The nation’s telecom sector blooms like Mayflower. Reason is not far-fetched. A good workman is on duty. Professor Umar Garba Danbatta, the Executive Vice Chairman of the Nigerian Communications Commission, NCC, like an adept blacksmith, has been working the anvil in the last five years. It’s all in the house. Since 2001 when Nigeria organised a successful digital mobile auction for GSM operators, the dour story of Nigerian telecom moulted its old, drab garment of inefficiency. Do we still remember the then state-run NITEL? A behemoth that couldn’t bounce off its own inertia. Tethered to the stub of an inept public sector. Dimmed by toxic military politics. NITEL was a dinosaur that barely survived on the props of government subvention.
Not anymore. Welcome to 2020. The same telecom sector that used to suck government fund is now a major contributor to government purse. When Danbatta was appointed on August 4, 2015 by President Muhammadu Buhari, this writer lauded the president for the choice of Danbatta. It must have been a hard call to make for the president. He inherited a telecom sector that was clearly on an impressive ascendancy. Appointing a misfit to take charge would have done colossal damage to the sector that continues to brand Nigeria in brilliant colours on the global circuit.
But Danbatta was no misfit. Here comes a professor versed in the intricate and complex field of electrical cum electronic engineering. He came ready to roll. Prepared and well-primed. And in no time, he did more than acquit himself. He took the telecom growth curve much higher. He took over in a period notorious for the global economic meltdown that almost crippled other sectors across the globe. But not in Nigerian telecom. Not with Danbatta in the saddle as regulator. Adversity defines a hero. Danbatta became the hero of the Nigerian economic adversity. He rallied his troops at NCC. He fought on the side of consumers. He protected investors. He engaged relevant stakeholders including Central Bank of Nigeria, state governors, and all. He worked the mills of multi-sector active engagement just to win goodwill, patronage and concession for telecom. For the past five years, Danbatta worked like an indispensable foreman on a factory floor. Re-tooling when necessary. Unobtrusive when he had to be. Deploying empathy and emotional intelligence to win the confidence of operators, investors, consumers and allied stakeholders.
Five years down the road, the result shows. An impressive Alpha grade. Under Danbatta’s regulatory supervision, NCC has remitted a hefty N362.34 billion into the Federal Government Consolidated Revenue Fund in five years. Who says deregulation is not the best for Nigeria.
Last week senior media chiefs were treated to a cocktail of highpoints and defining moments in Danbatta’s first five-year tenure before he got a renewal for another five years this year, deservedly. Venue of the interactive session (online and offline) was the NCC Communications and Digital Economy Complex, Mbora, Abuja, which itself is a signature milestone of his tenure.
Here, Danbatta did not hold back. Like a workman, cocksure of his sterling performance, needing no denunciation, he explained how his painstaking implementation of the commission’s Strategic Vision Plan (SVP), which focused on his 8-point agenda, has helped to push broadband penetration from a mere 6 per cent in 2015 to 42.02 per cent by July, 2020. Broadband is at the core of the next frontier of telecom revolution: the big data management, Internet of Things (IoTs), Artificial Intelligence (AI) and the rest. The climb from 6 percent to over 42 percent in broadband penetration therefore marks a new threshold in the nation’s telecom sector.
Contribution to GDP also jumped from 8.50 per cent in 2015 to 14.30 per cent in the second quarter of 2020. In monetary terms, the Q2 2020 contribution translates to N2.272 trillion, a massive departure from the pre-deregulation era when funding telecom was both a brunt and a burden on the government.
In five years, Danbatta closed the 217 access gap clusters in the country which denied 40 million Nigerians access to telecom services, cutting the gap to 114 thereby pulling out 15 million of the 40 million digitally excluded Nigerians from no-access status. He has pledged to ensure that the remaining 25 million Nigerians have access. These are persons within the non-viable economic bracket.
Within the last five years, the 47,000km of fibre optic cables laid across the country has increased to 54,725km. He projects that in line with the Federal Government’s target, additional 120,000km of fibre are being planned over the next four years. Add this to the push for last-mile connectivity to different parts of the country through the 40 terabyte capacity of five submarine cables on the coastal shores of Nigeria, then you can imagine the wellspring of opportunities imminent in the sector.
The licensing of six Infrastructure Companies (InfraCos) which will deploy fibre infrastructure across the six-geo political zones is yet another landmark thrust to boost connectivity. This will ultimately crash the cost of data from N1,000, per gigabyte of data to about N390 with concomitant 70 percent broadband penetration covering 90 per cent of the population within the next five years in line with the new Nigerian National Broadband Plan (2020-2025).
The listing of MTN on the Nigerian Stock Exchange, the historical and successful trial of the versatile 5G genre on 4G infrastructure in Nigeria among others add to the basket of accomplishments that signpost the Danbatta years.
On the international front, Danbatta has continued to burnish the nation’s image turning telecom to a powerful public relations tool. In September, 2017 in Busan, South Korea at that year’s ITU Telecom World, Danbatta led a team of Nigerians including a crop of young men and women to win several awards including national, corporate and individual awards. It was a moment of glory for Nigeria and Nigerians who were in attendance.
By hindsight, Danbatta achieved all the planks of his 8-point agenda. As at July 2020, total connected phone lines base has increased to 286,522,926 with GSM subscribers having a huge chunk base of 285,259,320. The number keeps growing.
Going forward, he has set an ambitious agenda to achieve 70 percent broadband penetration by 2025. For a man who has continuously exceeded projections since 2015, this looks achievable, and with that will come a rash of possibilities in entertainment, sports marketing, remote-office, AI, e-commerce, e-agriculture, e-learning and IoTs, among other innovations in geekdom.
Consumer protection and empowerment; consolidation of spectrum trading to ensure maximum and efficient usage of available frequencies; continuous SIM registration audit to provide security and curtail incidences of banditry, kidnapping and armed robbery; creation of Emergency Communications Centres (ECCs) in more states of the federation; and execution of the counterpart funding agreements with the licensed Infrastructure companies (InfraCos) to facilitate digital transformation of the economy are all in the next five years agenda.
Huge ambition. But for a man who has walked the hard path, guiding Nigerian telecom out of turbulence in 2016 when the national economy relapsed into recession, optimism takes the place of uncertainty. Danbatta has birthed hope in five years. President Buhari should take pride in his appointment and re-appointment as the gaffer of the nation’s telecom sector.