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By Emeka Aginam
The Minister of Communications Technology, Mrs Omobola Johnson in this interaction with IT Journalists recently in Lagos spoke on what her ministry is doing to address the poor quality of  service quality by the industry players. She also spoke on the draft ICT policy, insecurity, and need for a converged regulator among others. Excerpts:

Quality of service in Nigeria is getting worse by the day and Nigerians are getting frustrated. What is your ministry doing to address this issue?

I am not sure that there is a day that goes by, as the Minister of Communications Technology, that I don't receive a call, which, when it finally comes through, the caller is complaining about quality of service. Being a consumer myself, I am quite aware of the poor quality of service, which seems to be getting worse by the day. Quality of service is probably one of the biggest issues that the industry is dealing with right now and it is important that consumers understand what the issues are and what the ministry and NCC, the regulator, are doing about it.

Industry issues
At present the telecoms industry has issues with inadequate number of base stations, arbitrary costs and lengthy process of right of way acquisition, persistent interruptions as they try to lay cables even after obtaining right of way, willful and accidental damage to fibre optic cables and base stations and of course illegal taxes and levies by states and local governments, all of which work together to affect quality of service.

However, I have looked at the newly gazetted quality of service indicators and I believe that these challenges and problems are adequately built into these requirements. We are not asking for 99.9% network uptime or a 0% call drop rate or 100% successful call set up. For this reason I have asked the NCC to commence the process of not only publishing performance on QoS by operator per month but also to now impose meaningful penalties on operators that do not meet set targets.

Performance and penalties will be published on NCC websites on a monthly basis. In other words there shall now be consequences for network operators that do not meet this quality of service indicators. I don't believe that there is any self respecting company that wants to be constantly penalised by its regulator. However we are working assidously to resolve some of the issues on right of way, approval for base stations, and illegal taxes and levies.

Communications & Tech Minister, Omobola Johnson
We have been working in collaboration with the Ministry of Works and In the next couple of weeks we will be releasing new guidelines that will significantly reduce the bottle necks in the acquisition of right of way for the laying of fibre optic cables. The Ministry has put in motion the same collaboration with the Ministry of Environment and all indications are that we can , within a fairly short time reduce the time it takes to obtain approval to erect a base station.

There is an industry working committe on illegal taxes and levies that is putting together appropriate receommendations to curb illegal, punitive and unfair taxes on telecoms companies. Finally, we have started work on a critical ICT infratructure executive bill which should go to the National Assembly in the next few months after apprpriate consultation with stakeholders.

Because ICT is becoming so critical to development and commerce, one of the things this bill will do is to make it a criminal offense, punishable by law for any individual, company, local or state government to tamper with or cause willful damage to any infrastructure required to provide ICT services to individuals or companies.

I believe that these actions - penalties for not meeting QoS targets, punishment for willful damage and working to reduce bottlenecks in the build-out of telecoms infrastructure will result in some fairly significant improvements in QoS by the end of the year.

Insecurity is also getting worse and stakeholders have advocated the deployment of ICTs to tackle the menace of insecurity. Are there inputs from your ministry about this?

We are very much aware of the insecurity challenges facing the country. The current situation has made it necessary for civil and military services to collaboratively leverage the benefits of ICTs to meet contemporary security challenges that are confronting our nation. ICTs offer solutions that can help tackle the kind of security challenges we are facing.

Just last week, an agency under the ministry, Galaxy Backbone organised a forum on the need to leverage ICTs for national security in partnership with the Ministry of Defence and it was really great to see such collaborations because there is no doubt that the adoption of an integrated ICT strategy will help resolve some of the security challenges we face.

You once said you were in a hurry to advance technology development in Nigeria. What areas do you think the country is still lagging behind that needs quick acceleration in terms of technology development?

Short answer - 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.

When will Nigeria upgrade its pockets of technology events to a world class standard that will attract foreign ministers, presidents and heads of states?

First I think it is a case of how, not when. How can Nigeria make itself a destination for world class ICT events such as CeBit, Mobile World Congress, ITU Telecoms World, etc and how can domestic Nigerian events attract participation from local, regional and global companies. We need to have sufficient conferencing facilities in this country and I know that this is something the Minister of Tourism and Culture is very passionate about.

Conferencing and exhibition facilities that can accomodate hundreds of companies and thousands of visitors and of course side attractions that generate revenue for tourism. You must have seen the size of the Mobile World Congress and CeBIT. We also need to have a vibrant ICT industry from where we can begin the early steps of conferences, exhibitions that showcase our local capabilities.

You came up with the idea of harmonised ICT Policy for Nigeria. What actually motivated you into that?

Very simple - prior to the creation of the ministry, ICT was being supervised by two ministries and the Office of the SGF with little or no collaboration or interface between the two. Bringing all the agencies under one roof made the overlaps and duplications among agencies quite obvious.

Discrete policies to drive the industry therefore needed to be harmonised. 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.

The draft policy's call for a converged regulator has raised a lot of dust in the industry. Can you please shed more 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 differents 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 - they do not have a licence from NCC - simply because new technology and equipment allows them to do so.

Individuals with smart phones can broadcast information or misinformation to thousands of people without having a television or radio license. The advent of new, leading edge technologies have 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.