News Column

'Why Internet Cost Is High, Access Difficult in Nigeria'

September 3, 2014

Adeyemi Adepetun and Bankole Orimisan

Paul Jaikaran is Chief Technical Officer (CTO) of MainOne Cables. Prior to his appointment at MainOne, Jaikaran was the CTO of GSTelecom, Vodacom Business Africa and ipNX. He started his career in networking with the Shell Petroleum Group some 23 years ago. As the CTO, Paul is responsible for all technical activities for MainOne. He recently gave audience to some ICT journalists on some germane industry issues.

ADEYEMI ADEPETUN was there. Excerpts...

How will you access the clamour for nationwide broadband penetration in Nigeria?

I think there is a significant improvement if we look at the historical data from the days when we had the NITEL network (when you had to pay an arm and a leg for a single telephone and you hear a lot of cracking on the line). Now we have moved from 400,000 lines from 2001 and 138 million phones in 2013 and a leapfrog effect in form of technology.

The Ministry of Communications Technology is a key driver with various initiatives such as the Smart State initiative. The aim of the Smart State initiative is to convince the governors, state officials and federal officials to ensure that operators don't get taxed over the top and provide ways and means to get them building broadband infrastructure.

One of the main things is to ensure that the right incentives are put in place for the right providers who are willing to roll out fibre networks. It's not easy, I think Lagos State led the way by dropping their own Right of Way cost but that's only one thing, there are a lot of other things that needs to be addressed so that all providers, MainOne inclusive, can continue to grow and provide quality broadband services in the state.

How can the Broadband Council encourage other states to adopt the 'Smart States' initiatives?

I am not so sure that the governors and their advisers can see the benefits. I think you need to be able to see the benefits that broadband will give you. If you don't see that benefit initially then it's going to be hard to convince someone that broadband expansion in his state will actually do something in terms of revenue, but they have to be convinced.

One of the things that we did is work with the government of Lagos State to get some certain areas in Lagos connected and it's something the state can see tangible benefits from with respect to connectivity; talking about job creation, connecting schools, hospitals among others. If you can get the major government MDAs connected; communications, agriculture, health, trade and investment, they will be far more efficient and able to work well together.

With Nigeria estimated to have over nine terabytes bandwidth capacity, accessing the Internet is still very very costly and tough. As an operator, why is this so?

From a cost perspective, bringing the cable to the shores of Nigeria is one thing, but how do you get the services (e.g. Internet) out to the other states? One of the things that we need to look at is cheap national long distance service. If we can do that, then there is no stopping the submarine pipe that is sitting at the Lagos shores from getting to any state in the country. However the cost from the telecoms operators going from Lagos to Abuja and further up is very high; it's higher than the cost for MainOne to take the capacity from Lagos to London. This does not really help the broadband initiative.

The second issue is what I call the access network. Imagine I have taken the pipe all the way to Gombe, one of the big problems when you think about those locations is how much money you are going to invest to roll out a broadband fibre network versus how much revenue you will get back. It's a small population there in the rural setting then the amount of money you are going to get back is not going to be enough to cover your cost. That's where subsidy will come in, if the government really wants the rural areas to be connected then they would have to subsidize.

That's the only way it's going to work because the telecoms operators will look at it from a capital investment and they'll say 'I am not going to invest a whole lot of base stations to cover the entire area. What I am going to do is put up base stations in specific areas where I know there is a significant population who will use my service.

Similarly, when you are building a fibre network you typically focus on the central business districts, install your fibre in the ground and wait for customer to come and request a connection. It is capital intensive, costs a lot of money and most of the costs come from the civil side of it; digging up the street, installing ducts, manholes, fibre cabinets, among others. I would say perhaps 70 per cent of your cost comes down to civil infrastructure and the rest of it is in electronics, the fibre and so on.

Still on Internet access, the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) will soon license Infrastructure Companies (InfraCoS), what is the level of MainOne involvement?

For InfraCoS, NCC has requested operators to come up with detailed technical solution on broadband deployment and we have decided to bid for the Lagos region. There are a number of initiatives that we started long before this InfraCoS thing came about, that justify our commitment here. We have about 300km of fibre already laid, so it makes sense for us to say what else can we do to become an InfraCo. Also of note is the Yaba i-HQ pilot project because we worked with the Lagos state government to connect institutions, schools, businesses, in and around the Yaba area. I think it's a function of making sure that you have the right solution provider because you don't want a situation whereby you give InfraCo status to somebody and they cannot utilize the license and roll out the network or provide quality service. We have done this for years and so it's not something new to us.

