DIGITAL CONTENT

Nigerian rural communities remain disconnected from the world

There are about 76 million active mobile subscribers in Nigeria. This is only about half of the nation's population of 150 million. The digital divide is still wide even though dwellers in rural communities desire to be connected to the rest of the world through the information and communication technologies.

In Kwaku, a rural community within the Federal Capital Territory located hundreds of kilometres away from the city centre, residents say they bought handsets and have phone lines but use them only when they travel out of their community to locations that have GSM network access. Their only means of communication is through a makeshift pay phone service provided by Kwaku resident, Yunusa Mohammed.

What Yunusa did was to buy what he called a network antenna, hang it on a raffia pole, link it by wire to a connector where GSM handsets are plugged in, and from there he makes phone calls. The phone centre serves the communities of Kwaku, Gadoro, Gunagu and Kabikasa. Some of the villagers have to trek for three hours to make calls here. Yunusa pointed to a GSM operator's mast located in Rubochi, about 40 kilometres away, where he receives his network service.

"We charge N50 a minute for calls because the villagers have phone but no network service. They use it only when they go outside this environment," Mr. Yunusa said.

Mr. Yunusa also charges N50 to recharge handsets. On a market day, he can take in up to N4000.

This is the scenario in most rural communities of Nigeria that have no telecom facilities. Some residents have never seen or touched a computer set, and have no idea about getting Internet connectivity. Telecom and Internet service providers do not consider such areas economically viable and, therefore, give them no attention.

To address this challenge, the federal government, in 2003, under the Nigerian Communications Act, created the Universal Service Provision Fund (USPF). The USPF was mandated to promote widespread availability and usage of network services throughout Nigeria by encouraging the installation of network facilities and the provision of network services to underserved areas.

The group was supposed to make funding available to operators so that rural areas could have access to network services at a very minimal cost. Operators and the fund would share part of the cost.

Ikra Bilbis, former Minister of State, Information and Communication, described the fund as the political response of the present administration to take Internet and communications technology (ICT) to all Nigerians, wherever they may be, so that the young generation and our villages can be part of the global village.

"This administration believes that citizens should be guaranteed equal access to vital communication facilities and no individual should be left behind in the race towards a global community. It has been noted that the ability of the government to bridge the information gap will provide a level playing ground for all Nigerians and enable all people from all areas and communities to compete equally," Mr. Bilbis said.

Funsho Fayomi, Secretary of USPF, said the secretariat started operations in 2006, three years after it was established. They provide funds to contractors, implementers and network operators, to ensure that no Nigerian, wherever they are located and whatever their social and economic status, is excluded from having access to ICT facilities.

"The services we provide include e-Learning through the provision of ICT facilities to institutions from secondary to tertiary levels.

We do this through the broad headings of School Access Programme, SAP, and Tertiary Institutions access programme, TIAP. Thus far, 467 public schools and 133 tertiary Institutions been covered," Mr. Fayomi said.

Aside from schools, Mr. Fayomi said that the USPF is working on 218 community communication centres across the country.

"This is aimed at establishing composite communication centres which will extend voice, Internet and ICT training facilities and other services to unserved and under-served communities on shared basis." He said each centre will provide a public calling area with free emergency calls, cyber café, and ICT Training.

This is expected to be a platform through which surrounding communities will have access to wireless connectivity. In addition, the USPF has a Base Transceiver Station (BTS) project, in which they assist operators with funds to build base stations. Mr. Fayomi said 40 of such stations have been concluded, while 20 are yet to be the completed.

When NEXT visited one of the USPF project sites in Jabi Secondary School, Abuja, the story was quite different. The school received 100 Classmate personal computers with Internet connectivity from the government a few years ago, but students and instructors complain they have had minimal impact.

A student of the school, Christian Okoro, said, "It has not affected our learning process, because it did not last long with us; they collected it back after some time. I can use it because my parents have computer at home." The computer instructor of the school, Nkemjika Odaa, said the pupils were taught how to start the computers and are allowed to use them, but agreed that it had no impact on the learning process in the school.

"This is because, for example, our server has been down since last term. We make use of an Internet modem to upload information on our website. Also, our inverter has broken down since, and most times when there is no light, the teacher keeps the computers and teaches with blackboard." Odaa admitted, however, that since they created their website, parents can register their children or wards online as well as download students' results.

"Some students mutilate (their) results before taking it home, but with that, the parents get the original copy online." Part of the reasons he gave for the low impact of the project on the students is that "most of the times, when the students collect the computers, they start with playing games and watching pictures."

(Source: 234next)

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