July 14, 2020

Electricity changed everything.  Mobility,  time spent  with the family in front of television and even reduced deaths from lung diseases as more homes did away with smoking lanterns and lampposts.

Electricity impacted death rate from road accidents as its use cases increased with the streetlights.  Appliances like washing machines reduced time spent on laundry,  thereby,  freeing up time for homekeepers.  Electricity had the far-reaching effects that  the internet,  another General Purpose Technology (GPT), have had starting with the turn of the Second World War. It has totally reshaped and keeps disrupting every way of life;  shopping,  medicine,  warfare,  education,  fashion and human relationships and communication.

But as the internet gained adoption and changed ways of life,  its modes of access changed as well. A common feature of GPTs is lowered cost as adoption increases.  The internet isn’t an exception to this principle.  Access mode went from a product affordable by government alone to one majorly used by defense industries to economies and finally,  individual users. This trajectory went with sharp drop in costs as internet usage saw adoption.

 

Nigerian National Broadband Plan 2013-18

Prior to early 2000s,  access to the internet in Nigeria was almost exclusive to top government officials,  expatriates and the middle class.  With the new civilian government granting telecommunication license to South Africa’s MTN, Econet and indigenous Globacom, the expensive but gradual adoption of the internet took off.  First with voice calls and ultimately,  data.

The 2013 Broadband Plan set out a five-year period, targeting a minimum download speed of 1.5 Mbps with at least 30% coverage.  In addition to this,  it set out to achieve 3G coverage to at least 80% of the population. This target was missed as 74.2% was the realised target.  However, it met its 50%  3G spread across the population by 2015. Reasons have been given why these targets went unmet.

The 2020 – 2025  National Broadband Plan is an upward review and adjustment to the current economic,  population and global realities.  In comparison to the 2013 policy,  it aims at 10Mbps and 25Mbps broadband connectivity in rural and urban areas respectively.  Streamline and remain within the N145 per metre Right of Way charges,  require a one-stop shop for state permits and approvals by Q4 2020 and and creation of new landing points beyond Lagos in Akwa Ibom,  Cross River,  Edo,  Delta and Bayelsa states.

The plan envisions a 60% target for connected towers and digital literacy. And importantly,  100% and 50% connectivity for tertiary and secondary institutions respectively by 2025.

 

Race to the Right.

It started off with Ekiti state announcing a downward review to its Right of Way charges from N4,500 to N145 per metre.  Shortly,  we saw  similar announcements from other states including Kaduna that went all the way to Zero. These are laudable and commendable as Nigerians, the youths most especially, seek options to run their technical and tech-enabled businesses beyond Lagos and Abuja.

But it shouldn’t stop there.  Right of Way is just a dot in the galaxy of initiatives and efforts needed to latch onto the new digital economy that’s upon us.

As the world evolves and technology companies are founded and grow out of countries,  the nature of assets change.  These companies become not just employers of labour and contributors to GDP but also foreign policy tools used by home countries.  The United States government denies countries that don’t do right by them access to services of American companies and prohibits these companies from so doing or break the law. The Cybercrime Act of 2015 was one policy tool from the first National Broadband Plan of 2013 but it left quite some areas uncovered. However,  as we see how jobs,  stock values and supporting industries are tied to  internet-enabled companies and speed at which legacy firms are digitally transforming,  it then  becomes imperative that infrastructure sustaining them must be protected.

Calls to pass the Critical National Infrastructure Bill support this argument. And one way to better protect them is by stringing stiffer penalties around theft, vandalism or sabotage of these infrastructure.  This achieves some aims: it boosts confidence to invest more in these infrastructure,  telecommunication companies would likely spend less to police and protect them and importantly,  serve as a deterrent to vandals.

Intermittently,  there have been calls for a law guiding,  supporting and protecting startups and people running them.  The federal government needs to go a step further by enacting an Act specifically tailored for startups.  The Broadband plan is one in a series of stimulants towards a digitally-transformed economy.  This Act should inherently,  have a component that shields technology and tech-enabled companies especially from the harsh business reality of bankruptcy and failure.  For instance,  taking a quick glance at the Tunisian Startup Act,  a person can leave their job to try out an idea for a period of two years with an option to return to their place of former employment if everything fails.  This is security.

If successfully implemented,  higher institutions including universities would enjoy 100% broadband connectivity in the new Plan.  Universities are venues for the cross fertilization of ideas. Ideas crisscross amongst youths within those walls. Even Facebook started within a university. It then becomes imperative we have a policy protecting ideas emanating from these citadels while at the same time protecting gig workers graduating with digital skills. European Union for example,  has recognised gig workers as component of its working population.

Nudges are important to policy adoption.  The Plan recommends a Broadband State Ranking Report to measure progress using percentage of connected towers and schools,  availability of internet in public spaces and a one-off approval for ICT Telecomm projects by states.  On the other spectrum should be the reward for responding to this nudge.  Having made the recommendation to reward compliant states with intervention projects around education and health,  history shows making a promise and keeping same are two different discussions especially with government transitions. Sticking to this bargain could be a  success determinant to this Plan.

 

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