In this interview with BUKOLA OLANREWAJU, the Phase3 Telecom General Manager Southern Region, Babalola Olalekan speaks on challenges and governmental initiatives needed for the growth of the Nigerian telecom sector
What is Phase3 Telecom’s operational scope?
Phase3 Technologies (operational name- P3TECH), formerly known as Phase3 Telecom, is Africa’s leading independent fibre-optic infrastructure with Points-of-Presence (POPs), colocation, and Network Operation Centers (NOCs) across Nigeria. We got a National Long Distance Operator (NLDO) license in 2003 from the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) and with a vibrant as well as dedicated team of experienced professionals – we are the network of choice for technological innovations, as well as high-performance, data-intensive and low latency connectivity that span dedicated internet access, MPLS VPN, metro ethernet, wide area network solutions, e.t.c.
What are some of the achievements of Phase3 Telecom in Nigeria?
Currently, we operate across the ECOWAS region as well as international markets through strategic partnerships that allow us to connect our clients across 400 cities worldwide. We are consistently making significant technological advancements and enhancing our business portal, by transforming and evolving into other layered service streams that help businesses and service providers thrive, manage costs and assure efficiency.
We have established the widest spread in Nigeria and Africa. We are the only indigenous telecom company that operates as a backup provider to some known ISPs and MNOs who rely on our network to move traffic from one city to another, even from one region to another region. We are the backbone of backbones.
At P3Tech, we are dedicated to providing the best digital solutions for Africa.
Can you highlight some of these challenges facing your company and other telecom operators?
The challenges faced by the telecom and technology industry in Nigeria and Africa are multifaceted. It is commendable that the government has made efforts to address these issues through policies such as the executive order in 2017 and 2018, promoting local content and ensuring that government and parastatals are the first points of call.
However, while technological innovations and policy liberalization have led to a massive expansion in telecommunication infrastructure in Nigeria, the industry operates in a heavily regulated environment with levies and taxes issues. Spectrum allocation can also be limited and not transparent, posing significant challenges to the industry.
To address these challenges, I would suggest placing the telecom and technology industry on the executive list as critical national infrastructure and opening free trade zones for telecom businesses to enjoy fair exchange rates and tax benefits. This will encourage further investments in expanding technological advancements and bridging the gap between affluent and underprivileged states/communities.
Nigeria Broadband target of 70% by 2025, do you think it is achievable with the current rate at which you are going?
The 70% broadband coverage in Nigeria by 2025 is achievable. It is worthy of note that as of July 2022, Nigeria had achieved 44.5% broadband coverage, and gained an additional 46 points in August 2022. This progress is attributed to the tenacity of infrastructure deployment, investment, and government support. Comparing the current progression with the previous 35% range from two years ago, I am optimistic that the target is achievable and I believe that we, at P3TECH are on track to meet it.
On telecom infrastructure, FEC Approves N17.4 billion naira for broadband infrastructure across the six geopolitical zones, what’s your reaction to this?
Regarding the FEC’s approval of N17.4 billion for broadband infrastructure across the six geopolitical zones, it is essential to focus not only on approval but also on implementation strategy. Therefore, a roadmap needs to be established to ensure the successful implementation of this initiative.
Additionally, the government should prioritize the promotion of local content, in line with executive orders. Encouraging our best brains to remain in the country requires better benefits, improved work-life balance experiences, and security measures. These factors can provide people with an assured future, making it more predictable and less ambiguous.
When people have the certainty of a stable future, they are more likely to stay and focus on their work, which can also attract investors to the country. Therefore, it is crucial to prioritize the provision of these benefits to encourage local talents to contribute to the development of the nation.
In terms of Internet infrastructure, Africa remains mostly underserved. Looking at the statistics, what do you think government can do to encourage further investments?
The current state of internet infrastructure in Africa is largely underserved, which calls for attention to promote further investment. It is essential to take into account the living standards of Africans, as there are subdivisions of the population in terms of internet access – the underserved, unserved, and served areas.
Given the continent’s vast population, implementing these infrastructures can be costly, making it crucial to attract investors who can recoup their investments over time.
To encourage investment, the government can take several measures. One of the most effective ways is to minimize the Right of Way. This means ensuring that the deployment of broadband infrastructure is easy for investors. By doing so, the government can help to expand internet access, particularly to underserved and unserved areas, and create an environment that is conducive to investment.
For the underserved and unserved areas, what role is Phase 3 Telecoms playing to bridge this gap?
Phase 3 as a company we are doing a lot. For instance, we have the Visa technology for broadband services through which we have developed specific services that are tailored to the needs of rural areas, such as providing mobile money services and e-learning platforms.
What does this do?
We call the Visa Technology Yabclick. We partnered with Clicks to provide this service. The service enables anyone anywhere in Nigeria to enjoy fast reliable and available broadband services. Illustratively, it’s similar to installing a DStv decoder in your home. Once you contact us, we reach out to you, we come up with the infrastructure, we fix it and in a matter of seconds, you have internet available in your home.
