Telecom: Greatness is possible
In this season of gloom and glum, death and harvest of deaths, the nation can still boast of some positives. There is still something edifying to report about Nigeria. The telecom sector has provided watchers of the nation’s political economy something to cheer. A couple of days back, the nation’s telecom regulatory chief, Professor Umar Garba Danbatta, met with the media. The professor of electrical cum electronic engineering is the Executive Vice Chairman (EVC) and CEO of the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC).
In the context of our dour international image, telecom has often provided a bright spot for Nigeria at international meetings. The country is ranked among nations with better ease of doing business. Rated as a frontier market, Nigeria telecom has continued to astound experts in the global community. If it is not some young Nigerian innovators winning global awards, it is the NCC and the nation itself being recognized for their exemplary contributions to the global telecom matrix.
Professor Danbatta alluded so much to this transcendental attainments of Nigerians and Nigeria in world telecom. During last year’s ITU Telecom World, a yearly telecom feast organized by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), Nigeria was on the spotlight of global media. Some highly innovative Nigerians did not only participate in the innovators’ contest put together by ITU, they won prizes in various categories with their light-years-ahead apps. Nigeria and the NCC also got special recognition awards for their commitment to the development of telecom and show of regulatory excellence.
In his presentation of what looked like an abridged report card cum state of the nation’s telecom, Danbatta took the media persons present at the event through the evolutionary hallway of the nation’s telecom from year 2001 when the first set of mobile operators rolled out services. Prior to year 2000, aggregate investments in the nation’s telecom sector was barely $50 million, today it stands at a staggering $70 billion with limitless opportunities for exponential growth in broadband deployment.
To properly situate Nigeria’s progressive march, let’s look at number of phone lines post-2000 and before then. Before the mobile operators rolled out in 2001 following a successful digital mobile licence auction, Nigeria was a telephony laggard with barely 500,000 lines (mostly analogue), but active subscriber base today has climbed over 147 million (January 2018 figure). This has pushed teledensity (number of phone lines per 100 persons) from less than 1 percent to 105.21 percent. By the same January 2018 figure, over 100 million internet connections are active in Nigeria.
Telecom is an expensive business and it requires a lot of foreign exchange availability to grow networks, improve network technical integrity and deploy services. For operators in Nigeria, their case has been compounded by the battering of the naira at the forex market. This has put critical fiscal strain on the operators. Danbatta says the NCC has been working with the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) to create a forex window for telcos as this will underpin quality of service delivery by the operators.
One key area that the phenomenal growth in the nation’s telecom has impacted on Nigerians is the development of human capital and transfer of technology. If there is ever a country that has gained the most from telecom boom, it is Nigeria. Young Nigerians have within the last a little over a decade and a half acquired new technical skills. If in doubt, take a trip to Computer Village in Ikeja, Lagos or to any of such ICT outlets including the ubiquitous GSM villages across the nation. Many young Nigerians have taken advantage of the boom to better their ICT skills. They don’t care about the so-called white-collar job. They don’t need it. They have become themselves creators of jobs and wealth. From phones and computer repairs to selling of phones and other digital geeks and their accessories and development of apps, a new generation of ICT-savvy Nigerians has emerged. Some of them are graduates, some undergraduates while yet a whole army of them are persons who would have been roaming the streets. Telecom boom took them off the streets and the economy is the better for it.
Danbatta says NCC will continue to shop for and promote young digital nerds. The commission hopes to sponsor another batch of young innovators to this year’s ITU Telecom World holding in Durban, South Africa.
Nigeria may be going through some rough patch. The nation may have been denied several redemptive opportunities by reason of misrule and maladministration. Oil price may have slid to low depth triggering a scotching bout of economic recession and spiraling a new wave of hardship but in all of this, telecom has held up a banner of hope. For a sector that has grown from being a public sector liability and a typical poster-child of why government should hands off the business of business to one that now contributes an average of not less than N1.4 trillion every quarter to the national coffer, there is reason to believe that building a better and greater Nigeria is possible.
Professor Danbatta and his team at NCC have shown that in spite of all the challenges plaguing businesses in the country, it is still possible to navigate an entire sector to stay bullish in a season of recession. Some have attributed the resilience of telecom at a time the economy was bearish to Danbatta’s ‘regulatory flexibility’ and the confidence he has infused into the sector such that whereas investors in other sectors relocated from Nigeria in our moment of economic distress, telecom witnessed more capital inflow.
With more investments expected in the coming months and years especially in the still virgin broadband market, there is strong reason to hope and to believe. The lesson in the nation’s telecom success story is that the commission driving the sector, the NCC, is run by Nigerians; not Americans or Asians. The professionalism, knowhow and marketplace knowledge which they have so far exhibited should inspire hope and confidence in Nigerians that every goal is achievable. If we run other sectors with the same commitment, professionalism and elan with which we have run the telecom sector, then the attainment of national greatness is a near possibility
Danbatta gave out a clue on why the regulator is succeeding: “We understand global best practices and standards in telecom regulation. We apply openness and transparency in all our dealings. We have very professional staff, whose performances have sustained the level of recognitions enjoyed by the commission from within and across the globe”.
The key elements are: adherence to global best practices and standards (not Nigerian best practices and standards), openness, transparency and professionalism. This is what should be the creed in all other sectors. Until we begin to treat public sector endeavour with the same commitment we treat our private enterprises and pursuits, we can never get round our legendary national lethargy.
Telecom sector has shown the path to 21st century greatness just because round pegs were deliberately placed in round holes, other sectors must follow this path. And it starts with a collective resolve by governments at all levels to recognize merit above mediocrity.