By Uzor Maxim Uzoatu
Anambra State scored a remarkable feat on March 30 by becoming the first state in Nigeria to bring together eminent stakeholders in a conference to singularly address the obstacles facing broadband deployment and expansion in the country. The well-attended conference rallied stakeholders and investors to Anambra State’s readiness and willingness to expand broadband infrastructure for accelerated socioeconomic development of the State celebrated as “The Light of the Nation”.
Chief Willie Obiano, Governor of Anambra State, takes pride of place as the first leader in South-East Nigeria to implement the waiver of the per linear meter Right of Way (RoW) charges as opposed to the N145 per linear meter recommended by the National Economic Council.
The suave Chairman/Managing Director of Anambra State Physical Planning Board (ANSPPB), Barrister Chike Maduekwe masterfully organised the conference that attracted highbrow stakeholders such as the Honourable Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Isa Ali Pantami; the Government of the United Kingdom; Kaduna State Government; Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC); the Association of Licensed Telecoms Operators of Nigeria (ALTON); the Association of Telecommunication Companies of Nigeria (ATCON); Government of Anambra State and its agencies like the coordinators ANSPPB and a companion frontline agency, the Anambra State Investment Promotion and Protection Agency (ANSIPPA); the Greenfields Law; Crestsage Limited; Governments of other states in the South East Region; Facebook; Alliance for Affordable Internet; stakeholders in the telecom ecosystem; development enthusiasts and citizens; as well as journalists and other specialised communication professionals.
According to Barrister Maduekwe, “For purpose of clarity and better understanding, Broadband is like the expressway. It is the highway of information and communications. Just as the volume of goods an entity is able to move can determine its wealth, the volume and rate information (text, speech, sounds, static or motion images) can be transferred and received can shape prosperity. Broadband penetration (through laying of additional fibre or other wireless form of making broadband available) is similar to the expansion of express roads into the nooks and crannies of Nigeria. The availability of broadband, will enable people to access information they require to improve the quality of life lived, through participating in online economic activities, learning new skills, be more enlightened to participate in governance and for government to be able to provide public online services. The COVID-19 pandemic has proved that lives can be disrupted at any time and one way to survive disruptions of physical lifestyles is to migrate activities to online platforms to reduce the impact of disruptions. It is because schooling, seeking medical attention and trading can be done online that we are largely able to survive the Pandemic, and it is the totality of all these online activities and transactions that is called digital economy.”
The conference that had the theme “Facilitating Broadband Access Through a Favourable Right of Way Regime” came on the heels of the Federal Government’s launch of the National Digital Economy Policy and Strategy 2020-2030, the New National Broadband Plan 2020-2025, and the appeal to states to take urgent and concrete steps to domesticate the Policy and Plan, as well as attendant regulatory instruments and programmes.
The Anambra State Broadband Stakeholders Conference (ASBSC) was organised as a sequel to two earlier study-based technical conferences birthed by a collaborative partnership among the UK Government (through its Prosperity Fund Digital Access Programme), the Federal Ministry of Communication and Digital Economy (FMoCDE), and the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC).
The first conference tagged “Right of Way Administration and Issuance of Planning Permits for Masts and Towers” held in August 2020. The second conference which took place earlier in March 2021 had the theme “Bridging the Digital Divide for Underserved or Unserved Communities and PLWDs in a COVID-19 Context in Nigeria”.
The communiqué at the end of the ASBSC conference states: “The overarching objective of the technical conferences was to rally stakeholders to address the hindrances to concrete and quantifiable expansion in broadband infrastructure since it had been established empirically and irrefutably that increase in functional broadband infrastructure correlates with increase in GDP.
One of the central obstacles to seamless expansion of broadband in Nigeria is Right of Way (RoW) charges, pegged at 145 Naira per linear metre by the National Economic Council. However, in a radical expression of commitment to development, in June 2020, the Government of Anambra State waived the charges for Right of Way (RoW) for fibre optic cable deployment in the State. By this conference, Anambra State becomes the first State in Nigeria to rally stakeholders for at a forum designed solely to address obstacles to broadband deployment and expansion.”
It was commendations galore to the Government of Anambra State for concretely expressing commitment to removing hindrances to expanding broadband infrastructure and seeking strategic collaboration and partnership towards building robust broadband network.
The Honourable Minister noted that “the Conference is timely, commendable and deserving of emulation because Anambra has established itself as a key player in the Nigerian digital economy sphere. The digital component of the current global economy is about 25 percent, and given the huge promises of digital economy in terms of sustainable jobs, sustainable economic growth and higher living standards, the Federal Government is focused on achieving ‘data download speeds across Nigeria at a minimum of 25Mbps in urban areas, and 10Mbps in rural areas, with effective coverage available to at least 90% of the population and penetration rate of 70% by 2025 at a price not more than N390 per 1GB of data (2% of median income or 1% of minimum wage)’ as captured in the NNBP 2020-2025.”
The strategic focus areas are: Infrastructure, Policy, Demand Drivers, and Funding/Incentives.
The Government of the United Kingdom, through the UK Government Prosperity Fund for Digital Access, expressed “satisfaction with the focus of Nigeria’s digital economy policy, economic sustainability plan and the broadband policy.”
The UK is particularly glad that Anambra is taking this issue seriously. The current Pandemic has shown the significance of digital economy towards enhancing communication, education and commerce. The British Government indicated readiness, as already demonstrated, to partner stakeholders in Nigeria to strengthen connectivity, inclusion, and cyber security. The UK–Nigeria technological hub is set to help to enhance entrepreneurial skills and network populations in order to create jobs and address digital inequality.
The Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), as a central stakeholder in the implementation of both the NDEPS and NNBP, strongly advised governments to provide telecommunications infrastructure such as ducts as they plan their cities and towns. As a component of a digital economy, the NCC stated that “well-planned cities, every so often, opens new revenue streams for government, safeguards roads, water pipes, bridges and other infrastructure from unnecessary destruction and re-adjustments to fit-in additional infrastructure in the future.”
The umbrella body of the mobile network operators in Nigeria, the Association of Licensed Telecom Operators of Nigeria (ALTON), welcomed the waiving of the RoW charges and expressed “willingness to partner with Anambra for social and commercial investment provided the State Government goes beyond the RoW to address other issues that discourage operators from investing in the State, many of which are largely environmental factors.”
The Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI), an international Internet advocacy group, is also excited about the vision of Anambra State Government because of “the promise of ubiquitous, functional fibre infrastructure for socioeconomic activities in the host communities.” Also, the A4AI looks forward “to collaboration and inclusion of host communities in the broadband planning in ways that enable communities to participate as key stakeholders.” The Alliance therefore expects the Government “to identify roles the host communities could play in ensuring speedy and optimal roll out of fibre infrastructure, and perhaps, also in the security of such critical assets.”
The Association of Telecommunication Companies of Nigeria (ATCON) noted that “fibre infrastructure is of tremendous benefits to the citizens but appropriate market research focused on demand must be undertaken to ensure that corresponding services ride on the heels of the provision of infrastructure in order to secure the right kind of investments to encourage all state governments to embrace full digitization of their services, including administrative services, healthcare, agriculture, transportation, judiciary, education, security, and so on and truly implement smart city services across all sectors.”
The Anambra State Investment Promotion and Protection Agency (ANSIPPA) endorsed its preparedness to explore alternative funding sources with its potential partners in order to harness the benefits of broadband and itemised different funding sources for infrastructure projects like broadband deployment and expansion which include Public-Private Partnership, Public funding and guaranteed backing, Financial market and private capital, Bottom-up community financing, as well as revenue-based financing.
In all, the stakeholders applauded the administration of Chief Willie Obiano, Governor of Anambra State, for leading the broadband charge.
The stakeholders strongly recommended that access to broadband is a major factor to catalyse economic growth through productivity. The legal experts at the conference canvassed the need for legal intervention. There was a strong submission for planning legislation, organisation of installation, development and maintenance of infrastructure. The Conference identified that Anambra Physical Planning Law of 2013 does not contain a “Dig Once” policy which requires amendment.
Also, it was noted that Anambra State needs to be guided by “the recommendations in the UK Prosperity Fund in-country study 2020 with respect to site approvals, clarity in chargeable fees, clear timelines for approvals, centralised authorisation process through an establishment of a One-Stop Shop for broadband infrastructure issues, uniformity in processes governing approvals, and better perception of telecom operators as partners rather than cash cows to be exploited.”
The clarion call was: “A Smart Anambra requires a more progressive legal and regulatory regime to be birthed.”
The participants noted as a positive development the creation of an e-Planning Platform; implementation of online payments and integration with Anambra State Internal Revenue Service central billing system; a digital, independent complaint mechanism for construction permit issues; Shrunk approval of permits from three or more weeks to five days or LESS; Digitally verifiable construction and planning permits; and the fact that Nigeria moved up 15 places in 2020 on the world Ease of Doing business, and Anambra is listed in the Top Five performing states.
It was also noted as heart-warming that Anambra is already aligned with Nigerian e-Government Masterplan (2019), the Nigerian National Broadband Plan (2020 – 2025), the National Digital Economy Policy and Strategy (2020-2030), and the fact that Anambra state is the first state in the South-East Nigeria to implement a N0.00 per linear meter RoW charges, which is lower than the N145 per linear meter recommended by the National Economic Council.
The stakeholders particularly took conscious note of the assurances of the Government of Anambra State as enunciated in the keynote presentation by Governor Obiano, which include creation of A-One-Stop shop for the grant of all permits and approvals, certainty of fees and documentation requirements, expedited and transparent approval processes, and accessible channels through which disputes can be easily resolved.
Moving ahead, the stakeholders look forward enthusiastically to the rollout of the Anambra State Urban Regeneration Initiatives, especially in the area of e-Security, e-Commerce, e-Government, e-Education, and e-Health.
The next steps will then include engaging key stakeholders thereafter by incorporating valuable input towards implementation; developing four proposed broadband concession lots in the following areas: Open duct infrastructure; Dark Fibre infrastructure; Metro Fibre infrastructure; Last mile infrastructure; conducting selection of preferred partners and engaging qualified stakeholders through a competitive and transparent bidding process.
In conclusion, all stakeholders at the conference were pleased by the initiatives of the Government of Anambra State, particularly its pioneering revolutionary decisions in waiving the RoW charges and organising the first broadband stakeholders’ conference by any state in Nigeria.
It was obvious to all that Barrister Chike Maduekwe, Chairman/Managing Director of Anambra State Physical Planning Board (ANSPPB), has set a pedigree of the highest order.
— By Uzor Maxim Uzoatu is the author of God of Poetry, Satan’s Story, A Play of Ghosts and The Missing Link. A 2008 Caine Prize for African Writing nominee, he wrote the text for Scottish photographer Owen Logan’s caricature of Michael Jackson’s visit to Nigeria entitled Masquerade. He lives in Lagos and is married with children.