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How infrastructure investment boosts Internet penetration – Experts

File copy: Internet cables

About 300 million more Africans are expected to be online in the next five years, according to experts in the telecommunication industry.

In response to the development, investment in telecom infrastructure to boost capacity on the continent has picked up in the last couple of years.

There has been an increase in foreign-backed and local subsea cables on the continent to boost Internet access.

With the lowest global Internet penetration rate of 39.3 per cent in Sub-Saharan Africa, experts consider investments in subsea cables as one way of increasing access.

This increase in capacity is expected to boost Internet access in the nation and on the continent. However, experts have said that there is a need to increase last-mile capacity to fully enjoy the fruits that recent investments are set to herald.

Last-mile connectivity is the connectivity that serves end-users from the main backbone network.

Recently, Google announced the berthing of its subsea cable, Equiano, in Lagos. According to the company, its subsea cable would boost Nigeria’s GDP by $10.1bn by 2025 and create 1.6 million jobs within the same time period.

According to the company, its cable would increase Internet speed six-fold, and crash prices by 21 per cent. However, for this capacity to be realised, there is a need to transmit it across the country, but several challenges plague the last-mile delivery of telecom services in Nigeria.

Speaking on the sidelines of its subsea cable, Equiano, the Director, Google West Africa, Juliet Ehimuan, said, “For us to realise capacity with the end-user, the capacity has to be transmitted across the country.

“When you look at the end-to-end value chain of Internet infrastructure provision, there are different points. This is taking care of the international leg, but that capacity also needs to be distributed. That’s why we are open and looking forward to partnerships with telecom operators and with Internet service providers so that they can take advantage of this additional capacity and make an impact in terms of last-mile.

“There are many factors also influencing last-mile. This is something that the government, the regulator, the relevant ministries, and the service providers in the private sector are working through.

“We have things like the ease of expansion, Right of Way issues, different level of taxation, protection of cable infrastructure when you have road construction and other things, infrastructure sharing, and power. There is also the cost of powering your base stations. These are different factors that also come to play when you look at metro access and there are different stakeholders looking at that.”

According to her, Africa’s emerging population of Internet users needed capacity, and investing in Internet infrastructure was imperative.

She stated that the increased capacity and demand were crucial. She said the Internet and digital services provided a lot of opportunities for people to create jobs for themselves, grow their businesses, boost themselves, and create opportunities to expand their skill-sets as well.

According to GSMA, the global association of telecom companies, 303 million people across Sub-Saharan Africa were connected to the mobile internet in 2020. The figure would grow to 450 million people in 2025, the GSMA said.

It said, “In 2020, mobile technologies and services generated more than $130bn of economic value-added (8 per cent of GDP) in Sub-Saharan Africa.

“This will reach $155bn by 2025, as countries increasingly benefit from the improvements in productivity and efficiency brought about by the increased take-up of mobile services.”

In a report, the World Bank said Nigeria’s digital economy could transform economic activities, unleashing new productivity gains, offering new services and improving the government’s efficiency.

Digital technologies are expressed as digital platforms for users to leverage on. These digital platforms are powered by the Internet.

The global bank added that national fixed broadband was underdeveloped in Nigeria, noting that in 2018 the country’s household penetration rate for fixed broadband was 0.04 per cent.

This, according to the World Bank, was below the African regional average of 0.6 per cent and far behind the world average of 13.6 per cent.

It stated, “Fibre-optic backbone deployment has been focused on middle mile deployments within and across major urban areas, while last-mile deployments remain limited.”

To get Internet access to Nigerians, the country needs roughly about 120,000 to 167,000kms of fibre infrastructure, in addition to its existing 55,000kms at a cost of $3.4bn.

Without commensurate investments in last-mile infrastructure, other forms of investments would only paper over the cracks without solving actual problems.

According to the Vice President, Marketing, Tizeti, Temitope Osunrinde, “While new submarine cables are good and welcome, as they will provide more wholesale options, the real issue, especially for Nigeria, is in last-mile infrastructure.

“Nigeria lacks a widespread, open-access national backbone network through which high-speed connectivity can be expanded at a reasonable cost. There are pockets of fibre infrastructure in a few states but this infrastructure is limited or lacking in many states. And we need that backbone network to fully benefit from the existing subsea cables, and now Google’s Equiano.

“In Ghana, CSquared, a Google company, built fibre in a lot of locations and this helped to pass on the development outcomes of the internet to many businesses and homes. If we can mirror that kind of infrastructure network, we will get full value for subsea cables and operators can pass on the benefits to you and me.”

According to the Nigerian Communications Commission, last-mile connectivity in the nation was largely mobile with lower investments made in fixed lines infrastructure within the past two decades.

In a report, the NCC said, “There is the need for improvement in last-mile connectivity to end-user and increased adoption.”

Metro access to fibre networks, which means access to end-users, is currently at 25 per cent, according to the commission. The NCC noted that the access was largely domiciled in major cities such as Lagos, Abuja, Port Harcourt, and within Edo and Ogun states.

In its new Broadband Plan, the Federal Government has a target to deliver broadband access to 90 per cent of Nigerians by 2025. According to the NCC, broadband access stood at 40.91 per cent in February 2022.

The NCC said, “Infrastructure is at the very core of the success of every National Broadband Plan worldwide. It has also become obvious that one of the challenges hindering broadband penetration and service coverage in the country lies in the glaring infrastructure deficit in the telecommunications sector in Nigeria as a subset of the infrastructure deficit across the Nigerian economy.

“Most of the infrastructure available seems to be over-provisioned in choice areas, mainly due to overriding commercial considerations of operators in the industry.”

Recently, the Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Isa Pantami, and the Executive Vice Chairman of the NCC, Prof. Umar Danbatta, made a commitment to continue to drive policy initiatives that would promote investment in infrastructure in the telecom industry in order to deepen connectivity to enhance the nation’s growth and development.

According to Danbatta, Equiano had joined a list of other submarine cables at the shores of Nigeria, including SAT3 Cable, MainOne Cable, Glo1 Cable, the African Coast to Europe Submarine Cable by Dolphin, and West African Cable System by MTN.

He said, “We are hopeful that Equiano, together with earlier undersea cables in the country, will have additional landing points in the hinterlands through collaborative efforts with NCC-licensed Infrastructure companies.

“This will help to reduce retail data prices significantly and thereby complementing the Commission’s efforts at ensuring that affordable Internet services are available to boost Commission’s ongoing broadband policy initiatives.”

Meta’s 2Africa Cable is also set to berth in Nigeria soon. By increasing investment in capacity, these companies are committing to improving the speed, quality and affordability of Internet services in the nation.

According to experts, increasing the capacity for Internet access only solves one part of the puzzle. Without last-mile investments, these increases in capacity will remain largely untapped by the end-users they are meant for.

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