Engr. Bayo Banjo-Top 20 CEOs [ICT] SPECIAL APPEARANCE Government bureaucracy is delaying take off of Digital Switch Over – Engineer Bayo Banjo
Engineer Bayo Banjo, former vice president, Association of Telecommunications Companies of Nigeria (ATCON), two term president of Nigerian Internet Group (NIG) is making special appearance in this edition of Top 20 CEOs and says:
Looking at Digital Switch Over (DSO), certain dates were announced and the new Director General of NBC also announced a deadline and then it was postponed. Suddenly, DSO is live in some states, not even regions now. How do you react to this?
Well, I’m involved as signal aggregator. The way I look is that the whole change would have still founded on government providing certain amount of money for the decoders. For instance, if the decoders are subsidized, such that they can be sold to the public at N1,500. But if they were to be sold now, we will be talking of minimum of N8,000 to N9,000. Naturally, if there is a delay in the issuance of the funds for the decoders, then the penetration will be delayed accordingly. Again the question is why would you subsidize the decoders?
Well, if you want to get rid of the analog system, then it is a good argument to say that you have to get a lot of people switching and viewing faster than it is possible. And if you are moving towards reaching the masses, N8,000 or N12,000 is quite a sizeable amount to part with because you want to watch free-to-air television. So, it is more like the time to make thing swift, government had to subsidize the change. But now, that subsidy is being delayed.
From your perspective, are you saying that government is delaying the process?
Yes. We must remember that anything involving money in government becomes political in Nigeria, so to say.
Let’s look at the Nigeria Broadcasting Commission [NBC] as a regulator. NBC is supposed to be unbiased. But it is being perceived as an instrument of supporting an incumbent/ruling party in government rather than being a regulator. Let us use the 2015 election as a case study, and my interpretation of 2015 election being that during the elections, certain adverts were broadcast on some TV stations that were more than what you would perceive as hate speech. The content was broadcast on some stations including government-owned station and yet the regulator did not raise an eyebrow. How do you respond to this?
I remember. In 2015, I had mentioned to the Vice President that if a country wants to progress particularly from what I called slandered information that is prevalent on social media we should set up small claims courts that can swiftly address the issue before it gets out of hands. Now, they’ve come up with a concept that aids castration or whatever. But the point we must remember is that once you have an environment where fake news thrives, even your perceived bias of the regulator comes into question, unless you have specific cases.
Of course, you have cases where according to the NBC’s rule; you must accord equal airtime to the political adverts. We’ve seen some sitting governors attacking broadcasting houses because the broadcasting houses refused to report certain content the governor wanted. The main thing you have to remember is that whenever you have rules, you must also put in place sanctions that will be applied. We are not just talking against the broadcast firm. Like I said, if you are intimidated by a sitting governor, what are you going to do? Is there anybody to call the governor to order? If you don’t have that, then, I’m sorry.
But the main thing really now is like, I still believe that the issue of NBC is one thing. We still have to deal with slandered information which is getting out of hands. Like I mentioned to you earlier, I blame the journalists. I mean, you have a role to play in this case. The developed world has reached a mature stage in the business of information dissemination. But here our journalists are still learning the ropes. I didn’t see any journalist that was going to report on the herdsmen or the communal fight or whatever. I have personal experience actually that I went through and I did not see a phenomenon that is pressing being reported.
So, journalists, like I had said, this is not to attack your group, have roles to play. And now the excuse journalists and editors give for not reporting certain things can no longer hold because now, we have the social media. You should use that as a medium to bring out the truth. Make money from other platforms by selling out the intelligent report to foreign media. How does a newspaper like the Punch report on what is going on in the middle-belt without sending an accredited journalist to show proof? You have to interview people to show that this is the true measure of what is going on.
The public are of the opinion that the merger of NBC and Nigeria Communication Comissionn [NCC] is important. What is your take on this convergence?