As an Operator, how can the quality of internet services be improved in Nigeria?
This is still based on some of the things we’ve discussed. It is evident that we are far behind some Asian and South countries in terms of internet download speed. This is largely due to inadequate infrastructure.
To provide quality and reliable internet services, there is a need to invest in fibre infrastructure. However, the prevailing insecurity and vandalism in the country pose a significant challenge. For example, when fibre infrastructure is cut, it is supposed to be restored within 30 minutes, but due to security challenges, it may take up to three hours to restore the infrastructure. Also, power supply interruptions can result from vandals destroying solar panels or cutting off the public power supply, making it difficult for engineers to reach the affected location on time.
All of these factors contribute to the low broadband penetration rate in the country. Currently, only about six marine cables land in Lagos, while in other countries, there are 19 or more. Therefore, there is a lot of work to be done to improve the internet infrastructure in Nigeria and increase the download speed to a level comparable to other countries.
3G and 4G seem to be underutilised in Nigeria. Now we have 5G. What’s your thought about this, is it not just about playing on the surface?
Looking at the country in terms of where people live and the standard of living, it is essential to consider the gap between the rich and the poor in our society. While the rich may be able to afford the latest technology, the poor may not have the means to do so.
Considering Nigeria’s large population of over 200 million people, even if only 10% of the population (about 20 million people) can afford 5G technology, providing them with a 5G network could be an attractive opportunity for investors. Therefore, we cannot say that we are not ready for 5G technology solely because of differences in wealth distribution.
Instead, it may be more prudent to provide 5G services to the population that can afford it, while providing more affordable options for those who cannot. Over time, as the government seeks to provide basic services and amenities to all citizens, they may take action, as they did through the unbundling of NEPA into Transmission, Generation, and Distribution, to ensure that more people can benefit from these technologies.
NCC is planning to auction some spectrum on 5G…
Currently, we have only two players, MTN and Mafab, who won the last bid. Having more players in the market can be beneficial for everyone.
As we saw in the early days of GSM in Nigeria, when there were fewer players, tariffs were high and not affordable for many. However, with more players entering the market, competition increased, and tariffs came down, making the service more accessible.
The advent of more players can also foster collaboration and facilitate the deployment of facilities. For example, joint efforts can be made to ensure that a particular town or city is covered, and there can be an agreement in place to share profits. Therefore, the more players that are involved in the auction, the better it can be for the overall growth and development of the industry.
We saw this in the early days of GSM in Nigeria when we have fewer players, the tariff was high, and not affordable for many but with more players, the tariff came down because of the competition.
When we have more players, it helps in the collaboration and deployment of facilities, so if we want to reach a particular town or city there can be a joint effort in making sure that we cover such area. There could be a good agreement in making sure there is shared profit.
What’s your thought on spectrum pricing from the government?
The government’s decision on spectrum pricing is likely based on various factors, including the economic climate and the potential return on investment for investors. As a leading economy in Africa with a large population and wealthy individuals, Nigeria presents significant opportunities for investors. However, currency values also play a role in the pricing, with a seemingly large price in naira potentially not translating to a high price in dollars. Ultimately, it is important for there to be an agreement between the government and investors on pricing, as well as a conducive environment for investors to recover their income.
On the Internet of Things, with the growing interest and the adoption of the digital economy agenda, what role do you think government can play to ensure that IoT is safe and secure while eliminating the potential threat to the government, organizations and individuals?
Let’s start with individuals, when we talk about IoT we talk about smart cities, smart homes, everything being smart, and the intelligence of things working without a human being in charge. The growing adoption of IoT presents both opportunities and challenges for governments, organizations, and individuals.
On one hand, IoT can enhance efficiency, productivity, and innovation across various sectors. On the other hand, IoT can also expose critical systems and data to potential threats and attacks. Therefore, it is important for all stakeholders to work together to ensure that IoT is safe and secure.
Starting with individuals, it is crucial to raise awareness and education about basic cybersecurity practices. This includes using strong passwords, avoiding phishing and malware, updating software and firmware, and securing home networks. IoT devices should also be evaluated for their security features and vulnerabilities and only trusted and reputable vendors should be used.
For organizations and governments, there should be clear guidelines and standards for IoT security and privacy. This can involve collaboration with industry experts, researchers, and regulators to identify and address potential risks and threats. It can also involve investing in advanced technologies, such as encryption, authentication, and intrusion detection/prevention systems.
In addition, governments can play a role in regulating and enforcing IoT security standards, through laws, regulations, and certification schemes. This can help ensure that all IoT products and services meet certain minimum requirements and that consumers and businesses have access to trustworthy and reliable IoT solutions.
Ultimately, the success of IoT depends on the trust and confidence of its users. By working together to enhance IoT security and safety, we can unlock the full potential of this transformative technology, while minimizing the risks and challenges that come with it.