Olusola Teniola, Nigeria National Coordinator, Alliance for Affordable Internet

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On how internet use during the pandemic is leading to new opportunities

What has been the impact of Covid-19 on the local telecommunications sector?

OLUSOLA TENIOLA: The telecoms sector saw an initial spike in activity when everyone shifted to online activities due to the lockdown, but growth has plateaued more recently. With the help of the government, industry players were able to ensure rights of passage and keep networks running despite the challenges brought on by the pandemic. 

Network congestion has become the norm this year, but there have been no network outages. Although many people and strategic sectors have struggled because they were not prepared for a crisis like Covid-19, telecoms companies have benefitted strongly. Nonetheless, the longer the lockdowns persist, the greater the impact on consumers’ propensity to spend money and therefore purchase network credit. The third quarter saw growth begin to flatline, and tighter margins are on the horizon, even for the largest companies.

How can telecoms companies provide more affordable solutions in Nigeria?

TENIOLA: Online access is still a privilege and not yet a right in the country, as we would like it to become. We are, however, close to being able to offer affordable internet services to customers nationwide. The target of 2% of monthly GNI for 1 GB of data is within reach.

The Nigerian Broadband Plan 2020-25 is now in place, and the Broadband Implementation Steering Committee seeks to provide solutions for low-income populations. Establishing community networks – whereby low-tech solutions can help to prevent white elephant projects – is another point of consideration. Ultimately, the sector needs to adopt sustainable practices and include local communities in the development strategy. In practice, this means understanding how multilateral organisations that work on a peer-to-peer basis can hand work over to local people who are trained to run projects. 

There is no shortage of investor interest in Nigeria, as shown by large-scale investments in wet data capacity around Lagos. Facebook and Google’s plans ¬–Project Simba and Equiano, respectively – are further evidence that Lagos is on the map. We welcome the arrival of these companies; it opens up competition and keeps traditional players on their toes. However, despite such interest around Lagos, increasing capacity in the hinterlands at an affordable cost remains an issue. 

To what extent has the pandemic facilitated a shift to digital practices?

TENIOLA: Virtual learning has been the norm among the affluent since the beginning, and this model is in line with the western mindset that is increasingly prevalent. However, there is still some reluctance to engage with digital skills in the capital. A large part of that reluctance is due to inadequate equipment; some workers did not have a computer to work from home during the pandemic and therefore found it impossible to connect. Furthermore, in the public sector, some information is still stored on paper rather than in digital databases.

Nigeria remains a 2G mobile landscape, and we are still expanding and reacting. Covid-19 has exposed the hurdles of corruption, infrastructure deficits and other pre-existing problems that we may now find solutions to through digital means. The country has the opportunity to correct some bad habits and think in a different way. Thanks to the pandemic, there is now more discussion on digital topics as governments around the world increasingly appreciate and consider new areas for development.

Big data, artificial intelligence and data science are all on the table and ready for integration. However, we must move away from our reliance on oil to embrace digitalisation and open up more space online. There has been a spike in cybercrime activity which has, of course, made a bad name for the internet when overall it is a force for good. Nigeria’s journey requires people, processes and systems to build bridges to a more digital world. We now have more pieces to the jigsaw puzzle, we just need to put them together. 

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