Prof, Umar Danbatta, executive vice chairman, Nigerian Communications Commission records uncommon achievements in more than four years in office
Right from August 4, 2015, when Prof. Umar Garba Danbatta, was appointed by President Muhammadu Buhari as the executive vice chairman and chief executive officer of the Nigerian Communications Commission, NCC, he left no one in doubt that he intends to change the telecommunications landscape in the country. Since then, the professor of telecom engineering has worked with the support of the board, management and staff of the commission to consolidate on the achievements of his predecessors at the telecom regulatory agency.
He immediately came up with an eight point agenda for the industry which he has been implementing diligently to record an uncommon achievements in the sector in the last four years and few months into his five-year term. The agenda has helped the NCC to effectively confront many challenges bedevilling the industry to enhance the development of a knowledge-driven, inclusive, globally-competitive and prosperous Nigeria through telecommunications. It was designed to provide a focus for the commission and the industry as a whole over the next five years from 2015. Focal issues on the agenda include facilitating broadband penetration, improving quality service, optimizing usage and benefits of spectrum, promoting ICT innovation and investment opportunities, facilitating strategic collaboration and partnership, protecting and empowering consumers, promoting fair competition and inclusive growth as well as ensuring regulatory excellence and operational efficiency.
As at January 14, Danbatta as almost implemented all the items on the agenda, leaving nobody in doubt about his competence as a regulator per excellence, having continued to provide the right and leadership at NCC.
The uncommon achievements Danbatta recorded over the years can be graphically seen in the key growth statistics of the telecommunications sector from 2015 to date. Today, telecoms contribution to gross domestic product, GDP, increased from 8.50 percent in August 2015 to 11.39 percent as at October, 2019. Active mobile voice subscribers increased from 151,018,624 to 2015 to 180,386,316 during the same period while teledensity increased to 94.50 percent following its rebasing in early 2019.
Internet subscribers increased from 90 million in 2015 to 123.5 million by October, 2019 while broadband penetration jumped from 8 percent to its current 37.87 percent, indicating a total of 72,289,389 Nigerian access data services on 3G and 4G networks.
Also, the number of subscriptions to Mobile Number Portability, MNP, service increased from 385, 617 in August 2015 to 1, 206,874 by October, 2019. This is attributable to increased public enlightenment by the Commission’s head office and its zonal offices across geo-political zones on the on the availability and usage of MNP. Similarly, the total number of telecoms subscribers that have subscribed either partially or fully to the Do-Not-Disturb, DND, service introduced by the Commission – to curb cases of unsolicited text messages – increased from level zero to 22,356, 919 currently.
One of the areas where the commission has made significant contribution till date is in the area of broadband penetration. Following painstaking implementation of the eight-point agenda, the country achieved and surpassed its broadband penetration target of 30 percent by the end of December, 2018 as stipulated in the National Broadband Plan 2013-2015. A feat commended by all stakeholders in the country, appreciating the Commission for occupying the driver’s seat in the national drive for broadband development. Indeed, the implementation of the auspicious Agenda gained a lot of traction such that broadband penetration further increased from 32.34 percent (indicating 61,732,130 Nigerians on 3G and 4G networks) to 37.87 percent (indicating 72,289,389 on 3G and 4G networks) between January, 2019 and October, 2019 respectively.
Cognate efforts by the NCC in licensing new spectrum bands, re-farming certain frequency bands and driving initiatives for increased broadband infrastructure in the country, among others have collaboratively resulted in the consistent broadband growth. With increase in broadband penetration being recorded on a monthly basis, the Commission is well positioned to support the actualisation of the country’s digital economy policy strategy, as unveiled by the Federal Ministry of Communications and Digital Economy late 2019. Just recently, the new National Broadband Plan Committee was inaugurated by the Minister Federal Ministry of Communications and Digital Economy, Dr. Isa Pantami, with the national mandate to come up with the new broadband target for 2020-2025.
Since 2015, the NCC’s passion for pervasive broadband penetration is evident in its drive to facilitate broadband penetration, which tops its 8-Point Agenda. The Commission has also articulated it clearly, at different fora, that access to broadband will become a fundamental metric for measuring economic development in Nigeria, as it will be central to the growth recorded in every other sector of the economy where telecoms would be propelling automation and digitisation.
At a forum, Danbatta averred that Nigeria’s thirst for data has grown in significantly, largely to the generational change of telecommunications from the use of voice-dominated technologies (1G and 2G) to today’s data dominated technologies of 3G, 4G and even the much-talked-about 5G. According to him, without doubt, more virtualised engagements are happening online and will continue to be, as it does appears the citizens have an insatiable need for data.
“Nigerians need robust and pervasive broadband connectivity more than ever before in today’s world, where people can easily interact with an Automated Teller Machine (ATM), carry out activities around e-commerce, e-government, and telemedicine, among others on a daily basis in a much seamless manner, thereby boosting their efficiencies,” Danbatta had said.
