Nigerians Need Bread and Broadband-Part 1

“Pathway to Connecting the Last Man” Excerpt of the Lecture delivered by Engr.Titi Omo-Ettu, FNSE (President ATCON) at the 11th Distinguished Electrical and Electronics Engineers Annual Lecture (DEEEAL), …

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titi-omo“Pathway to Connecting the Last Man”

Excerpt of the Lecture delivered by Engr.Titi Omo-Ettu, FNSE (President ATCON) at the 11th Distinguished Electrical and Electronics Engineers Annual Lecture (DEEEAL), Dec.16, 2010 at Sheraton Hotel and Towers, Lagos,Nigeria

Introduction

Why the DEEEAL Lecture?

An idea similar to what is now called the DEEEAL lecture was mooted in 1996 during my chairmanship. Its advocates argued that the Division (as the Institution was then known) ought to institute a platform where a notable Electrical Engineer should be given the rostrum to recommend a worthy objective which the Division could pursue as a matter of national development.  It was adjudged that such a speaker, in his/her lecture, must demonstrably break new ground – worthy of the Institution’s support and backing. The audience and its selection would be primarily, but not entirely, at the discretion of the nominee-lecturer and should include a wide spectrum of top professionals from government, politics, academia and business. The lecture, like any of our other programs, must also have a subtle economic objective that chimes with the ethos and operations of the Division.

I am aware that since the DEEEAL Lecture commenced a few years after I left office, it boasts a list of illustrious speakers. I have been fortunate enough to be present at all the lectures delivered in the past three years and I can say, with contentment and pride, that its raison d’être has been retained.

I was privileged to attend the 2009 lecture where Engr John Ayodele, FNSE promoted the idea of “Distributed Generation for our public electricity supply system”. 12 months on, and given that inadequate power is one of the impediments to the development and growth of ICT in Nigeria, I am yet to read about how far our Institution has pushed this radical idea which strictly speaking, is a fundamental shift from the way we have run the power service thus far.  It therefore begs the question, ‘My Chairman sir, what has happened to Engr. Ayodele’s recommendations?’

The race to serve people

It is on popular and historical record that colonialists did not provide telephone service for the altruistic reasons of serving the needs of people or business but rather the pragmatic reasons of serving the purpose of government.

My interpretation of this is that telephony then was perceived as the preserve of the few rather than the many. A senior official of our post-colonial government was once reported to have said ‘telephones were not for the poor.’ The comments of the official – a serving Minister of telecommunications – in all probability must have been taken out of context. He more likely would have said that the telephone was not a priority of the common man. The reason for misquoting him has its roots in the fact that he was not an elected servant of the people which, protagonists of that time contended, had he been, he would have had to explain and justify what he was reported to have said. I hope he did but not to my knowledge.

But fast-forward to July 28, 2010, a representative sample of Nigerians said in Abuja at the Broadband for Nigeria, BB4NG, Forum that they considered access to broadband Internet as a fundamental human right for all Nigerian citizens.

The precise time that this transformation in the mind of the common man occurred is hard to put a finger on. My guess is that it was a gradual process but a welcome one nonetheless.

The starting line

The period that we can actually refer to as the beginning of a telecommunication service in Nigeria differs and is subjective but falls under 4 broad categories – pre or post independence and pre or post liberalization.

For the purposes of this lecture, we will put this inception some time in 1991 at the Ordinary General Meeting of NIEEE (then the Electrical Division of the Nigerian Society of Engineers, NSE) where one member graphically described the decrepitude of facilities in Egbin Thermal Station. He forecast that the nation was heading for a precipice and urged the Division to step into the breach if only to draw attention to it. Another member suggested that what was happening in the power sector was comparable to what was going on in the telecommunications sector and recommended that the Division’s concern and consequent solution strategies encompass telecommunications. Another member rose to say the aviation sector presented an even worse and more perilous case than either of the aforementioned industry sectors thus raising the specter that the Division’s net needed to be cast further and deeper to encapsulate all infrastructure sectors.

Eventually, the decision was taken that Committees be constituted to examine each of the Power, Telecommunications and Aviation sectors and the matter be elevated to the parent NSE level with an involvement of the NSE President and all its Divisions to provide the necessary impetus for the Committees’ work, as well  as giving  their analysis and recommendations more kudos.

