Telecommunications in Nigeria has taken a quantum leap in the past 11 years with active subscribers growing beyond 90 million people. Chief Executive Officer of Teledom Group and a former President of the Association of Telecommunications Companies of Nigeria (ATCON), Dr. Emmanuel Ekuwem, however warns that poor power supply threatens further telecoms growth, Emma Okonji reports
Comparing the growth rate in telecommunications with the recent electric power supply in the country, Chief Executive Officer of Teledom Group and a former President of the Association of Telecommunications Companies of Nigeria (ATCON), Dr. Emmanuel Ekuwem, is afraid that such growth rate will soon begin to decline if the issue of poor electric power supply was not addressed by government.
According to him, Nigeria witnessed in the telecoms revolution, the quantum numerical leap from a paltry four hundred thousand telephone lines, both landline and mobile, to a little bit more than ninety million active subscriber lines.
The leap, he said, was really massive, phenomenal and marked a paradigm shift from the era of the monopoly of NITEL as a national carrier. "We must not forget how we moved within a decade, from endless queues to apply for and get service from NITEL to prompt provisioning of service on demand, from paying as much as N150,000, official plus non-official, to get the mobile service of the famous M-Tel to prompt SIM card activation for service within minutes of payment for the service; from long queues in the business premises of NITEL to make both trunk and international calls. We must not forget so quickly how we used to almost somersault to enter designated cubicle, in business offices of NITEL telephone exchanges to pick connected trunk and international calls," Ekuwem said.
He explained that all is now history, with the impressive growth in telecoms, but warned that government must act fast to overcome the challenge of epileptic power supply that is currently threatening the growth of telecoms in the country.
Achievements in ICT
According to Ekuwem, Nigeria made tremendous growth in the area of Information Communications Technology (ICT) and has translated from main frame computers with punched cards and dummy terminals to personal computers.
"We have desktops, laptops, palmtops, tablets, all-in-one PCs, smart phones and all kinds of exotic and exciting Internet and Internet Protocol (IP) network access devices. We have largely migrated from the era of stand-alone PCs to networked computers in local area network environments with access to full Internet.
"I remember the beginning of Internet access in Nigeria. It was by dial-up on Unix-to-Unix copy (UUCP) platforms. One could not go for speeds higher than 2.4kpbs. Trying to be ambitious by attempting to go for speeds of 4.8kbps and 9.6kbps resulted in difficulties in having a sustained dial-up handshake," he said.
He suggested that the Nigeria Communications Commission (NCC) and the National Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA) should jointly set up an ICT museum to enable Nigerians see how the digital world has moved from huge tapes/reels as storage devices through 5 inch floppies, 3.5 inch floppies, CD-ROMs, DVDs, USB flash drives, SD cards to pin-tip size storage devices.
The world has become a global village. Internet service is being provided by legacy Internet Service Providers (ISPs), telecom operators, universities, banks, multinationals, small, medium and large companies, among others. Access to full Internet backbone is largely by Very Small Aperture Technology (VSAT) and broadband submarine optic fibre cables. Thanks to Main One, Glo One, SAT-3, MTN's West African Submarine Cable (WASC), for bringing to the shores of Nigeria broadband Internet. We must give credit to SAT-3 for its pioneering role in this regard, in spite of its high cost and epileptic availability, Ekuwem said, adding that it is not yet uhuru for Nigeria as the country still has a long way to go. The exciting summary that I have painted to you does not make me oblivious of the long walk and the hard work ahead. What I am saying is that Nigeria, in comparison with herself ten years ago has done phenomenally well in the ICT sector. However, Nigeria in comparison with her peers in other parts of the world still has a long way to go. By Nigeria's peers I mean the much talked about Asian tigers. We need to redouble our efforts in ensuring availability of electric power supply, broadband infrastructure penetration of every home and office, human capacity building via formal and non-formal channels, Research and Development in ICT, availability of a critical mass of skilled manpower, encouragement of Nigerian content development, patronage of made-in-Nigeria ICT wares, application of ICT in education, health, agriculture, among others. We need to use ICT to automate processes within the Nigerian economy in order to boost productivity and increase our GDP.
Threats to Telecoms, IT Growth
Ekuwem is of the view that the greatest threat to the growth of telecoms and information technology sectors is the insufficient and epileptic public power supply in the country.
Listing the challenges of ICT, Ekuwem said that without electricity there would be no ICT. "As I often say, electric power supply is to the national economy what food is to the human body. ICT is to the national economy what the central nervous system is to the human body. So our national economy in general and ICT in particular are strong and vibrant to the extent of copious availability of electric power."