Danbatta is also showing decisive leadership in the area of rural connectivity with TVWS Technology. The commission has partnered with the National Broadcasting Commission, NBC, and other necessary industry stakeholders to brainstorm on how to develop a framework for leveraging television white spaces, TVWS, as technology platform to extend affordable broadband services to rural, unserved and under-served communities in the country.
TVWS is the unused broadcast spectrum which can be deployed in the telecommunications sector to provide cost-effective broadband services to people in the rural, underserved and unserved areas of the country towards achieving universal access and universal service in line with the country’s digital agenda. The collaboration with the NBC was in line with the fifth pillar of the NCC’s eight-point agenda focusing on facilitating strategic collaboration and partnership with necessary government agencies and stakeholders to drive the development frontiers of the industry.
The initiative for the use of TVWS in Nigeria was mid-wifed by the ministry of communications and digital economy, following approval for the use of the TVWS technology by the National Frequency Management Council, NFMC. TVWS deployment is expected to further enable the NCC to facilitate its mandate to ensure universal access to digital services across the nooks and crannies of the country.
“Ensuring that all Nigerians are connected is our priority at the commission. “We are continuously in a quest to achieving rural connectivity goal and this quest has led us, as a Commission, into embarking on several initiatives to actualise this pervasive connectivity objective in Nigeria,” said Austine Nwaulune, Director, Spectrum Administration, NCC said during a stakeholders’ forum on framework for the deployment of TVWS held earlier in 2019.
He is also accelerating broadband infrastructure across 774 local government areas in Nigeria. Closely related to the commission’s efforts in deepening broadband penetration is its development of Open Access Model, OAM, initiative, principally aimed at extending access to digital services to all the 774 local government areas, LGAs, through the licensing of Infrastructure Companies (InfraCos) across geo-political zones.
To date, six InfraCo licences had been issued by the NCC. They include Raeana Nigeria Limited for the South-South Zone; O’dua Infraco Resources Limited for South-West Zone; Fleek Networks Limited for North-West Zone; Brinks Integrated Solutions for North-East Zone; MainOne Limited for Lagos Zone and Zinox Technologies Limited for the South-East Zone. The seventh and last licensee for the North-Central Zone of the country is being processed by the commission.
As Public-Private Partnership, PPP, initiative, the NCC is expected to provide a counterpart funding, in form of stimulus, to encourage investors of InfraCo to deploy fibre optic infrastructure across the country. Already, subsidy negotiations with the licensees had been concluded by the commission and efforts are being tidied up by the telecoms regulator to secure federal government’s approval for the disbursement of the counterpart funding to the licensees. This, however, will be disbursed to the InfraCos upon attainment of certain milestones in their area of deployment.
During a visit by the United States Trade and Development Agency, USTDA, to the commission earlier in 2019, Danbatta had said that, “NCC had concluded the process leading to the disbursement of subsidies to the six licensed InfraCos in line with the digital transformation agenda of the Federal Government. The subsidy will augment the InfraCos’ capital expenditure, CAPEX.”
One aspect of the Commission’s regulatory activities which has added the needed fillip to its accomplishment with regards to broadband penetration is in the area of effective utilization of available spectrum. Apart from achieving and surpassing the 30 per cent broadband penetration, the NCC had recorded some broadband-driving successes, especially in the area of spectrum auctions. These include the auction of the six slots of 2×5 megahertz (MHz) in the 2.6 gigahertz (GHz) Band, re-planning of the 800 MHz band for Long Term Evolution (LTE), licensing of two slots of 10 MHz each in the 700 MHz band, as well as the opening up of the E-band spectrum 70/80 GHz band for both last-mile and backhaul services. Other regulatory instruments by the Commission in this regards include the Spectrum Trading Framework, which allows for transferability of spectrum licence from a dormant licensee to another operator that needs such spectrum which has been redundant for the deployment telecom services.
All these efforts are in keeping with the commitment of the Commission, as articulated by Danbatta early in 2015 that “NCC will develop and implement flexible, market-oriented spectrum regulatory policies that promote highly-efficient use of spectrum in ways that stimulate innovation, investment, and job creation and increased consumer benefits.”
In line with its commitment to promoting innovation to drive digital transformation, the NCC, in 2016, created its Research and Development, R&D, Department for the commission in 2016, for the main purpose of synchronising the various ongoing research activities and other development projects being carried out by the commission. This decision, which was in line with the provisions of the National Telecommunications Policy 2000 and the Nigerian National ICT Policy 2012, has helped the commission to stimulate and sustain innovations in the Information and Communication Technology, ICT, industry.
