The Minister of Communications Technology, Dr. Omobola Johnson, recently spoke with technology journalists on the importance of information and communications technology in driving transparency in government as well as enhancing general development. Emma Okonji who was there presents the excerpts:
What is federal government doing to accelerate technology development in the country?
The federal government, led by the Jonathan administration, has taken decisive actions to not only transform the way government operates but also how it connects to the citizenry.
The Federal Ministry of Communications Technology, where I operate as the minister, was created in 2011 in recognition of the increasing importance of the information and communications technology sector to national and economic development, and the need for a coordinating ministry or agency to marshal resources and remained focused on delivering a comprehensive ICT policy.
What has been the impact of the ministry in achieving government's objective since it was established?
Since inception the ministry has been able to chart an increase in the contribution of its sector to the national GDP. The ministry has also endeavoured to create policies and pilot programmes that will lead to a faster adoption rate among the youth and close the yawning gender gap in the utilisation and adoption of ICT.
There have also been concerted efforts to include and normalise ICT as a pedagogical and instructional tool in the education sector; even as there are other ongoing efforts to make ICT central to other sectors of the economy and the lives of everyday Nigerians.
The ministry is keen on delivering its mandate and its objectives and by so doing playing a central role in the transformation agenda of President Goodluck Jonathan. The President is committed to transforming the Nigerian economy into a knowledge economy by 2020 and the ministry is crucial to making that goal a reality.
Several of our initiatives are targeted towards the future growth of the ICT sector such as encouraging business innovation via incubation labs, increasing access to capital for SME's via the $15million investment fund, spurring research and innovation by connecting tertiary institutions and stimulating the economy via local participation in software and hardware sector.
What precisely is the mandate of the ministry and what are some of the policy implementation carried out so far?
The mandate of the ministry is to, among others, facilitate universal, ubiquitous and cost effective access to communication infrastructure; promote the utilisation of ICT in all spheres of life to optimise the communications infrastructure, such as digital content creation, domestic software applications; and the delivery of private and public services over the internet.
It also has a mandate to promote and facilitate the development of the ICT industry and in so doing, increase the contribution of the ICT industry to GDP and to facilitate the deployment of information and communication technologies to drive transparency in governance, improve the quality and cost effectiveness of public service delivery.
Since its inception, we have focused on four priority areas in its fulfillment of the nation's vision and the execution of its mandate namely; infrastructure development, inclusive development, local content and IT in government.
Under infrastructure development, the ministry is implementing 'Connected Nigeria' aimed at providing ubiquitous broadband infrastructure. The vehicle for inclusive development is the 'Connected Nigerians' programme through which the ministry is facilitating access to infrastructure and devices ownership.
The ministry is promoting local content by ensuring that there is increasing domestic value added in the ICT Industry. Our focus on IT in Government, promotes e-Governance by harnessing ICTs to ensure transparency, efficiency and productivity in governance and citizen engagement.
This will create an enabling environment to foster investments both at local and international levels, deliver on the mandate to increase ICT's contribution to GDP.
What are some of the achievements of the ministry in driving development?
In terms of connectivity, we have achieved remarkable progress in facilitating increased access to ICTs. Teledensity ratio increased tremendously to 86.62 per cent in 2013 and over 121 million active subscribers are now connected.
In 2012, the number of telecom subscribers was 114.76 million against 95.9 million in 2010; which represents a 19.5 per cent increase in telecom subscriber base. The ministry's achievements in the area of IT in governance shows that the number of government services delivered online has increased tremendously.
The number of ministries, departments and agencies of government (MDAs) with government allotted websites have increased to 420 and by 2015, all the MDAs will have allotted websites.
As at June 2012, Nigeria was home to 48.4 million Internet users up from 45 million as at the end of 2011, according to International Telecommunications Union (ITU)). The 2012 figure represents 28 per cent penetration rate and 29 per cent of total Internet users in Africa making Nigeria the largest Internet market in Africa by volume.
What has been the broadband strategy of government, since the launch of Nigeria's National Broadband Plan last year?
In recognition of the widely quoted statistics that a 10 per cent increase in broadband delivers a 1.3 per cent increase in the GDP of developing economies, such as Nigeria, the Jonathan administration inaugurated a Presidential Committee to develop a National Broadband Strategy in September 2013.
