Imagine being able to download a full-length HD movie to your phone in seconds even with throngs of people using the same Internet source.
Or perhaps, if you are a software developer, how satisfying would it be for you to build a life-changing application that can take flight without it experiencing connection glitches or malfunctions?
All of these is possible not only because technology, as you know it, is a great enabler, but because we live in an era of unprecedented technological advancement.
From billions of connected devices that can gather and share information in real-time to reduce road accidents; to production lines so predictive that can prevent interruptions well before they occur, 5G technology is positioning itself as a tool that can help create a smarter, safer and more sustainable future. Which country worth its salt wouldn’t be on board with that?
Be that as it may, I have often asked myself what is this 5G craze that has taken over Nigeria lately, which has led to this sort of below expectation auction? This is a country where 4G is so terrible that one wonders how people outside key city centres are even coping. Some parts of the so-called city centres also have poor service. I visited Abuja a few weeks ago and the Internet service around the Maitama hotel where I stayed was so disappointing, this is not disregarding the fact that I tried two of the biggest providers.
At this juncture, I must clearly state this for the avoidance of doubt, the majority of Nigerians are yet to have a taste of real 4G, so it is unfortunate that for whatever reason we are hastily jumping into 5G that would require an entirely different ecosystem and also quite complicated to deploy in the face of insecurity.
In this piece, I will explore salient facts about 5G technology and its benefits while giving a commentary on the auction because it is important that transparency is maintained at all times in an industry as important as this.
5G is the fifth generation of cellular networks. Up to 100 times faster than 4G, 5G is creating previously unimaginable opportunities for individuals, businesses and organisations.
No doubt, the technology boasts of faster connectivity speeds, ultra-low latency and greater bandwidth all geared towards advancing societies, transforming industries and dramatically enhancing day-to-day experiences. In the developed countries of the world, services that we used to see as futuristic, such as e-health, IoT-connected vehicles and traffic systems and advanced mobile cloud gaming, are being rolled out steadily much to the enthusiasm of consumers.
Like other evolving nations, Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, has demonstrated efforts to widen broadband access for its citizens, particularly the youth population. According to the Nigerian Communications Commission, the government has an ambitious plan to hit a target of 90 per cent by 2023 despite the current broadband penetration that is mid-way through at 45 per cent. I know some experts who disagree with these figures but that is discussion for another day.
In a much-publicised bidding war that recently took place among Nigeria’s leading mobile network operators, the Nigeria Communications Commission auctioned the forthcoming 3.5 gigahertz (GHz) spectrum in readiness for the deployment of Fifth-generation (5G) networks in the country.
In a perplexing turn of events, Mafab Communications Limited, a rather unknown organisation that was registered in 2020 knocked off Airtel, a pan-African mobile operator, out of the competition and even went as far as giving MTN a run for its money. Eventually, both MTN and Mafab Communications Limited emerged as the two successful winners of the 5G licence at $273m.
While I applaud the efforts of audacious indigenous organisations to carve a large niche in the technology space, the truth is that transparency matters.
Here’s what I have trouble understanding. I know for a fact that Mafab Communications Limited, an arm of the Althani Group, got registered in July 2020 in comparison to MTN Nigeria Plc, which has been in existence for two decades. Immediately after the announcement, I did a thorough search and social re-engineering on this organisation and I found nothing, absolutely nothing aside from a crashed website. Even before the research, I received a number of calls from a number of highly placed Nigerians who felt I am well aware of happenings in the industry and I disappointed them by stating that I know nothing about this Mafab Communications.
A day or two after this pre-destined auction was announced, another ‘fake’ news or rumour if you like, filtered out that there is a connection between Mafab Communications and Senator Bola Ahmed Tinubu, an ex-governor of Lagos State and current national leader of the ruling party. Well, the NCC may have come out to defend the integrity of its process but as the saying goes, there’s no smoke without fire. One thing is certain; something fishy went on somewhere and as Nigerians, we know that virtually anything can happen in Nigeria.
It is a pity that nepotism continues to rear its ugly head in every facet of the government’s activity. The powers that be can extol the bidding exercise as efficient, fair, credible, well-organised and transparent but evidence points to the contrary.
For instance, MTN Nigeria had earlier recommended the reserve price be lowered to $50m during deliberations on the draft information memorandum. The telco giant also requested an extension of the licence validity period to 20 years from the proposed 10 years.
Airtel, in a similar vein, also called for a downward review of the cost of licencing, citing current economic realities in the business environment. One cannot help but wonder if the government’s grandiose plan is really about deepening broadband penetration or if it was all a scheme to enrich the coffers of the ruling class.
I certainly do not think it is a coincidence that MTN had to sell its shares to the public. My guess, which may be as good as yours, is that the telco leader had to mobilise enough resources to contest the bid. And that is an organisation that has been in the communications business for decades.
Is this just a game by a few privileged people? Win the bid, wait a few years and sell it off to the highest bidder with the competence to deliver. I really hope some individuals are not playing a game with what is arguably one of Nigeria’s important, if not the most important, industry?
Let me end by stating that this is one industry I am passionate about and committed to. I have dedicated the last 12 years to serving and working hard to deepen the growth of the industry, so I will definitely keep an eye on key activities such as this for the sake of generations unborn.
ICT Clinic by CFA is published weekly in the Sunday Punch