Till date, the NCC had disbursed millions of Naira, in grants, to sponsor innovation-oriented research projects in tertiary institutions and other research institutes across the country. Further to this tradition of driving ICT innovations through funding relevant researches in tertiary institutions, the Commission, in May 2019, announced N40 million endowment funds for Bayero University, Kano, BUK, and the Federal University of Technology, Owerri, FUTO. The funds would be utilised by the institutions to drive for innovation, research and development in the digital space with an ongoing commitment to expand the list of benefiting institutions.
A month after, precisely in June 2019, the Commission, again, demonstrated its determination to facilitating research and innovation in the telecoms industry by presenting the sum of N65 million to 11 universities in Nigeria to drive innovation, research and development. Through the funding, the benefitting tertiary institutions were expected “to deliver research results and prototypes that are implementable, commercially-viable and capable of engendering innovation in different sectors of the economy.”
Today, the commission continues to support young innovators, through providing them with opportunity to showcase their tech innovations at global telecoms conferences such as the International Telecommunication Union, ITU, Telecoms World. Also, organising local competitions for technology innovators, on an annual basis, in order for them to competitively develop locally-relevant tech innovations and applications that can help grow the economy is parts of the NCC’s efforts in this regards.
The latest of such effort was the three-day Maiden Edition of the Innovation Competition/Exhibition Event hosted by the Commission at the Digital Bridge Institute Lagos Campus between from December 17, 2019 to December, 19, 2019, with the theme: “Promoting Innovation and Creativity in the Telecoms Sector”. The forum gathered some 25 shortlisted technological innovators to pitch their innovations before industry stakeholders for cash prizes provided by the Commission towards advancing their business ideas for full commercialization. After series and rounds of presentations, discussions as well as questions and answers sessions by the panel of judges and focusing on local content component of the innovators’ business plans, 10 best-in-class innovative ideas were shortlisted out of the 25 tech innovators from the six geopolitical zones of Nigeria.
Consequently, from the 10 shortlisted innovators, QMartins Fidelis – founder of Qatalog Automates emerged the best; WICRYPT came second while Phaheem Pharmaceuticals Limited came third. They won N3 million, N2 million and N1 million respectively.
While addressing the audience at the event, the EVC of NCC, said the initiative was “in line with Item 4 of the Commission’s 8-Point Agenda, which speaks to promote ICT innovation and investment opportunities in the telecoms industry through promotion of digital knowledge and skills that can positively impact various sectors of the economy.”
Danbatta is also preparing Nigeria for next-gen tech resolutio Tthe NCC, in collaboration with the Global System for Mobile Communications Association (GSMA) in the fourth quarter of 2018, held a workshop to examine the prospects and challenges of Next-Generation Networks (NGN) such as the Internet of Things (IoT), 5G, Artificial Intelligence (AI), Big Data, among others, in the nation’s telecoms industry. The workshop, according to Danbatta was “to provide an avenue for regulators, operators and investors as well as other stakeholders to examine and constructively exchange ideas on the main demand areas for next generation of services, spectrum licensing reforms and the requirements for 5G and other emerging technologies that are to revolutionise the telecom system and users.” The workshop, thus, formed the precursor to the country’s preparedness for the impending deployment of 5G technology, whose commercial deployment on a large-scale and global level is expected to commence fully by 2020.
Consequently, in the last quarter of 2019, the Commission, in its proactive regulatory approach, mid-wifed the trial of Fifth Generation (5G) technology in Nigeria. This made NCC the first telecoms regulator in the whole of West Africa to begin such a historic trial towards unleashing greater digital revolution in the country. Today, 5G trials had been successfully conducted in major cities including Abuja, Calabar and Lagos with MTN being the first operator to carry out the trial. Through 5G network deployment, Nigerian will have access to faster broadband speed on their network. This will result in more efficiency in the course of carrying out their personal and official activities.
Accordingly, the InfraCo framework will provide the needed robust broadband infrastructure upon which the 5G services will ride, thereby impacting e-learning, tele-medicine, e-agriculture, e-health, e-commerce and so on, in terms of speed, latency and more applications that can be made possible when 5G is pervasively deployed by operators in the country. In addition to this, the Commission has projected greater prospects for accelerating digital transformation in Nigeria, through making the country a truly knowledge and digital economy.
Parts of these include the determination of the Commission to ensure that all new base transceiver stations, BTS, to be built by mobile network operators, MNOs, are LTE-compatible; ensure the implementation of the harmonised Right of Way, RoW, charges on state and federal government highways at the cost of N145 per linear meter; ensure elimination of multiple taxation and regulations; facilitate spread of 3G coverage to, al least, 80 per cent of the Nigerian population over the current 56.4 per cent of the population covered with 3G networks.