What I have been preaching for the past 20 years is now glaringly obvious. You cannot merge the NBC and NCC, and if you do, it’s at your peril. It is now becoming clearer that the job of the NBC, as listed, is more important than that of the NCC and this includes the distortion of facts, reporting of fake news etc. That is what the NBC should do, control what is in the broadcast. If you move to the NCC, the focus would be on the license fees, and monitoring economic issues and environment that telecommunications companies operate in.
It can be seen now clearly that broadcast, to the general public, influence the way we think, our attitude and so on. And I think you need a whole ministry dedicated to that. Because we take broadcast with a pinch of salt, we now have the hate laws and all the things that are now coming. I have to emphasise that with the role of the NCC, you have your frequencies, and other telecoms issues, but in relations to broadcasting, it is a totally different ball game. And if it’s the case of which commission would absorb the other, I think, the NBC technically, in its role, is in a thousand times more important than that of the NCC.
As you can see what is happening now, all the fake news, and slandered information are all coming in. What needs to occur is the NBC should get some influences and control what is published on the NCC platforms, in short, the Internet. If we think that we can develop by passing the “Freedom of Speech” law, then we are jokers. You see, people don’t look at the concept of freedom of speech in the real context. For instance, any lawyer would tell that you can’t go into a cinema hall and shout fire, and you would not be prosecuted for it.
Is the man shouting fire exercising his freedom of speech? No! Because his action causes some form of panic. He has caused the people in the cinema hall to be evacuated and in the process some would be injured. So, freedom of speech has to be taken in its context and that is why we are having laws on hate speech, slandered information etcetera. And the problem is these laws work abroad because the legal system is fast enough to handle it.
But also in overseas, I have noticed, the culture is different. Let’s take America for example. An average American, until he sees a certified journalist reporting the news, he considers every other news as fake or entertainment. But here, we take such things seriously. Other countries that are progressing are not suggesting we should go their way but if you look at China, and other progressive nations, they have some form of control over this concept of freedom of speech.
It is easy for a foreign power, an enemy of the state, to seduce you through international social media platforms if it is properly regulated. With this, we are now beginning to realize how dangerous broadcast content can be. What I mean by broadcast content is whether on the Internet or anywhere.
Let us move to the permission of fair competition in the communication industry, protection of communication services providers, and facilities from misuse of market power or anti-competitive practices by other facilities and service providers or equipment suppliers. How do you think the regulators have fared in this regard?
Well, I think that anti-competitive issue is a new concept. I don’t think we really have come to understand it and its implications. Some call it anti-trust laws and we are reaching that today. The thing is that many issues are decided by people of integrity. Not to say that we don’t have integrity but it becomes political. We find that in countries such as the USA which, we are trying to model, so to speak, when a dominant company wants to buy a smaller one, a group of people get together to discuss the anti-trust issues.
Then they will be able to arrive at some ideas to decide whether such acquisition would damage the industry, have negative impact on the population of the industry members. To ensure that we understand the concept, we must put together a team to understand concept. And if you don’t understand that concept, then, it becomes very dangerous because it can be used as mission to extort or whatever. Either way, we must ensure that we adopt this model; we must ensure that there is competition, particularly in terms of operators.
There are some fields in which having only one operator is essential; just like the legal system, no matter what you do, it still comes under one judiciary system. You can’t have two. There are fields like that that requires only one body. But when it comes to things like business, rivalry is important because competition means innovation. It pushes progress. For instance, I recall a conversation I had with the former executive vice chairman of the NCC. I told him that definitely the investments would come because the biggest ICT companies on the planet all started like a mirage.
What happen is that they operated in a system of rules and regulations, and when a big company tries to be stronger using illegal means, the judiciary is there to make sure that big company would never ever achieve such. But we don’t have that kind of infrastructure here. If you notice in the telecoms industry, all the small players besides the Internet Service Providers (ISPs) have all been wiped out completely. And in many cases, the NCC was warned. I warned them of many things that the big companies were doing. And now we have a situation where only some big operators are left. Now, innovation is being left to these big companies, so to speak.