National Rural Telephony Project (NRTP), the little successful $200 million conceived in 2001 to take telephony services to the rural areas is now caught in a web of confusion, claims and counter charges with fingers pointing left and right, Nigeria CommunicationsWeek can now report.
As argument swung up and down, the ministry of Communications Technology said the project is still on course.
Operators of the project under the aegis of Association of Rural Telephony Operators of Nigeria (ARTON) however said they are yet to get certificate of no objection from newly established Infrastructure Concession Regulatory Commission (ICRC).
But stakeholders have also queried the credentials of the companies to take telephony to communities in Nigeria which have not heard a telephone ring or create over 10 million jobs directly.
NRTP which began under former President Olusegun Obasanjo administration about 11 years ago was to cover 218 local government areas in the first phase and provide over 636,256 Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA) lines in the 774 local government areas and the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) in the second phase to bridge the digital divide between the urban and rural areas.
The government borrowed $200 million from the China Export Import (EXIM) Bank and provided 15 per cent counterpart funding of N5 billion to execute the project.
Nigeria CommunicationsWeek gathered that the project was dead on arrival due largely to its faulty design and execution.
Three Chinese companies – ZTE Corporation, Huawei and Shangai Bell – were awarded the NRTP contract to take telephony services to the rural areas but ended up building only exchanges.
Sensing it could not run the project, the federal government in 2009, transferred the second phase to G-cell Wireless Limited, Hezomic Limited, Key Communications Limited, Suburban Broadband Limited and Voicewares Network Limited.
They were to build, operate and maintain the project in the different zones under the modeled of a Lease, Operate and Own (LOO) framework.
The selection process followed a competitive bidding process prescribed by the World Bank for privatization and concession transactions and undertaken in the most transparent manner possible.
The operators were supposed to operate the networks for a period of 10 years within which they would pay a specified amount of money to the government.
But awardees explaining delays in rolling out the services said that they are yet to take possession some four years after the award.
Engr. Gerry Ekesiani, chief executive officer, Voicewares Networks Limited, one of the operators of the project that won the contract to operate South-east and Benue exchange, said it is yet to roll out service even with operating licenses, numbering plan and frequency by Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) because of some bureaucratic bottlenecks.
He said the ministry of Communications Technology is yet to get certificate of no objection from newly established Infrastructure Concession Regulatory Commission (ICRC).
Nigeria CommunicationsWeek gathered that ARTON already have similar approvals from Attorney General of the Federal and Bureau of Public Enterprise (BPE) but the newly established ICRC requested that the transaction leading to their emergence is vetted before they take off.
Ekesiani added that the continued delay in the rollout of services is causing ARTON financial losses while the equipment have become object of vandals and thieves.
He also warned that the equipment may become obsolete by the time the final approval is obtained as CDMA 2000 1x technology installed for the project is a legacy.
Ekesiani urged the of Communications Technology to expedite action to ensure that they are given approval license soon.
He also decried the campaign for national backbone infrastructure instead of looking at expanding optic fibre infrastructure which have been already laid as part of NRTP to link all the local government areas which will serve as national fibre optic ring.
The ministry of Communications Technology however said it is working to ensure the take off of the NRTP.
Engr. John Ayodele, director, Telecom and Postal Services at the ministry of Communications Technology, said that the project is being delayed because of policy shift.
Ayodele said the ministry is waiting for ICRC approval letter which will be used to apply for ratification of President’s approval by federal executive council.
He added that the ministry has held a meeting with the operators to ascertain their readiness to continue with the project when the final approval is obtained.
The director said the current effort is the last to ramp-up the process of handing over to operators.
Elsewhere, Bayo Banjo, managing director, Disc Communications and president, Nigeria Internet Group (NIG) said stakeholders in the information and communications technology were not carried along in the process leading to the emergence of the operators.
He said little known companies may derail the original aim of the project of taking telephony to the rural areas.
Commenting, Lanre Ajayi, president, Association of Telecommunications Companies of Nigeria (Atcon) urged operators of the project to seek ways of collaborating with GSM operators to realize objectives of the project in the designated areas.
Ajayi said that the Rural Telephony Project was a laudable initiative by the federal government when it was conceptualized but that the coverage of GSM service in many rural areas has affected the commercial viability of the NRTP.