Other projections by the commission towards deepening digital transformation include regulatory commitment to ensure operators upgrade their 2G BTSs to 3G; ensure spread of the impending 5G to, at least, five per cent of the population; determination to ensure spread of 4G/LTE services to 100 per cent of the population with a minimum broadband speed of 1.5 megabit per second, Mbps; and finally deployment of, at least, one (1) Access Point of fiber with a 10 gigabyte per second, Gbps capacity in all the 774 local government areas, among others.
The last four years has witnessed significant growth in the flow of foreign direct investment, FDI, in the sector, rising from $38 to over $70 billion as at today. The Commission also continues to strengthen commitment towards pursue relevant policies to encourage more investment into the industry.
At the maiden Nigerian Telecom Leadership Summit, NTLS, in Lagos in 2019, Danbatta, noted that “the volume of telecom investment in Nigeria is very impressive and indicative of a very fast-growing and resilient sector of the economy. But, we will continue to advocate for more investment, given that the industry is very capital intensive, with the competition for FDI becoming fiercer among different nations.” Today, the Commission estimates that about 40 million Nigerians – especially those in the rural and semi-urban areas- are yet to be reached with basic telecom infrastructure and services.
According to Danbatta, “the argument for more investments becomes more compelling, given that this industry is very capital intensive, with the competition for Foreign Direct Investments, FDls, becoming fiercer among different nations. In our consultative regulatory process, we consider shared experiences, and shared vision as the best approach to equip us with the tools to continuously reposition towards the course of effective regulation.”
He stated further that, as the 4th Industrial Revolution blurs the lines between the physical, biological and digital boundaries, the industry will continue to witness challenges of investments to match growth and technology evolution dynamics. In this age, broadband is of critical importance with its potential to improve the economy of many nations. “We may all be aware of the empirical study by the World Bank, which suggests that for every 10 per cent growth in Broadband penetration results in 1.34 per cent in Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in developing countries. This is one of the reasons why we have developed the regulatory and licensing framework to accelerate broadband availability, accessibility and affordability,” Danbatta stated at the NTLS in Lagos.
Other actions, Danbatta took to strengthen the sector includes restructuring the telecom VAS segment to create jobs, improve innovation; improving consumer protection, empowerment; curbing the menace of call masking, call refiling; boosting quality of service and investors’ confidence; ensuring regulatory excellence and operational efficiency, deepening stakeholder engagements and boosting FG’s Push for Improved Security of Lives and Property.
The NCC also combated E-waste, IT Counterfeiting; regularised commercial satellite operations for increased access; strengthened corporate governance code with disaster recovery regulations.
As a testament to NCC’s unwavering commitment towards employing cross-sectoral approach and stakeholder collaboration in its regulatory finesse, the International Telecommunication Union, ITU, in 2018 rated Nigeria high for continuously exhibiting responsiveness, progress and dynamism in the regulation of its over $70 billion telecommunications industry.
In its ‘2018 ICT Regulatory Tracker’ launched in July, 2019, the United Nation’s telecoms regulatory organisation stated that Nigeria scored 78.33 out of 100 marks benchmark for last year, putting Nigeria 12th among 48 African countries and standing ahead of 36 other. The achievement is coming barely two years after the Nigerian Communications Commission, NCC, the independent telecoms regulatory authority in Nigeria, was acknowledged by ITU as one of the ‘foremost telecoms regulators in Africa.’
In the report, ITU calculates the overall scores from four clusters, namely: Cluster 1- Regulatory Authority (20 marks); Cluster 2-Regulatory Mandate (22 marks); Cluster-3 Regulatory Regime (30 marks); and Cluster 4-Competition Framework. In each of these four parameters, Nigeria’s regulatory ecosystem scored 17, 20, 20, 21.33, respectively, totaling 78.33, which is above what about 36 countries out of the 48 African countries and a number of countries from other continent recorded, thereby putting Nigeria’s telecoms regulator in a positive rating.
The rating is, however, not surprising because the NCC has continued to regularly hold stakeholder consultations on several regulatory matters; collaborate with national, regional and global telecommunications bodies; sign Memorandum of Understanding, MoU, with other regulatory agencies such as the National Environmental Standards and Regulations Enforcement Agency, NESREA, Nigeria Police, National Information Technology Development Agency, NITDA, Central Bank of Nigeria, CBN, and Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps, NSCDC, Federal Competition and Consumer Protection Commission (formerly Consumer Protection Council), the Nigerian Governors Forum, NGF, the GSM Association, GSMA, Nigerian Army Resource Centre, NARC, among others.
Also, the credit for the listing of MTN Nigeria on the Nigerian Stock Exchange, NSE, in 2019, largely goes to the NCC for its smart regulation of the nation’s telecoms industry through ensuring operators’ compliance with the rules of the game in the industry. The listing was one of the dividends of a ‘no-nonsense’, outstanding and effective regulatory posture of the Commission. The listing of MTN has, thus, served as tonic to other telcos to follow in the same direction such as the listing of Airtel.