The title of this piece is not a curse but a metaphorical expression of my exasperation with the telecommunications industry, whose fortunes in terms of service delivery to the customers have plummeted abysmally in recent times. As expected, telecom operators have come under very intense pressure and pillorying by angry customers who feel things ought to have been better, especially in these challenging times when life revolves around the resilience of telecommunications.
My friend, Ibim Semenitari, seems to have added some fire to this state of being, a debilitating anomie, when last week, she put together a live podcast, Conversations with Aibee, featuring Emeka Oparah, Vice President Corporate Communications & CSR, Airtel Nigeria, and my humble self, a retired public servant, having worked with a regulatory authority, and a journalist always. Title of the programme was, Addressing Nigeria’s Internet Connectivity Challenge.
Ibim, as we always called her, was a journalist before going on a tour of duty in the political minefield of her state, Rivers. She took her fire power to politics where she excelled, reclining on the kind of audacity that only the journalism profession can brew. In truth, there were moments I was worried about her safety. But Ibim survived; although still in politics tangentially, she seems to have returned to citizen journalism with a vengeance.
How on earth did Ibim select me and my friend to be on the same platform talking about the telecommunications industry? When the industry was on the mend after a protracted period of shameful failure, Emeka and I had a very robust relationship. He was concerned about the sector where he worked and still works, keeping fidelity with only one operator ever since, and I was looking for great stories that could help shape the sector. Sometimes, we disagreed professionally but the relationship got stronger.
On this very topic, Ibim put some soup on the fire; but applying sundry ingredients including history and emotions, the soup quickly boiled over into some very latent indignation. You take a look at the rear mirror to have a better view of the past and what you see is very troubling. Unfortunately when we look helpless as we have found ourselves in the telecoms sector, we push the blame to one stakeholder, the fall guys, who are the operators.
When you are Vice President of an international organization, you must certainly know the colours of your onions. Ibim found Emeka a very tough dude. Responding to her questions, Emeka enumerated all the ailments and troubles preventing the operators from providing the kind of services that would endear them to the subscribers and enable them make more money to meet escalating costs. The troubles are not new but very endemic in the system; they include: power problems, stolen batteries or sometimes entire generators from cell sites, security challenges, right of way issues, fibre cuts across the nation and a host of others.
But you see responses on the screen, people’s comments and you see how pained they feel about what is happening in the industry. I am a subscriber too. On the very day of the programme, last Friday, I had subscription to three operators and it took me more than thirty very frustrating minutes to check into the studio. My experience on its own amplified the theme of discourse – Addressing Nigeria’s Connectivity Challenge. My experience served as a takeoff point.
This is what has happened. The permutation of life has changed. COVID-19 has altered the future of work, education and other social relationships. People have been confined to locations from where they work remotely in their offices. Data has become the most needed resource and diet to sustain the body through these hard times; some operators call it oxygen. This has put the strength of the networks to test and the failure is abysmal.
Plus the user experience, there is always the need to visit the home – website of the regulator, the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) to search for facts. What I found was deceitfully encouraging. Here are the stats: Total mobile subscription – 191, 797, 052; total Internet subscription – 141, 158, 355, broken down in the following order: GSM – 140, 761, 851, Fixed Wired – 9, 995, CDMA – 0, and VOIP – 386, 509.
What these figures demonstrate are encouraging signs from an industry which has supposedly done very well in nearly two decades. The figures would seem to demonstrate that we are on the right track and that all we need to do is to press a little harder, and we shall achieve the ultimate.
Here is my humble interpretation of the figures above. Like in most parts of the world, the GSM technology has done very well in Nigeria; unfortunately it is over-burdened as the GSM networks carry all the telecommunications load, whether voice, data, VOIP and other over-the-top services. In truth, its continuing resilience and survival under the weight it carries is a stunning miracle.
The truth hurts us sometimes and we hate to be told we aren’t doing well. After the mobile auctions in 2001, all the money raked in were paid into the federation account and it was quickly shared among the various tiers of government – Federal, States and Local Councils. All the promises made to the operators who were bringing in large sums of money into a largely chaotic environment the President Olusegun Obasanjo administration was trying to fix, quickly went out through the window. Since then the operators have had to bear their pains in the lonesome manner of an orphan. When things get real bad, they get the big stick which further exacerbates their festering pain.
To all this, our response as a people is, “didn’t they know how bad the environment is before they came into the country?” Pray, is there no shame as to how low we can sink as a people or are we totally losing our fading hold to the flailing shreds of humanity?
In saner climes, there are development plans and projections. Nobody could ever imagine that in nearly two decades the country would still be struggling to produce a paltry 4000 megawatts of electricity for a population of over two hundred million people, or that the nation would nearly lose the capacity to defend itself, to the extent, that its security capital, Kaduna, would be marauded by bandits, herdsmen, kidnappers, and you try to make up the list, please, from your reservoir of pain. Nobody would think that states would make it difficult for operators to roll out services or that the Federal Capital Development Authority would ever plead the bizarre case that the territory was planned without anybody ever thinking of the coming of base stations, so the skyline innocence and sanity of the capital must be kept, or that the telecoms sector would become the major source of low-hanging fruits to governments in desperate need of receding revenue.
In fact I have appropriated the above forlornness to come to the painful conclusion that our Internet connectivity would be challenged today, tomorrow and into the foreseeable future except we change our dance steps and stop celebrating very humble achievements that crumble easily under severe reality.
There are three primary stakeholders in the telecommunications ecosystem. They are the government represented by the regulator, operators and the subscribers who also constitute the public in this respect. Each stakeholder has a role and a responsibility. Why can’t we stand our ground and choose to make life better for us all, no matter the group we belong?
In my sundry contributions I suggested the following measures that can help stir the telecoms industry from its cumbered drowsiness. They include: Agile regulation by the regulator – regulatory decisions at the speed of light to attract investment to the sector, encourage the born-again attitude of the state governors on right of way (RoW), engage with industry bodies like ATCON, ALTON, GSMA and other relevant organisations and agencies, to deliberate on the way forward, and for the regulator to pave the way for the introduction of new technologies like 5G.
Let us stop the blame game. Let’s stop celebrating the past; it belongs to history. The right way leads to the future: a tomorrow that comes with promises.
Okoh Aihe writes from Abuja