The Broadband strategy was to facilitate and encourage the private sector to deploy broadband networks and achieve universal broadband services in Nigeria. The Committee proposed a broadband strategy which was approved by Mr. President on 30th May, 2013. A broadband Council that will oversee the implementation of the plan was inaugurated by the ministry on 16th July 2013.
The broadband strategy and roadmap is designed to ensure coordinated roll-out of broadband infrastructure. This results in a predictable environment for infrastructure development by private sector and ultimately increases investment in the ICT sector, and further our objective of increasing the GDP contribution to the sector. There is a planned target of 30 per cent broadband penetration by 2017.
What is the role of the universal service provision fund (USPF) and how has it been able to drive ICT development in the country?
The USPF is a special fund set up by government through the National Communications Act 2003 to provide telecommunications and ICT services to un-served, underserved and deprived communities in the country.
The ministry has used the USPF to facilitate the achievement of universal access to ICT and universal service, through market-based investment, which stimulate development in rural, un-served and underserved communities.
In addition to supplementing the transmission network built by the private sector in rural and underserved areas, over 450 public schools spread across the six geopolitical zones of the country have received world class computer labs provided by the USPF. Standardised educational content developed by local companies is now being rolled out.
High cost of deployment of telecoms infrastructure has been blamed on high cost of rights of way (RoW) imposed by various governments. What is the ministry doing to address this?
The ministry in partnership with the Federal Ministry of Works, developed new rights of way guidelines on federal highways enabling operators have unencumbered access to lay fibre optic cables. This is critical for infrastructure development and quality of service, reducing the overall cost for deployment.
Furthermore, the ministry convinced state governors and the relevant authorities at the state level to agree to eliminate multiple-taxation and adopt measures that will remove arbitrary charges and enhance telecoms service delivery.
Other benefits to this agreement, include standardise pricing on rights of way, taxes and levies, thereby increasing the predictability of cost for infrastructure development in the ICT sector. The agreement has reduced cost of network deployment and shortens the period for application processing.
Notably a landmark agreement that was facilitated by the ministry between the Lagos state government and service providers was brokered. The agreement with Lagos State resulted in the cost of the RoW being slashed from N3000.00 to N500.00, per metre, which is 85 per cent reduction.
An assessment of the deployment of ICT infrastructure revealed that almost 70 per cent of deployment cost was spent on processing RoW; taxes and levies on infrastructure, which makes the landmark agreement with the Lagos State government even more significant.
The ministry strongly believes that the elimination of multiple taxes will result in cost effective, accelerated and massive deployment of ICT infrastructure across the country, which will enhance quality delivery issues currently being experienced by telecoms subscribers.
Additionally, thousands of low to high-skilled ICT jobs will also be created for young entrepreneurs as the infrastructure is rolled out and subsequently maintained.
There is a fresh plan to license infrastructure companies. To what extent will this address the shortfall in telecoms infrastructure in the country?
To ensure faster deployment of national broadband network deployment plan, we have found more efficient ways to manage and license Infrastructure Companies (INFRACOS). The INFRACOS would provide intercity fibre.
Under the initiative, geographically focused INFRACOS will provide wholesale bandwidth services on a non-discriminatory, open access, price regulated basis. The objective of the initiative is to stimulate a new national broadband network that is not only more widespread, but also faster and more secure than what is available today.
We are confident this will stimulate other sectors of the economy and lead to higher economic benefits for Nigeria. In addition, this will offer efficient connectivity as well as ultra-high-speed broadband services that are available, affordable and sustainable.
Recently, the committee for broadband awareness campaign was established. What is the need for this?
The broadband awareness campaign launched in February 2014, aims to communicate the transformational benefits of broadband to all Nigerians encouraging its use and adoption. It also informs the populace where broadband is accessible in local communities.
The Campaign tagged "Connected Nigeria, Connected Nigerians" will raise awareness and disseminate information of the benefits of broadband and how broadband is creating economic as well as its social value for Nigerians.
In November 2012, government initiated a collaboration of indigenous original equipment manufacturers (IOEMs), banks and the National University Commission (NUC) to drive students' computer ownership. How far has it gone?
In order to improve computer ownership and student access to Internet as well as improve market share of the IOEMs, the federal government initiated the collaboration with banks and the National University Commission (NUC) to drive students' computer ownership.