Can you shed more light on the ICT entrepreneurship support programme in Yaba you talked about earlier?

Yaba is something we are trying to build on. In fact one of the things we are doing is work with entrepreneurial technology companies and specifically the Co-creation Hub in Yaba. They work with start-up businesses and offer assistance where necessary to grow their businesses. We have been with them since inception and given them free Internet support.

We also sponsor competitions like the Institute of Software Practitioners of Nigeria (ISPON) competition, Microsoft Imagine Cup among others. The aim is really to see how we can get small companies working on ICT projects to develop and deploy their ideas as businesses. How do you do a business case?, how do you push your product from a piece of paper to something that actually works?; you need people to give you advice and that's where these hubs are very useful because they can assist these entrepreneurs.

Why is MainOne investing in a Tier III Data Centre in Lagos?

We don't want to be able to box ourselves in just for Internet services. Our plan is to be able to offer different services to our customers. One of these Data Centre Services is collocation and that is why we are building this facility to meet the Tier III data centre standard. We are talking about really good power, cooling, high security systems etc so that the customer is 100 per cent confident when they put their servers in our data centre, it will function as expected. We are looking at November to wrap up the build and start the commissioning process, once that is done, we will be in a position to let people bring in their equipment.

In addition, we will offer cloud based services such as Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS), Storage as a Service (SaaS) and Disaster Recovery (DR).

Looking at the Data Centre project, how safe will customers' data be?

We have implemented both physical and electronic access controls to prevent unauthorized access into the Data centre. Customers must have prior approval based on access lists. We have biometric security to access the Data Centre space where the racks are located. For the banking customers who want to have a higher grade of security, we have caged services, to provide additional biometric access into the cage environment. In terms of the networking, we intend to be certified by PCIDSS, and then ISO 27001 standard, to ensure people have confidence in the network and the security of their data that is stored on our servers.

With Africa's investment profile on the increase, is MainOne eyeing investments in other African countries, especially in building cross border networks, among others?

Yes. We already have connectivity in quite a number of West African countries, Ghana is a major location for us because the submarine cable actually connects to Accra, but from Accra we have connectivity into Republic of Benin, Togo, Burkina Faso. The West African countries are our focus. In order to connect, we have to talk and work with the telecoms operators in those countries and sometimes we find that it is a bit of a challenge because the SLA in the country might be less than what we expect. We are going to expand more into other Africa countries.

We do have a connectivity agreement in East Africa via Seacom, the biggest wholesale operator there. Our agreement with SEACOM enables us to offer connections to many of those countries on the East Coast.

How did Kenya, others get theirs right because Nigeria started the race with them?

Kenya was a lot more focused in terms of getting the government, local/state, to fast-track broadband rollout in the country.

You talked about the financial constraints of deploying services across the country; do you think VSAT can come into play here, especially in landlocked areas?

I think VSAT has its place particularly in rural areas. The major issues are how to get cheap VSAT terminals and low cost satellite transponder bandwidth to provide a low cost service. Typically spectrum in terms of megahertz on the international satellites is still quite expensive, so the only way of getting around that is to try and get NigComSat to utilize the transponders better and lower costs. The problem is how much it's going to cost to deploy for rural areas. Its possible if you have cheap satellite bandwidth coupled with a low-cost terminal and you distribute with respect to WIFI in a particular area. You also have to look at how much you would charge each customer; you have to ensure a billing system is in place as well but it's quite feasible to use VSAT.

What happened to WIMAX technology?

WIMAX is still alive and kicking; there are companies that are still running with it in Nigeria. However, the issue with WIMAX is not that the technology is bad, it's the fact that the license that has been given is not enough to deliver high speed services as compared to LTE. For example, the LTE guys are running 20/30/40 megahertz in terms of spectrum and you can compare this to WIMAX operators who have chunks of 5 megahertz. Then there is also the issue of efficiency; the LTE technology is more efficient in terms of bandwidth per MegaHertz. So that's why you actually get more throughputs out of it. WIMAX been overtaken by the LTE technology. The advanced LTE technology is similar to 5G and it is the next step in the evolution of wireless technology.


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Source: AllAfrica


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