Early October, Bosun Tijani, the Minister of Communications, Innovation and Digital Economy, will be releasing a roadmap for his ministry apropos the communications industry. Obviously, this will be eagerly awaited as too much staleness and odium had dogged that industry which in recent past fell victim to personal idiosyncrasies and kindergarten hubris.
A much refreshing breather will be awaited not only because the Minister is a young man with proven personal achievements and notable international connections, but more because he is coming into the ministry with a pure, unencumbered mind and such an enthusiasm capable of rallying a failing sector into action, once more. But, in here, is the danger, embedded in a most surreal way.
My little role here is to point out to the Minister that all that glitter is not gold. In that cliché is a truism that is as ageless as time and history. It is even more referential in the telecommunications industry where figures, statistics and claims enjoy more hyperbole than precision.
This writer is aware that, as tradition demands, the minister has been receiving briefings from the parastatals under him to apprise him with details of developments in the organizations and in the various sectors they superintend. There will be a little coating of the truth and some more application of a measure of salt here and there to sweeten a tale that may not be too salutary. I expect the minister to handle that well by seeing through razz matazz, sweet talk and pure smokescreen.
One of the biggest achievements of the previous administration is the introduction of Fifth Generation Technology (5G) which was expected to come with a bang but ended in a whimper as it has not delivered any of the expected miracles. We did not expect a miracle and have expressed our opinion on this page.
November 2, 2023, we wrote: ‘’Nigeria is in dire straits. She needs money for daily runs and is bungling on the edge of extreme desperation. Desperation can lead to selling of metal scraps for survival or even selling off national assets, as proposed in the 2023 Budget, what in the case of an individual, is pawning, selling off personal assets to meet exigent needs. It is not an enviable status to endure.
‘’Under this condition, there is a desperation to scratch for everything, including low hanging fruits, which always present an attractive offer. Frequency or Spectrum for telecommunications services occupy prime place in this consideration, It is therefore no surprise that the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), the telecommunications regulator, announced last week, that it was putting out for sale in December 2022, some frequencies for 5G services.’’
Nigeria went for the money and within two years raked in over $800m although that is a far cry from the $19bn which India raked in from creative auction of 5G frequency sale at about the same time. MTN, MAFAB Communications and Airtel are the beneficiaries. Both MTN and Airtel have launched services which is more in name than reality.
Nigeria took an interesting route of managing cost of roll out by encouraging operators to cohabit 5G installations with 4G and end up with speed below 5G projections. An industry source told this writer, ‘’the route we took is non stand alone, working on 5G signaling. If we were to go on a full blown 5G – the millimeter wave, which is the higher frequency, from 37GHz upward, the rollout will be too expensive, and it will be difficult for operators to recoup their investment. Expansion will be slow, uptake slow and return on investment very low.’’
It may also be relevant to point out that the paucity in roll out has pushed the cost of devices beyond individuals and, unfortunately, there are not too many companies buoyant enough to have a good go at the few devices in the market. So, the 5G sector has really not worked as expected. It will be a primary responsibility of the minister to introduce policies that will make the industry work.
The other day the minister was with President Bola Ahmed Tinubu at the G20 Leaders’ Summit in Indian and at the moment, he is also with him at the 78th United Nations General Assembly (UNGA 78) in New York. Concerning his activities in New York, the minister in a statement, titled: Driving Nigeria’s Economic Growth through Global Partnerships in Innovation and Technology, disclosed that he would be seeking partnerships for the country’s Universal Service Provision Fund (USPF), AI Training and Economic Diversification through Technology.
Well said and very refreshing that he has not gone to look at the beauty of New York, where the people hardly sleep, like many others, or to see what is happening at Ground Zero. But I would like to inform the minister that he has a counterpart war chest at home in the form of our variant of the USPF which is funded by the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) and domiciled at the NCC.
Like most of the agencies and parastatals under his ministry which were recreated in the image and likeness of a former minister, it is advised that the minister should clean up the entire process and reconfigure it for performance. USPF is designed to provide services for mostly the underserved and unreached areas of the country but one cannot vouch that has happened recently, no matter the beautiful figures and claims of achievements. There should be a pool of fund there to put on the table to draw the attention of international partners instead of waving a begging bowl.
One other matter which I think is inter-ministerial is an appeal for the minister to assist his counterpart at the Information Ministry to execute the Digital Switchover (DSO) process. The reason being that the minister heads the National Frequency Managhement Council (NFM)) which allocates to the ministries frequencies for use by the various operators. One of the attractions of the DSO sanctioned by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), is for broadcasters to relinquish spectra that will have to be sold at a higher cost for telecoms operations while the broadcasters would go into digital broadcasting. It was initially suggested that the National Broadcasting Commission should get some benefits from the sale of frequencies so relinquished by broadcasters, to fund the DSO process.
The foregoing has not happened. Frequencies are being sold and the NBC is left in the lurch. There is no budget for DSO and Nigeria is falling far behind the international community. The nation has become a laughingstock and needs help desperately. The minister can extend a well-informed and benevolent hand to his colleague.
This writer is aware that no matter the presentation made to the minister, he has one refrain as response, which is to create jobs for the youths. And that is the embedded danger which I harped on at the beginning of this article. The minister is within his good thinking but my humble suggestion is for the minister to clean up the entire Communications Ministry and its parastatals in order to attract further interests, investments in, and expansion of the industry. The advantageous fallout will be availability of jobs similitude to what happened in the industry at the tipping point in early 2000, and low cost rollout of hubs and innovation centres that can challenge and accommodate the enterprising spirit of our youth.
My final appeal is for the minister to give life back to the ministry and its parastatals and agencies. Does the minister know that under the previous administration, the minister turned otherwise very brilliant Chief Executives and Director Generals into mannequins that could hardly reason on their own and, in the process virtually ruined a very robust industry? The minister should introduce a redemption song that can liberate the entire sector and thus be able to accommodate and rehabilitate the frothing creative enterprise of our young minds.