The programme will enable students in tertiary institutions own computers through a low interest rate loan with repayment monthly plans of between N3, 500 and N5, 800, over a period of 18 months. Over one million PCs are expected to be sold to students under this programme.
What is the ministry doing to address gender gap in ICT among Nigerian students?
ICT has always had the inherent ability to liberate and empower disenfranchised or marginalized groups. Unfortunately, in Nigeria, women are 40 per cent less likely to have access to the Internet than men.
More widespread access would create opportunities for empowering female citizens to participate in broader educational and economic opportunities. In this regard, the national broadband plan recognises and addresses the gender gap in the access and utilisation of ICT.
As such, the ministry has benefitted from the Ministry of Finance gender based programme, the Girls and Women in Nigeria (G-WIN) initiative, intended to bridge the gender gap in access and empowerment.
Other programmes include SmartWoman Nigeria; Digital Girls ICT Club and the Federal Ministry of Communications Technology/HUAWEI 1000 Girls initiative.
The SmartWoman project envisioned to be the largest network of connected women in Nigeria is aimed at empowering Nigerian women through provision of affordable means of receiving accurate and timely information relevant to their socio-economic needs.
It is primarily a mobile service supporting the advancement and education of women around the world. Despite the prevalence of mobile phones within the country, the capacity of rural women to take advantage of opportunities created by ICT is hampered by lack of knowledge and easy access to relevant information.
Therefore, SmartWoman Nigeria will provide women with access to affordable, reliable and relevant content via daily feeds on their mobile devices.
How is the ministry promoting local content in ICT?
Promoting local content in the ICT sector is a key focus of the ministry, leading to the establishment of the industry and the integration of indigenous original equipment manufacturers. This provides wealth and job creation opportunities in line with the Jonathan administrations transformation agenda.
The ministry is focused on creating domestic ICT businesses in device, software and services that will drive revenue generated by ICT and increase ICT's contribution to GDP.
In 2012, the ministry came up with the Techlaunchpad initiative. How will this enhance technology development in the country?
To complement the iDEA centres, the ministry in conjunction with the private sector established another innovation initiative called Techlaunchpad. It was launched in December 2012, as a public private partnership focused on carefully selected tech start-ups that will be provided training and mentorship programs through heads of ICT and executives of private sector.
The mentors work with the tech start-ups and young entrepreneurs, to provide inputs to their software development to ensure solutions have socio-economic relevance within the targeted industry. Partners in the first phase of the programme included Chevron, Total, Elf, ExxonMobil, First Bank, Access Bank, Accenture, Fate Foundation and Digital Jewel.
In addition to assisting the start-ups to build software that meets international standards, the programme also provides access to funding and market, which are some of the inhibiting factors to the growth of the local, young technology companies.
To what extent is the ministry growing the domestic ICT industry?
The ministry recently facilitated the issuance of the Nigerian Content Guidelines for the ICT sector. The Nigerian Content Guidelines was issued against the backdrop that the Nigerian ICT industry is currently displaying a paradoxical economic deficit and a negative balance of trade.
This is due to the fact that the economic value generated locally in comparison with the imported technologies used by Nigerians is far below optimal.
Major multinational hardware and software companies have established presence in Nigeria and a growing number of technology service companies are also present.
There is also notable participation of an increasing number of local companies in various aspects of ICT including IOEM, Internet services provision, backhaul networking provision, submarine and terrestrial communications cabling, e-commerce and the local software development sub-sectors are growing.
Despite these achievements, there is overwhelming evidence that participation and contribution of predominantly local companies and professionals is not yet significant.
What is the initiative of government open data all about?
The ministry recently commenced implementation of open data initiative to support the government's objective of driving innovation, investment and economic growth, by enabling access to government data and by bringing to life the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act.
The initiative is a consultative and inclusive process that will open up high value datasets from across government ministries to citizens, businesses and the rest of the world, for free access to information.
The commencement of the process makes Nigeria the world's first Federal Open Data initiative to simultaneously launch inclusive and continuing consultations with both government and nongovernment communities, to develop the country's national open data implementation plan.
The Nigeria Federal Open Data Initiative, supported by the World Bank, aims to highlight the potential efficiency, innovations and public value that can be achieved when government uses technology to open its data. Over 50 countries have launched federal level open data initiatives and the impact on economic growth can be transformative.