A few months later and on conclusion of the Committees’ works, the telecommunications committee recommended that the Nigerian Society of Engineers should propose and promote liberalization as a means of reforming telecommunication service to be followed by the privatization of the Nigerian Telecommunications Ltd (NITEL).

The report, had its roots in an acclaimed Sir Donald Maitland’s Report of the Independent Commission for Worldwide Telecommunications Development of 1984, (also called The Missing Link),  as well as an industry review conference at Durbar Hotel Festac, Lagos, earlier in 1987 where 37 of the 38 papers submitted for the conference favored liberalization of the telecommunications industry. Only one paper which argued that ‘telecommunications is a natural monopoly’ opposed liberalization.

The electricity power Committee came up with a report which opposed liberalization but favoured internal restructuring of the then National Electricity Power Authority as a panacea to the entrenched ills of that sector.

The aviation Committee’s position remains hazy in memory.

The pace of pursuing a reform for the telecommunications industry gathered momentum and the fact of Engr. Olawale Ige, FNSE as Minister of Communications, in the face of determined opposition to liberalisation from our colleagues in the military, was deemed a catalyst which guaranteed that pace would continue unabated. The military government, deploying the skills of Engr Vincent Maduka, FNSE, in fashioning out a liberalization process, eventually published the decree No. 75 of November 1992, which gave effect to the liberalization of the telecommunication industry and established the Nigerian Communications Commission, NCC to regulate the industry.

A Board of the Commission chaired by Engr. Teju Oyeleye, FNSE, was inaugurated early in 1993.

Later in the year, the Board of the Commission was summarily disbanded – a development which saw a liberalization skeptic and author of the only dissenting paper of 1987, recruited by the new military government to superintend NITEL. That appointment represented a death knell to the liberalization agenda and put the industry on lock down until 1999 when the Board of the Commission was again reconstituted thus ending 5 years of prevarication and chicanery with an attempt to put the liberalization wagon back on track.


A litany of False starts

Other than the preservation of the status quo i.e. telephony for the few, we can chart a historical course of Nigerian telecommunications in long repetitious eras of false dawns depending on one’s starting point.

  • 1895 to 1960 could be regarded as a period of false start as there was no known strategy for the development of telecommunications for business.
  • 1960 to 1993, could also be regarded as a period of false start as there were no known plans or strategies in place for the liberalization of the industry. All the Development Plans did not have a business focus.
  • 1993 to 1999 could be regarded even more of a false start because although the liberalization agenda was coded into law in the form of Decree 75 and the NCC was instituted in 1993 by the military Government, it was promptly disbanded in 1994 by a succeeding military government and private initiative in service delivery, technically speaking, came to an abrupt halt but the Commission known as NCC was, happily, not proscribed.
  • 1999 till date can also be regarded as a period of false start as we have made an attempt, by magical success, to develop a responsive telecommunications industry against the backdrop of an electricity supply system that is not fit for that purpose.

All these collectively point to the fact that the entire period spanning from 1895 to 2010 may well have been one false start since it will be nothing short of a miracle for an industry, or indeed economy to develop without a stable public power system – a bit like China without rice.

A market opened for serious business

I recall a round table discussion which Engr. (now also HRH) Cletus Ogbonna Iromantu, pioneer Executive Vice-Chairman, NCC, held with two members of his NCC management team and I – an external consultant – on the table. The NCC (without a Commission at the time) had only just decided to promote a regime of neutral technology and the EVC wanted to establish the parameters that would define the kind of NCC that would foster the development of the industry. In our deliberations, we concluded we desired an NCC that was a professional, transparent and independent regulator. Mid way through our discussion, it became clear to us that government had dissolved the NCC’s Board of Commissioners. There was an aura of inevitability about the Commission’s demise as it had been staring at us in the face, accentuated by the unpalatable fact that the management at NITEL at the time, for obvious reasons, did not believe in the liberalization agenda. We also subconsciously knew, although none of us voiced it, that NITEL ‘gifted’ the NCC its first N50m to commence operations. That being the case, it was also apparent that the prospect of an independent NCC was an uphill task.

All these changed when in 2000 government re-constituted the Commission (then with Alhaji Ahmed Joda as Chairman) and the Commission went forward to develop a management development plan, opted for an open transparent Auction for Digital Mobile Licenses, conceived the Digital Bridge Institute and opened up the industry.

By 2010, it is fair to say that the market has been opened.

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