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ICT investment in Nigeria: Citzens to get more value says Minister of Communications.

Mrs. Omobola Johnson the current Minister of Communications Technology in Nigeria recently addressed journalists in Lagos, saying Nigerians will get more value from government Information Communications Technology spending.

Read DAYO OKETOLA’s interview with Mrs. Omobola Johnson.
You once said you were in a hurry to advance technology development in Nigeria. What area do you think the country is still lagging behind that needs quick acceleration?

Broadband for data services, broadband that facilitates fast and cost effective access to the Internet nationwide. Broadband to leverage the Internet and Internet services to support development in healthcare, education, agriculture and of course financial inclusion.
You came up with the idea of harmonized Information Communications Technology policy for Nigeria. What actually motivated you into that, and to what extent do you think the policy will drive technology development in the country?

Before the creation of the Ministry of Communications Technology in Nigeria, ICT was being supervised by two ministries and the office of the Secretary to the Government of the Federation with little or no collaboration or interface between the two. Bringing all the agencies under one roof made the overlap and duplication between agencies quite obvious. It was clear to me that we could not make the required progress in the ICT industry if we didn’t begin to look at ICT as a whole and not as discrete and disparate entities of IT and telecoms.
The convergence of Information and Communications Technologies also informed the need for harmonization. The computer can be a phone and the phone can be a computer. Discrete policies to drive the industry therefore needed to be harmonized. Once we are done with the stakeholder consultations, I believe we will have a policy document that the ICT industry and government can jointly implement which should drive the development of the ICT industry in Nigeria.
One of the aims of the draft policy is to create a converged regulator for the ICT industry In Nigeria. Can you shed light on why a converged regulator is needed?
Technology is such that the same frequencies can now be used to broadcast and provide Internet services unlike in the past where there were different frequencies for different uses. Let me give you an example, today companies that are given broadcast frequencies and licenses have illegally provided more lucrative Internet services to consumers and they do not have a license from the Nigeria Communications Commission. This is simply because new technology and equipment allow them to do so. Individuals with smart phones can broadcast information or misinformation to thousands of people without having a television or radio license – look at what happened with the youth riots in the United Kingdom last year. The same devices are being used for both telecoms and broadcasting and media services. I can use my mobile phone or laptop to download and watch a film, listen to the radio, download and play music, make calls, and surf the net, among others. Software applications associated more with IT and are now needed in increasing number and volume to provide mobile applications. In other words the advent of new, leading edge technologies has forced convergence and we must face that fact and begin to look more seriously at the need to have more efficient regulatory regimes. As I keep saying the process of convergence is not an easy one or an overnight one – laws and enabling acts must be amended, new institutions must be formed etc – but I have never seen a country make progress if she chooses to take the easy route and avoid challenges and problems. Luckily we have many good examples of countries that have successfully merged their broadcasting, telecoms and IT regulators to learn from such as the United States, the United Kingdom, Kenya and Ghana to name a few.
How can you use technology to reduce cost of governance at the federal, state and local government levels in Nigeria?
There are a number of things that we are doing and hopefully as we do them Nigerians will begin to see improvements in government services. We are working on an IT Shared Services platform that will aggregate a lot of the IT spending of MDAs (especially on hardware and data storage) and, reduce duplication. We are in the process of developing a holistic e-Government strategy which will culminate in more government services being delivered efficiently online. We are streamlining and redesigning MDA websites and we will be working with MDAs to provide more useful data online to reduce the number of visits of citizens to government offices to request information and transact business. All these things will reduce the cost of governance in Nigeria. Many states are already doing this – I have already met with a number of Commissioners and Special Advisers for ICT at the state level and I am impressed with what they are doing. Working together we can do even more. What I cannot promise Nigerians is that we will reduce ICT spending – we need to spend more money on IT, what we can promise though is that there will be significantly more value for the money spent.
Broadband penetration is still low despite the landing of various submarine cables at the shores of Nigeria. What is the way forward to deepen its penetration?
You are right. We now have tremendous Internet capacity with the landing of additional three submarine cables in Nigeria. Unfortunately, the cost of taking this capacity inland through the laying of fiber optic is quite prohibitive. Today it costs more to carry data traffic from Lagos to Abuja than from Europe to Lagos where the cables start and land – and I am talking of multiples of cost for a fraction of the distance if you get what I mean. We have a target to double our broadband penetration by 2015 and we cannot do this if we are faced with these ridiculous costs. We are aware of the underlying factors –some of them I mentioned earlier – right of way, difficulties in laying fiber, among others. However, some of the factors are due to the fact that network operators are competing on infrastructure they have built and not on the value added services they are providing. We need to balance the need to ensure that the network operators rightly get a reasonable return on the infrastructure investments they have made and the need to ensure that we do not encourage unfair competitive practices. There are regulatory measures that can be taken to address this and the Ministry has requested that the NCC seriously look into and implement appropriate regulatory measures that will drive down the cost of broadband and enable us achieve the penetration targets that we need to achieve to make a difference in development. In addition, we will more actively use the Universal Service Provision Fund as well as funds from other government agencies to incentivise subsequent build-out to unserved and undeserved areas with the condition that this incentivised build-out will be on an open access basis. That is, available to all regardless of who builds it.
You promised the creation of ICT incubation centres to accelerate software development. How much of this has been achieved?
Yes I did and we are making very good progress in this area. By the end of this month we will have a workable framework and template for incubation centres – including physical infrastructure, funding, and criteria for taking in incubates and how to build a local ecosystem of developers, researchers, venture capitalists. This is being developed by a team of local IT companies, local ICT entrepreneurs and global ICT companies such as Oracle, Google, Microsoft, and Nokia. We have already identified two locations for the first two pilots and we expect that these pilots can be up and running by the end of the third quarter. We are therefore very much on track to formalizing the pockets of software development that we see today and beginning to create jobs and wealth for young ICT entrepreneurs.
I must also say here that we do have a few ICT incubation centres in the country but the plan is to create a framework to multiply these centres and the opportunities they create for innovation, job and wealth creation.
Nigerians have been clamoring for the merger of the NCC and NBC. How will you effectively do this, when NBC is under the Ministry of Information and NCC is under your ministry?
Well, some Nigerians are clamoring for this and some Nigerians are very much against this merger! I explained earlier the rationale for a converged regulator. It really is of no consequence where the constituent parts of that converged regulator reside. We will continue with the stakeholder consultations, develop a road map for convergence and implement in accordance with the road map. As I continue to say, we are not trivializing this process. It will take time and require extensive consultation and thinking through but we do believe it is important for the success of the ICT industry.
What is your view on CBN’s initiative in introducing cash-less policy in Nigeria?
I think it’s a great initiative, which again is already being practiced by many people. CBN, in conjunction with the banks, just needs to accelerate this process and the benefits both to banks, in terms of reducing the overhead on cash management, which is passed to us the consumers and increasing customer convenience.
For instance, I cannot recall the last time I paid cash for domestic travel. All the major airlines have websites where you can purchase tickets and even check in online. Paying for services such as broadband, DSTV, some government services is cash-less and extremely convenient. As banks reduce their overheads we can begin to clamor for a reduction in interest rates for consumer loans – a collateral benefit I think this is called!
Culled from; Punch