25m Nigerians may remain outside telecom coverage after 5G roll out

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•As access gap clusters reduces to 114

•5G programme may focus on commercial viability

As the dateline for the deployment of 5G networks in Nigeria narrows down to early next year, there are indications that about 25 million Nigerians in 114 telecommunications clusters would remain outside coverage areas as telecom authorities get set for roll out.

It is also likely that about 13 million Nigerians in another 103 clusters that were recently connected into the GSM network for the first time under the 1G-4G technology would also come behind under the 5G regime.

Vanguard learnt that though industry experts are of the view that these 25 million Nigerians in the remaining 114 access gap clusters should better be covered under the 5G regime, the deployment strategy that had sidelined them in the past 20 years of mobile telecommunications development in Nigeria may continue to play out in the 5G regime.

The telecom operators have stayed with commercial viability in their deployment strategy in the past 20 years, and the operating environment has not changed significantly to enable them deploy across all territories irrespective of commercial viability.

Some industry practitioners who spoke to Vanguard expressed the desire that operators take advantage of the support fund made available by the Universal Services Provision Fund, USPF, an arm of the Nigerian Communications Commission, NCC, to achieve a national 5G coverage faster.

This, they believe, would also resolve the recent controversy over the telecommunication coverage of the country in respect of electronic transfer of election results.

Recall that recently, officials of the NCC led by the Executive Commissioner Stakeholder Management, Adeleke Adewolu; Executive Commissioner Technical Services, Ubale Maska, and two others appeared before the lawmakers to give insights on the strength of telecom network coverage to support electronic transmission of election results in 2023.

But the NCC team told the lawmakers that only 50 percent of the country has the 3G coverage required for transmission and would not guarantee safety if other generations of network was used in the process.

However, Executive Director Paradigm Initiatives of Nigeria, PIN Gbenga Sesan, said the NCC confession was an admission of failure considering that “the Universal Services Provision Fund (USPF) was set up for exactly the purpose of taking services to all nooks and cranny of the country. So the NCC is basically admitting its own failure, and probably suggesting that the USPF has been an ineffective and inefficient fund. If they do work with operators as originally planned, that 50 per cent can quickly become 70 per cent in less than 2 years, and grow sustainably after that” he added

Meanwhile, Danbatta, at a meeting late last year said: “When I came on board, 217 access gap clusters were identified in the country affecting 40 million Nigerians without access to telecoms services.

“But today, we have reduced the access gap clusters to 114 with 15 million of the 40 million digitally excluded Nigerians now having access to telecoms services. We are committed to addressing the remaining access gap clusters, which are areas outside the frontier of economic viability to ensure the remaining 25 million Nigerians have access”

As part of the effort to tackle this, the Commission has said it was now ready to launch the 5G having completed a successful test run across locations in the country.

It, however, noted that the only challenge was for the National Frequency Management Council, NFMC, and the Federal Government to release more spectrums and declare the auction open.

Meanwhile, on behalf of the government, the Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Dr Isa Pantami, has just last week given the commission the go ahead to commence 5G auction and deployment, having secured the approval of the Federal Executive Council FEC for the network to be deployed in the country.

On the level of readiness for the new coverage status, Executive Vice Chairman of NCC, Umar Danbatta, stated: “On 5G our state of readiness is high. Pantami has spoken about the Federal Government’s position to deploy as soon as possible. There’s an auction committee for 5G with a deployment plan ready.

“All we are asking is additional spectrum to be allocated by the National Frequency Management Council (NFMC).

“Of course some of these spectrums are ready but we have to get the Federal Government’s approval to go ahead with the auctions.”

As the fate of the population currently outside the coverage of the existing telecom networks still hanging in a balance the NCC is said to be working to bring them into the loop with or without the 5G launch as they considered the estimated 75 percent national population coverage still unacceptable.
In this connection, Danbatta stated: “Even with that number, it is not acceptable. No part of the country should be denied access to telecommunication services consistent with the stipulation of inclusiveness in the provision of telecommunication services.”

FG assures on deployment

Danbatta, said that considering the economic benefits of 5G, the NCC would push effectively towards deploying the network in Nigeria soonest.

He said: “The Federal Government will provide an enabling environment for the 5G deployment, but the MNOs will determine their own deployment strategies subject to alignment to the approved policies and other regulatory instruments in force”.

He added that different sectors and organisations will be involved in the implementation and use of 5G products and services, considering the variety of benefits across sectors.

Nigeria was the first West African country to initiate 5G network trials when in 2019, MTN Nigeria, ran spectrum tests in its offices across several locations. With support from mobile operators like Huawei, ZTE and Ericsson, the initial demos were successful.

Riding on the heels of that success, the NCC, in June last year, began coordinating with stakeholders to create policies governing the commercial implementation of 5G.

Apparently in preparation for national activation the NCC, in May, signed a memorandum of understanding with communications satellite firm NigcomSat, to allow 5G services to ride on its C-band frequency spectrum which accounts for 60-70 percent of the commercial deployment of 5G networks globally.

Immediately after that, in June, the Commission inaugurated an 18-member auction committee for 5G with its Executive Commissioner, Technical Services, Ubale Maska as Auction Adviser while the Director, Spectrum Administration, NCC, Oluwatoyin Asaju, the Committee Chairman.

Apart from developing the Information Memorandum, IM for auctioning of C-band spectrum for 5G deployment in Nigeria, the Terms of Reference (ToR) of the committee included the development of an award process to be used pursuant to which the grant of Spectrum licenses may be made.

The Information Memorandum (IM) defines the process that the Commission has decided to adopt for the auctioning of the 3.5GHz spectrum band. It will provide information on the Nigerian telecommunications market, details of the Spectrum to be made available, the pre-qualification process, the Auction process and indicative timetable.

Besides Nigeria, about 18 African countries have started testing 5G, including Lesotho, Gabon and Egypt, meaning that widespread 5G adoption in sub-Saharan Africa is inevitable.

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