times ahead in a manner that perhaps enables us better appreciate how a mere foothold in the knowledge economy, more than the possession of gold and diamond, is a better store of value and a surer key to prosperity in the new world. 

Three spectrum bands are tentatively earmarked for a test-run in Lagos and other cities in this connection, according to Nigerian Communications Company. 
Indeed, the phenomenal leap in world technology is ushering the magic age where man can now communicate intelligently with matter, generally altering lifestyle with such dizzying speed that no one seems able to predict the next moment anymore. 
Artificial Intelligence now ensures diagnosing with laser precision what was once unfathomable, providing incredible solutions to business and education challenges. 

It provides the means for a physician to stay in the city centre and prescribe medications to the afflicted in far-flung rural communities. From the comfort of an office, a lecturer could teach and interact seamlessly with multiple classrooms across a wide geographical space in real-time. 
In political terms, the promise of the smart technology is more accountability by government and greater citizen empowerment. 

At home, we are told that trial has commenced in the futuristic Eko Atlantic Project where broadband data will drive connectivity and enable humans interact with smart devices to check their health status as well as remotely control home appliances without physical contact. 

In the close to two decades of GSM in Nigeria, we have of course witnessed haphazard - if not difficult - transition from 1G to 2G to 3G and the current 4G technology. If the 4G has proved to be ten times more powerful than 3G, we can then imagine the prospects of 5G in delivering crisper visuals/videos and faster data processing. It will no doubt pose a big threat to the traditional desktop computer and laptops in terms of utility in a world increasingly obsessed with portability. 

Though no roadmap has been unveiled yet for Nigeria’s own roll-out, for stakeholders, there is surely enough reasons already to contemplate the 2020 take-off with some skepticism. Whereas the establishment people are wont to highlight the bright side perhaps in anticipation of a chance to retain their jobs and continue “business as usual”, most - if not all - will however duck invitation to debate the old question: how do we detoxify the prevailing operating environment with a view to making the technology more impactful to a greater number of Nigerians?
Yet, without addressing the foundational issues, the nation will, at best, only continue to underachieve.
To start with, out of the estimated 20 million active smart phones in Nigeria today, a three-quarter is said to be located mainly in Lagos, Port Harcourt and Abuja. It is safe then to assume that such elite category constitutes the dominant bloc of the estimated of 80 million Nigerians who have access to the internet.

So, the rest of the country’s 200 million population is still stuck in the digital valley, sketching a picture of digital apartheid of sorts. 
While chatting with an ICT expert on the sidelines of an international business summit sometime ago, this writer heard that it should, in fact, be considered a miracle of biblical proportions that GSM companies are still able to operate in Nigeria, given the prevailing almost impossible conditions. More like turning stone to bread. 

Just one of such afflictions: epileptic power supply. It means that apart from agonizing over the ever dynamic challenge of meeting software needs in their core area of business, telecos also have to acquire on the side a competence in procuring and maintaining thousands of generators to power their base stations daily across the country. 

So, the fortune the generators guzzle per hour partly explains why cost of GSM services is still ridiculously high in Nigeria despite the huge market relative to other countries. 

No one illustrates this abiding spirit of resilience perhaps better than Globacom. Fifteen years ago, Glo’s conscientious intervention through per second billing ended the primitive exploitation of Nigerian consumers by the GSM pioneer which had declared, almost magisterially, that calls would continue to be charged per minute indefinitely, even if dropped within few seconds.

By making constant innovation its article of faith over the years, the acclaimed “grandmaster of data” has managed to not only keep the nation talking, but also kept the national flag aloft on the continental stage, so much that it is now adjudged the fourth strongest brand in Africa. 

Glo’s long-running bonanza ensures that the customer gets sometimes triple the value of the air-time bought. (Perhaps the reason some folks spend longer time on phone these days and why the hitherto pervasive culture of “flashing” is fast on the decline.)

Little surprise then that, despite the manifest handicaps encountered by operators, the mobile phone market, according to official records, still made a significant contribution of $21b to the nation’s economy in 2017, representing 5.5 percent of Nigeria’s GDP, apart from the creation of 500,000 direct and indirect jobs. 

Were the operating climate more conducive, the prospects of better performance by players can only be imagined. 
Determined to retain its leadership of the market, Glo has had to literally break the bank in embarking on massive upgrade of its infrastructure (from generators to hardware) across the country.
Among the milestones, two would appear the most significant. 

One is the construction and addition of 4,000 km of optic fibre cable to its existing 10,000km network with a view to raising capacity and protection for a round-the-clock connectivity. A continuation, no doubt, of the pioneering streak started with the laying of an international submarine cable named Glo 1, connecting Nigeria to the UK and US, passing through fourteen African nations, providing immeasurable ICT solutions to critical sectors of the economy. 

The second is the completion in Abuja of fiber route relocation to solve the old nightmare of incessant fibre cuts impairing network quality in the nation’s capital. 

Of course, Glo had pioneered nationwide coverage of 4G-LTE in Nigeria and is adjudged the best around, thus enlisting the country among nations with Long Term Evolution (LTE). LTE is the reason why we enjoy quicker data transfer, instant broadband internet access that ensures the download of ultra high definition videos within few seconds.

As we can see, MTN (Glo’s main competitor) is, for now, unable to boast of equal massive facility upgrade to meet new challenges. The reason is not far-fetched. The South African-owned company is apparently too preoccupied today sorting existential issues with the authorities in Nigeria, having had to cough out staggering fine running into tens of billions of Naira in 2016 for breaching security protocols by failing to block unregistered sims after official deadline. 

As if that was not enough, its beleaguered board presently has to divide its resources between paying lawyers challenging yet another heavy fine running into billions of dollars over alleged money-laundering, and creating schemes to making shareholders back in Pretoria happy.  

But despite the heavy investment in infrastructure by telecos like Glo, the country still hardly features among the top ten in Africa in terms of quick internet access. Mauritius leads the table (and is rated 45th globally), followed by Seychelles, while neighbouring Ghana is ranked 7th. Speed is not only what sets Mauritius apart; it is also ranked the most affordable with the second lowest broadband costs in the world. 

Overall, only 44 percent of mobile subscribers in Nigeria are using 3G technology. While only four percent are using the 4G technology compared to over 18 percent 4G penetration on South Africa and 16 percent in Angola.

But without continued investment in hardware, there is no way the country can even hope to take full advantage of the promise of GSM telephony to begin with. According to experts, it is only when that is sustained that the nation can hope to achieve 55 percent mobile penetration of the population by 2025, with 70 percent potentially having 3G connectivity and 17 percent accessing 4G network. 
But just how prepared are we for the future?

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