By Chimezie Godfrey
The Centre for Information Technology and Development (CITAD) has called on the Minister of Communication and Digital Economy to set up a mechanism for the development of a national policy for community networks in Nigeria.
The Executive Director, CITAD, Y. Z Yau who made call during a press conference on Thursday in Abuja, recalled that CITAD recently convened a meeting of stakeholders in the telecommunication sector on the need for a National Strategy for community networks to address the various dimensions of the digital divide in the country.
According to him, the meeting, which was attended by over 40 people including people from government agencies, representatives of private sector, development partners, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), professionals, civil society organizations, community based organizations piloting community networks and academics, had the Minister of Communication and Digital Economy Prof Isa Ali Pantami, represented by the Director-General of the National Identity Management Commission, Engr Abdulaziz Aliyu delivering the keynote address.
He said participants at the meeting affirmed the viability of community networks as one of the innovative strategies being used by many countries across the world in addressing their connectivity gaps, especially where mobile network operators (MNOs) have found too unprofitable, either because the populations are spare, communities are poor or they are hard to reach.
According to him, the understanding is that there is need for new business models of small, flexible and nibble providers to fill the gaps that bigger players (MNOs) cannot fill.
Yau noted that participants also realised that unleashing the potentials of community networks to address connective gaps requires a robust policy on community networks. Unfortunately, as of now, Nigeria does not have such a policy.
He said CITAD acknowledges the various efforts that the Minister in particular has put in repositioning the country for a digital transformation.
He noted that for the example that in the last couple of years, he has led in the development and steady implementation of the Federal Government National Digital Economy Policy NS Strategy (NDEPS), the implementation of the Strategic Roadmap and Action Plan (SRAP 2021-2024) by NITDA, and the articulation of a new National Broadband Plan and Policy.
Others include developement of a vibrant digital ecosystem that supports Innovation Driven Enterprises (IDE) and Micro Small and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs) in a way that engenders innovation and provisioned robust digital platforms to support government digital services and drive the digital economy, among others.
Yau acknowledged that all these policies, laws and initiatives are important digital transformation elements for the country.
However, he pointed out that with the digital divide in the country, the good objectives of these policies and programmes will be difficult to achieve. In particular, a large number of people in rural areas and hard to reach communities will be left behind as the experience has shown that even when broadband is rolled out, economic and accessibility factors are key hindrance to their affordability in these communities.
He said,”The initiatives have not, in a fundamental way addressed the issues of bridging the connectivity gaps in the over 114 underserved and unserved communities in the country.
“It is instructive that the number of unserved and underserved communities is the result of the pain taking work of another government agency, the Universal Service Provision Fund (USPF).
“Community networks remain the tool to unleashing the creativity of citizens, mobilising their resources, skills and other endowments to meet their collective digital communication challenge by themselves without asking for government to fund such bridging efforts or waiting for MNOs who are reluctant to do so because what is left are the unprofitable leftovers.
“It is in this connection and in furtherance of the voice of the stakeholders meeting, we would like to renew our call on the government to as a matter of urgency provide the country with a national policy on community networks.
“The advantages are too numerous that we should not give to farther procrastination.
“In particular, we would like to call on the Minister of Communication and Digital Economy to set up a mechanism for the development of a National Policy for Community Networks.
“Call on the NCC to develop guidelines and regulations for the operation of community networks in the country and to allow communities to access and use TV White Space (TVWS) for the purposes of setting up community networks.”
The CITAD Executive Director enjoined the Galaxy Backbone PLC to provide communities with access to its backbone for them to use as their community networks getaways.
He urged the USPF to support the upgrading of the many community digital centres they set up in the country to serve as nucleus of community networks for communities that desirous and passionate to set up such in their communities.
He encouraged NITDA to work with communities at grassroots level to drive digital literacy which is critical for the effective utilization of digital technology and which is the foundation upon which the digital transformation agenda of the country will rest.
Yau called on the private sector operators in the sector to as, their corporate social responsibility support communities building community networks.
He further called on all other stakeholders, including political office holders to support communities to go digital as critical contribution to community development.