Ifeoma John, a legal practitioner living in Lagos, applied for a driver’s licence from the Federal Road Safety Commission (FRSC) two months ago. It usually takes a month after the application to get the licence. But officials at the agency have been telling her that their internet network has been slow for the past four weeks.
She says it is not only the FRSC that is facing the internet network slowdown: a Tax Identification Number (TIN) application she filed with the Lagos Inland Revenue Service (LIRS) was delayed for 10 days due to the same problem. An LIRS official she was dealing with said the agency did not have a network for 10 days.
“He was able to generate the TIN for me after 10 days but he says the network keeps going off and coming back,” John said. For her driver’s licence, the FRSC gave her a physical copy of the application form to use until internet speed was restored.
The Corporate Affairs Commission has also had to delay company registration activities for weeks this year due to network disruptions.
Bosun Tijani, minister of communications, innovation and digital economy, during his speech at The Platform Nigeria, reiterated that seven subsea cables are lying on the shores of the country. There were six cables in 2021 before Google’s Equiano cable landed in 2022 and increased the tally.
Nigeria is among the top six African countries with the highest number of subsea cables. The country with the most number of subsea cables on its shores is Egypt with 15 cables. South Africa and Djibouti share the second spot with 11 cables each; Nigeria is in the third position with seven cables; while Kenya and Cameroon share the fourth spot with six cables.
The cables in Nigeria include Africa Coast to Europe (ACE), Equiano, Glo1, MainOne, Nigeria Cameroon Submarine Cable System (NCSCS; SAT-3/WASC), and WACS.
They come with different capacities, some of which were upgraded in recent years. For example, WACS cable had an initial design capacity of 5.12 Tbps but was later increased to a design capacity of 14.5 Tbps. The Glo1 cable system consists of two fibre pairs, with an initial design capacity of 320 (32*STM-64), and upgraded to 2.5 Tbps. MainOne has a design capacity of 4.96 Tbps. The ACE cable system comes in two fibre pairs, with an initial design capacity of 5.12 Tbps. The Equiano cable has a capacity of 18 Tbps.
For a better perspective, there are 8 million megabytes and 1,000 gigabytes in 1 terabyte per second. An internet speed is measured in bits per second (bps). So, a 1 terabyte internet speed would be equal to 1,000,000,000,000bps. The fastest internet speeds available today are around 100 gigabits per second (Gbps).
To consume 1TB of data in a month, the AT&T internet data calculator shows that a user will need to send and receive 40,000 emails; stream 8,500 hours of music; surf the internet for 2,000 hours; game for 16,500 hours, stream high-def videos for 350 hours; and make 5,600 social media posts with images.
Nigeria, despite having massive bandwidth in these subsea cables, wallows in abysmally poor internet speed. While the top three countries (South Africa, Egypt, and Kenya) with the most subsea cables are among the top 10 countries with the fastest internet speed in Africa; Nigeria is missing.
Top 10 countries in Africa with the fastest speed
Source: Speedtest Global Index by Ookla
As of August, Ookla ranks Nigeria 104th for mobile internet speed and 143rd for fixed internet speed. The download speed for fixed internet is 16.39 Mbps, which is a long way from the global average download speed at 67.25 Mbps.
It should be noted that the presence of subsea cables does not guarantee an uptake in internet speeds. For example, Liechtenstein, which is the country with the fastest internet at 246.76Mbps, is not the most connected in terms of the number of subsea cables. Looking at the network at a more fine-grained scale, Alexandria (Egypt) is the world’s most central node, immediately followed by Singapore and Fujairah (United Arab Emirates).
While Egypt does not have the fastest internet speed in the world, the country ranked first among African countries for fixed broadband internet speed in Ookla’s Speedtest Global Index for the first and second quarters of 2022 with an average speed of 46 Mbps, up from 6.5 Mbps in 2019.
There are many challenges facing subsea cable operators in Nigeria. Aside from sea hazards to which the cables are exposed, a primary challenge to increasing the capacity of the cables is their deployment on land. Apart from taxes imposed by the federal government, there are state-controlled charges like right of way and many others that accumulate to make the cost almost prohibitive for operators or infrastructure companies (InfraCos).
In December, BusinessDay reported on how huge investments made by InfraCos had gone down the drain because they were unable to utilise the licences they acquired from the federal government to deploy infrastructure.
The Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) had between 2014 and 2018 issued licences to seven companies as part of efforts to scale the country’s telecom infrastructure. The InfraCos were supposed to provide Layer 1 (dark fibre) services on a commercial basis with a focus on the deployment of metropolitan fibre and transmission services, available at access points – Fibre-to-the-Node or Neighbourhood – to consumers.
As of October 2023, none of the InfraCos have been able to deliver the promise embedded with the licence, most of which was to cover the access gaps, particularly in underserved and unserved areas of the country, and provide a wholesale layer to transmission services on a non-discriminatory open access price regulated basis.
The result has been operators shying away from investing new capital in infrastructure. According to NCC’s annual report, the amount of investment into the telecoms industry in 2022 declined by over half to $399.9 million compared to $753.044 million in 2021. It is the lowest the capital inflow has dropped to in recent years. In 2019, capital inflow was at $942.8 million but it declined to $417.6 million in 2020.
Deploying cables on land has also been challenged by persistent vandalism, which has compelled operators to request that telecom infrastructure be treated as critical national assets. While the NCC has championed this course, the past administration signed a Presidential Order for the Designation and Protection of Critical National Information Infrastructure. The problem with executive orders is that they can be easily vetoed by another president as they do not have the force of law. There is, however, a bill known as the Critical National Infrastructure Bill that has been in the National Assembly since 2021.
“Passing the Critical National Infrastructure Bill in the telecom sector has become necessary because the facilities are for public use and must be protected by law to enable the sector to sustain its achievements that have impacted positively on the Nigerian economy as well as on organisations and individuals. The bill was transmitted long ago to the National Assembly, but it has not for once been presented for hearing. It is important that the current National Assembly members deliberate on the bill and pass it as a matter of urgency before leaving office this year,” Gbenga Adebayo, president of the Association for Licenced Telecommunication Operators of Nigeria, said in January.
Contrary to Adebayo’s expectation, the bill is yet to be passed. The current assembly has yet to remember it. The industry expects that Bosun Tijani, minister of communications, innovation and digital economy, would prioritise the protection of telecom assets, especially with the release of his draft Strategic Blueprint.