That is the number one threat. The second is policy inconsistency or flip-flops or outright somersaults by governments. No nation can develop on a saw-tooth waveform. That is every administration formulates its own ICT policy that may drastically modify or reverse outright the direction or thrust of the preceding administration.
It can also happen that different Ministers of Communications Technology who have served the same administration at different times may have seen ICT matters completely differently. So, we keep starting from scratch all the time. These tendencies very seriously threaten the steady growth of the sector. The third is the availability of critical expertise to drive growth and developments within the industry.
This must include formal training in primary and secondary schools as well as in universities and polytechnics and colleges of education. The syllabuses and curricula must be up to date. The teachers must be smart, the classrooms must be smart, the laboratories must be smart, the workshops must be smart, the libraries must be smart, the halls of residence must be smart; the staff quarters must be smart, the administration must smart and, in fact the entire teaching environment must be smart.
There must be a conscious national awareness that we are teaching, training, developing and equipping our children to compete in the global workspace with the Americans, Europeans and Asians of this world. There is no local standard in ICT and there can be no hiding place for the mediocre in the world of today. Our graduates must be world class.
We must popularise ICT and make it part of our culture and social fabric. There must be Research and Development in ICT by relevant government agencies and institutes as well as private organisations. Insufficient availability of competencies in ICT can threaten the industry.
The fourth threat is non availability of a manufacturing base in ICT; be they factories, assembly plants, software companies, technology integration companies, among others. These are part of the factors for growth, development and sustainability in the industry. They build confidence and provide platforms for job and wealth creation for global competitiveness.
They are veritable platforms for imagination, innovation, creativity and productivity. A strong manufacturing base in ICT will provide spin-offs into manufacturing capacities in other sectors of the national economy. After all, the need for automation of processes in the economy will logically affect all sectors of the economy with ICT providing the leap-frog platform.
The fifth threat is non patronage of locally made ICT goods. By local I do not in any way allude to the connotation of inferiority in the quality of finished products. I mean sheer geographic locality. That is all. There must be a commitment on the part of governments in the country to encourage our entrepreneurs to fabricate, manufacture, assemble and integrate technologies.
They can only do these with passion and enthusiasm if they have ready markets. We must kill this mindset of "whatever is imported is better". No, it is untrue. Fela Anikulapo-Kuti used to call it "colo mentality". We must know that buying made-in-Nigeria goods creates jobs, keeps jobs, strengthens the Naira and increases our foreign reserves.
Let ownership of factories and assembly plants become the new status symbols and not the number of containers of goods that one has imported into the country. Let containers be used for export and not for import.
The sixth threat is low level of awareness or knowledge of the power of ICT in national economic transformation. I commend the presidency for its transformation agenda. However, they must, as a matter of fact, know that ICT is a powerful national socio-economic transformation tool. How can we talk about the Asian tigers without ICT?
The Asian tigers leveraged ICT for rapid national economic transformation. So, this awareness cuts across the need for the application of ICT in automating processes in the national economy to boost productivity and increase our GDP. There must be mass broadband awareness campaign across the entire length and breadth of Nigeria.
You do not miss what you are unaware of. How can ICT be used to boost productivity in education, health, agriculture, law enforcement, national security, government, judiciary, tourism and hospitality, national defence, transportation? Make ICT common place and productivity will be common place.
Addressing the Challenges
Suggesting the way forward, Ekuwem wants government to compel Power Holding Authority of Nigeria (PHCN) to step up electric power supply and encourage more private sector investments in the country, especially in the area of telecoms and IT.
According to him, "government has done a lot to attract private investments in the ICT sector and should be commend. As I said at the beginning, the industry is investor friendly. International mega telcos who were reluctant to invest in Nigeria in 1999/2000 are living today to regret their decision. Those who came have reaped bountiful dividends from their investments. However, few issues like ICT policy, electricity supply, and patronage of made-in-Nigeria ICT goods must be adequately addressed."
"Government has a big role to play in growing of Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) in ICT. We need a government guaranteed SME fund to finance outbursts of creativity and the innovative spirits of Nigerians. We need to establish ICT parks to grow and nurture start-up and spin-off ICT companies to maturity for translation to industrial parks and autonomous locations.
"The international brands like Cisco, HP, Dell, Sony, Samsung LG, IBM, Oracle, Microsoft, Huawei, and ZTE must be persuaded to establish factories, assembly and product development centres in Nigeria. The Nigerian market is huge and it is the largest in Africa. They cannot, for whatever reasons, be benefiting from our rich market from other lands", he said.
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