Broadband and Digital Economy is the Next Frontier – Funke Opeke

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Engr. Funke Opeke is the Founder/CEO, MainOne (formerly Main One Cable Company. After 20 years working in U.S. telecoms, she returned to Nigeria with a clear vision: fixing the connectivity problems.
The former Verizon executive joined public telecoms company NITEL and learned satellites were just part of the problem.

So in 2008, she turned her engineer’s eye towards the ocean, raised $240 million in funding and laid 4,400 miles of fibre optic cable from Nigeria to Portugal. Today, MainOne is West Africa’s leading communications services and network solutions provider.

MainOne can be created for creating the platform for big business to run their connectivity effectively and efficiently. Online banking, booking services and retail websites helped quickly followed. Nigeria’s Internet presence, once associated mostly with scams, is now a growing space in for international business opportunities. It’s a change for which Opeke deserves accolades especially having chaired the committee that drafted the New Nigeria Broadband Policy 2020-2025.

In this exclusive chat with Ace tech broadcaster, Don Pedro Aganbi (on the occasion of Nigeria@60: Celebrating ICT Success Stories, a documentary production produced by TechTV in collaboration with TechEconomy.ng), She speaks on the need to deploy broadband services to more people, especially the rural dwellers and highlighted broadband as the new frontier for driving digital economy. EXCERPTS :

*Q: From the telecommunication industry perspective, what are the lessons from the (coronavirus) pandemic?
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Funke : Thank you very much, the lesson I learned from the pandemic around is really understanding the criticality of infrastructure development and a need for timely execution of strategies and things that we know are required to move our society forward.

The reality is we just put the broadband plan and set a framework of five years to do that as the pandemic was hitting, now you look at five years that seemed too long given the urgency that if faced with the pandemic intense of getting some of these results we need.

Also, the economic shocks brought about as pandemic making it more difficult and expensive less affordable for us to deploy infrastructure.

So, as they used to say,’’ stitch time saves nine,” and I think practically in issues of infrastructure and economy, it shows that we need to move faster as a country.

Q: Can you share with us the objective of the national broadband plan?

Funke : One of the primary objectives of the plan was to achieve 90 percent coverage of the population with broadband services.

That was about 25MB of download in urban areas and 10 mega beats in rural areas and to ensure that 70 percent of the eligible population.

In addition, we set basic objectives and coverage in schools and all our tertiary institutions to have access to broadband; 50% of our secondary schools, 25% of primary schools and the health facilities down to the Local Government across the country, to have access to broadband at affordable rate, because we want low-income group to also have access to this focus on digital literacy and digital identity.

I think those are some of the key elements that are tied to the plan and citizens will directly recognize the impact in the long run.

Q: What is the best-case scenario that ensures that people get this access?

Funke : Well, this is the best-case scenario. Of course, progress continues to be made, and operators continue to deploy at their-own commercial base; more broadband, and 4G across the country.

Q. The question is how do you intensify them to move faster and how do you do that with shared infrastructure services so the less privileged in the society – women, and students, can also access the services?

Funke . These are some of the things that the government is also doing things like critical infrastructure, and helping the operator to make progress and vandalism is much lower. Now, having more power from the nation grid will help in terms of lowing the cost of doing business, ease of doing business, and all the things put together, that will make ubiquitous broadband possible.

Q: What is that one thing if addressed would have created the greatest impact in improving broadband across the country?

Funke : I think 4G deployment; there is a lot of noise in the media about 5G, but the realization is 4G coverage in Nigeria is still somewhere 45% coverage of the population. So, we need to get 4G coverage to more people across the country. If we can do that at cost-effective level it will make a big difference.

Q: What sort of progress has been made so far and what are some of the major challenges ?

Funke : The president launched the planning in March, then the Coronavirus pandemic struck and we had had lockdown which really slowed things. However, the Minister inaugurated the Broadband Implementation Action Committee led by the NCC; they are looking at the infrastructure companies to deploy fibres and the spectrum availability and supports towards the deployment of the services.

Also, the President has signed an Executive Order on Critical Infrastructure Protection; as you can see, the States are reducing the charges on Right of Way to support the Federal Government. With these initiatives, we will continue to see a fair (reduction) in data prices and some people are still arguing that is due to low level of our economy.

I believe for six months into the plan the energy that is gone towards implementation even during the pandemic has been impressive and the Minister is trying to see what is going do to make it happen.

Q: In those early years before liberation, can you still remember the state of the telecom sector, when we had NITEL as a monopoly?

Funke : They are not good memories because I went to Graduate School in the United State, literary it took a week for my mother going to NITEL, every day and waiting for few hours so that we could have a conversation. So things were particularly difficult in terms of the ability to communicate. But, when we look at where Nigeria is today, we have indeed made a lot of progress and we can see the impact in having access in real-time to us and our economy.

The next frontier is broadband and digital economy because we do a lot in education payment – financial inclusion, digital literacy, healthcare; the rich content we can get through broadband is empowering an enabling us to diversify all the way from oil as we have the plan to do as a nation.

If we calculate that we have made progress in the past twenty years, then, a lot of progress has also been made in the first ten where mobile telephony essentially became available over the country and we know that Nigeria can do it. We have the energy to transform our country with broadband now that we have turned sixty I know we do can that.

Q: Making broadband available, what do you foresee in terms of how it will improve the lives of our youth?

Funke : We have a very young and dynamic population. In fact, I think too much of our energy goes for unproductive things because we don’t have enough productive opportunities.

My belief is that if Nigerian youths are given access to these opportunities. We see examples already about people that acquire skills on YouTube and go on to build very successful businesses.

We have started seeing role models generating, real values and the information is right there at their fingertips. I believe that the sky should be the limit if they are given the opportunity to transform our society.

Q: Can you highlight some success stories through the development of the Telecom and ICT sector?

Funke : We are proud to have made an impact in West Africa. In Nigeria, the internet penetration has been on increase in the last ten years.

Today, greater than 50 percent of the services is made available to them from (local) data centres of which we are one of the key makers. I think those are some of the contributions.

Q: Can we achieve a pervasive Smart cities?

Funke: Smart cities require infrastructure. We need more coordinated planning. With the project that Lagos State, for an example, has just embarked upon, I think that is the first step.

Affordability, is the main issue for some of our States. I am certainly optimistic that Lagos will indeed get there, we will be a role model for other parts of the country.

*Q: What would Funke Opeke want to be remembered for in the nation’s ICT history?

Funke : Is transforming the broadband eco-system in our country and by enabling start-up using broadband. Influencing policy to facilitate that.

Q . What is your opinion on the idea of this documentary project for Nigeria @60?

Funke . Good things should be affiliated with our independence day. Technology is such a tool for empowerment; it is a positive thing.

 

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