Imagine that a loved one or close friend is having an asthma attack. You do not have a smartphone with signal coverage to get an uber to get to the hospital. All attempts to contact emergency services are futile. You would want answers. Often, those answers are devastating because the actions could have been avoided in the first place. Connectivity is the very lifeblood of our nation. Without it, our access to security, family, business and other individuals are compromised. Critical National Infrastructure refers to the critical assets, systems and functions that are integral to a country’s capacity to function. The destruction or disruption of these assets can have a catastrophic impact on the national economy, security, health and safety of the general public, as well as their ability to communicate with their loved ones and coordinate their daily lives. Critical National infrastructure includes transport, emergency services, water and telecommunications.
The services and systems provided by critical infrastructure are so intertwined into the fabric of our everyday life that a small failure or down time can cause far reaching effects. Persistent downtime of any critical service can grind a country to halt- stopping economic activity, coordinated security and emergency services and many every day services whose importance in our lives we underestimate.
Take telecommunications for example. Imagine you are at a redeemed camp – along with thousands of people and the telephone mast that enables you to keep in touch with the outside world is compromised. You are cut off, can’t make or receive calls and cannot access the internet. Imagine the pandemonium, and panic. If a stampede happens, the police and other emergency services cannot be mobilised because there is no way to contact them.
Now imagine that your service-based business has critical research to produce for a client- the telecommunications downtime means that not only will the work not get delivered on time, the client may cancel the contract as a result- leading to loss of revenue. The reality is that telecommunications services and infrastructure underpins just about everything we do – from making payments on our phones to using the internet to learn, running online businesses, using google maps to navigate from place to place, calling our loved ones and business partners, contacting hospitals etc. Without broadband connectivity for our computers, phones, and other devices, work, communication, leisure would be harder, more uncomfortable and more difficult. There would be no Skype, no Zoom to connect us to our loved ones or international business associates. We would still be tethered to cable companies, DVDs, CDs and physical data storage — There would be no youtube, no IrokoTv, no streaming network TV. The experience of online shopping with Jumia and Konga would be a myth.
The Lifeblood of the Nation: Today, Information and communication technologies (ICTs) are woven into the fabric of our daily lives and save our lives several times a day. Information technologies have wrought fundamental change throughout society, driving it forward from the industrial age to the networked era.
With rising insecurity and terrorist activity, our intelligence and emergency forces: medical, fire, police, the army — all require planning and coordination. This is a critical part of the fight against insecurity. The ability for everyday citizens to raise the alarm and alert emergency response services is also fundamental to any well-developed economy. On the other hand, mobile penetration in Nigeria is rising. In more remote parts of the country where banks and other financial institutions are unable or unwilling to locate brick and mortar institutions, it is mobile financial services which keep our more financially underserved Nigerians included, and contributing to the formal economy. In today’s world, global information networks are vital infrastructure.
The telecommunications industry underpins services across all other industries, and is the lifeblood of any nation; connecting business to individual, business to business and individual to individual—it has become one of the key drivers of social evolution. The UN SDGs have highlighted connectivity as a critical enabler of social and economic development. Any downtime will inevitably have severe consequences for our nation: from billions in lost revenue, to poorly planned and un-coordinated emergency response and rescue services, to the inability of Nigerian workers to participate competitively in an increasingly digitised global workspace.
Downtime does not result solely from service interruptions caused by poor weather or run-down infrastructure. Vandalism of telecommunications services is also a menace which can have a negative knock-on effect on the economy, Indeed, it is government interference with telecommunications assets that has become increasingly detrimental to our economy. In November 2018, a state government instructed the shut down of 150 base stations of MTN, Airtel, Ntel and Globacom. As a result; several telecommunications sites in Nasarawa, Benue, Enugu, Anambra, Edo, Ondo, Ekiti, Kwara and Federal Capital Territory (FCT) were affected. This meant that individuals, banks, hospitals and businesses were cut off; but more importantly, it jeopardized connectivity services provided to our security agencies — the Police and Armed Forces.
Telecommunication network infrastructures play an important role in maintaining the stability of our society as a whole. The essential step in understanding the need to protect the life blood of our nation is to understand the interdependence between telecoms infrastructure and our everyday life.
The Way Forward: Critical National Infrastructure. Nigeria’s Cybercrimes Act provides the legal backing for various ‘systems and assets which are so vital to the country’, to be designated as critical infrastructure. And yet, our telecommunications infrastructure remains vulnerable to physical, cyber and political attacks; by remaining outside the protection of this designation.
As concerned Nigerians, we must call on the government to accord the industry the necessary protections to ensure that we never again need to fear the disastrous consequences occasioned by such deliberate intrusion with the lifeblood of our nation. We must commend the efforts of the Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Dr. Isa Pantami to ensure maximum protection of telecom infrastructures. The Minister has disclosed that plans are underway to provide Critical National Infrastructure (CNI) protection to ensure maximum protection of telecoms infrastructure. Ahead of that Order, plans are set for the police authorities to provide surveillance to key telecom facilities.
Adebayo writes from Lagos