N1.98tr investment gap cripples telephony services

An investment gap of about N1.98 trillion in the telecommunications sector is currently hindering some 40 million Nigerians from accessing basic telephony services in the country.This is based on the fact that the telecommunications industry needs about 80,000 Base Transceiver Stations (BTS) to have a ubiquitous and more robust service. But current statistics show that only 30,598 BTS, otherwise known as telecoms masts, service the entire 179 million active telephone users in the country. Nigeria’s telecoms sector investment is put at $70 billion.

The gap of about 49,402 BTS is putting pressure on existing infrastructure, resulting in poor services almost on a daily basis. This challenge has also denied some 195 communities (where about 40 million Nigerians currently reside) access to voice and data services, among other telecoms services.

A BTS is a piece of equipment that facilitates wireless communication between user equipment (UE) and a network. UEs are devices like mobile phones (handsets), WLL phones, and computers with wireless Internet connectivity. The network can be that of any of the wireless communication technologies like GSM, CDMA, wireless local loop, Wi-Fi, WiMAX or other wide area network (WAN) technology.

Information gathered by The Guardian from mobile telecommunications infrastructure provider, IHS Towers, revealed that BTS infrastructure, being a huge capital intensive project, could cost an operator as much as N40 million to construct. This is apart from daily expenses of running the supportive power generating set.

An official of one of the telecoms operators, who preferred anonymity, said depending on the type of generating set, an operator spends between N190 million to N200 million on diesel to ensure the site is powered all day for a month. He disclosed that a single BTS arrives with a tower, special antennas and two generating sets.He explained that a co-located tower which houses three to five base stations uses a 20KVA generating set to supply power while a tower that houses a single base station uses a 15KVA generator. More so, each generator consumes at least 50 litres of diesel per day especially in recent times when the public power system has become quite erratic.

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It was learnt that currently, towers run on generator in an average of 17 hours a day. This means that the 30,598 towers in the country powered by generators consume some 1.75 million litres of diesel every day!.Going by the deficit of about 49,402 BTS that still exist in the sector and at N40 million/BTS, about N1.98 trillion investments will be needed to expand existing infrastructure.

The Guardian investigation showed that as at December 2018, MTN had the highest number of base stations with 14,715. Airtel had 7,966; Glo, 7,244; Ntel, 562; EMTS (9Mobile), 148 and Smile, two base stations.In terms of the geographical spread of this major telecoms infrastructure, the 2018 Subscriber/Network Data Report, compiled by the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), shows that the top five states with the highest number of base stations are: Lagos, 4,764; Ogun, 1,931; Rivers, 1,676; FCT, 1,684 and Oyo, 1,303. The states with the least are: Yobe, 205; Zamfara, 223; Gombe, 286; Jigawa, 289 and Kebbi, 298.

However, in terms of BTS specifically for mobile services, the top five states with the highest number of base stations are: Lagos, 4,734; Ogun, 1,931; FCT, 1,675; Rivers, 1,671 and Oyo, 1,300 while those with the least number are: Yobe, 205; Zamfara, 223; Jigawa, 289; Kebbi, 298 and Sokoto, 308.

It is interesting to note that the service providers, including MTN, Globacom, Airtel, and 9Mobile have since transferred the burdens of managing BTS in the country to tower firms such as IHS.

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The executive vice chairman/CEO, Nigerian Communications Commission, Prof. Umar Danbatta, had alluded to the fact that Nigeria needs between 70,000 and 80,000 BTS to cover the entire length and breadth of the country and join the club of countries working towards making the Internet of Things (IoT) a reality by leveraging 4G and 5G networks.

During a meeting with the House of Representatives’ adhoc committee investigating the health implications of mounting telecoms masts close to residential buildings in Abuja, Danbatta disclosed that the country had less than 50,000 BTS.“3G, 4G going to 5G networks are going to usher this country into smart applications, the IoTs or the smart world and cities we are talking about. And of course, because of the additional burden on infrastructure, the present capacity of telecoms infrastructure is grossly inadequate to cater for these additional platforms or services we talk about.

“Therefore we will need between 70,000 and 80,000 base transceiver masts to be able to provide the effective capacity that is needed to deploy 4G going to 5G,” he said, urging other approving agencies at all levels of government in the country to partner with NCC to achieve the target.

Comparative analysis with other countries showed that BTS infrastructure is indeed very low in Nigeria, especially in relation to population. For instance, the United Kingdom (UK), with a population of 60 million people and about 250 land square meters has close to 60,000 BTS. As at early this year, South Africa with a population of 51.7 million people and a 109.8sqm landmass had 30,000 BTS. According to The East African, Kenya with a population of 47.5 million and a 202sqm landmass has 6,800 BTS.On this account, the Association of Licensed Telecoms Companies of Nigeria (ALTON) is on the same page with the NCC on infrastructure deficit.

Responding to The Guardian enquiries, ALTON chairman, Gbenga Adebayo, said to stimulate investment in the sector, government and approval authorities should do more to ease the process of obtaining site building approvals required by telecoms operators.Adebayo, an engineer, also said government must do a lot more in protecting exiting telecommunications infrastructure because recurring vandalisation of infrastructure is a major disincentive for rolling out more sites.

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On current challenges facing operators, the ALTON boss said the high cost of Right of Way (RoW) for interconnecting underground fiber optic cable infrastructure is also a major challenge, which limits the numbers of sites to be built or interconnected. On his part, the president, Association of Telecommunications Companies of Nigeria (ATCON), Olusola Teniola, said investment in BTS infrastructure could only happen when there is an enabling environment in Nigeria.

He said there are too many obstacles in the business environment that dissuade further investments. These include poor policy formulation, brazen extortion by government agencies and threats to shut down telecoms infrastructure over disagreements on non-payments of levies imposed arbitrarily at state level.

According to him, the current investment environment in Nigeria is very uncertain. “There’s need for clarity in NCC’s regulation of the sector in terms of directives and clear succinct rules and regulations to protect the investments already made,” he said.The ATCON president also said government must fund the market gaps and work with the World Bank and other international organisations to address the sector’s problems.

A telecoms expert, Kehinde Aluko, noted that aside from the huge cost on fuelling, the few available BTS are subject to incessant closures by state actors and miscreants without recourse to law and national security. Meanwhile, Minister of Communications and Digital Economy Isa Pantami has urged states to desist from indiscriminate closure and vandalisation of telecoms infrastructure, otherwise known as Critical National Infrastructure (CNI). He also said his office has received several complaints from Mobile Network Operators about incidents of forced closures or outright destruction of telecommunications infrastructure in some parts of the country.

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