Nigeria’s Galaxy Backbone gears up to meet the needs of 1 million civil servants

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African governments are one of the biggest buyers of ICT services in most markets and none comes bigger than the Nigerian Government. It employs a million civil servants. Galaxy Backbone was set up with the intention of providing a single cost effective service to Government bodies rather than see each build their own networks. Russell Southwood interviewed Galaxy Backbone CEO, Gerald Ilukwe this week in Abuja.

Gerald Ilukwe, CEO, Galaxy Backbone PLC has worked for over 20 years in the IT sector before he was asked to run this new Government company, working for a string of well-known IT companies, including most recently Microsoft.

Q: How did Galaxy come to be set up?

In 2004 the Ministry of Science and Technology bought a memo for approval to the Federal Executive Council for the networking of secondary schools. The former President and two members of Cabinet observed that there was a proliferation of Government networks and asked the question: why not use the networks we already have to serve everybody in Government.

Out of this, the Committee for the Harmonisation of IT Initiatives was set up. It took a broad look and concluded that it was possible to build a national IT infrastructure by consolidating networks and that an entity should be created to operate the network created.

Q: What does Galaxy want to do?

Primarily it was set up to operate a single infrastructure platform for all of the Government. This includes network services and also national databases and transversal applications and services. In addition it was envisaged that we would provide connectivity and Internet access to rural and underserved communities and third party customers.

The universal service access responsibilities we might have are under review. We provide a backbone that can support the provision of universal access but whether it is practical or in our strategic interest, we have to determine. We need to stick to our core mission – providing services to Government – where we are adding value and where we are needed most. I have never been favourably disposed to us running telecentres but we want can support their roll-out.

Q: What assets has Galaxy got to support its core mission?

The original concept was to take over existing Government network assets. One of these was a moribund network. What we are about to commence is an audit of existing Federal Government assets.

We are in discussions with Jigawa State Government about taking over its IT service provider, Galaxy ITT and these discussions are at a fairly advanced stage. The building we’re operating from in Abuja belongs to them.

Government doesn’t have many network assets relative to the size of Government. There is not much that is close to being able to be described as a Government network. There’s probably not more than 10% coverage. There are a number of Ministries and government organisations like the Electoral Commission that want to build their own networks. So we are seeking to integrate networks of:

- Those who own networks.

- Those who already subscribe to a service provider.

- Those who want to build a network.

The key project we have inherited from the Ministry of Communications is NICEP. It’s a fully fledged VSAT network with 5,000 sites across the country and this will provide a robust backbone, especially for outlying areas of the country.

Q: How will Government become a customer? Is it a single customer or lots of Ministries and organisations approaching Galaxy separately?

We’re working on an operating framework and looking at other models. Any Government entity can walk in and ask for service. It will be a direct business relationship where the Ministries and others buy services. They’ll either pay directly or they’ll be a contract covering a group of services. But as this is new, nothing is set in stone.

Q: Will you sell services to the private sector?

This was the original intent but there have been discussions with (the regulator) NCC where concerns have been expressed about a level playing field. As someone who comes from the private sector, I don’t want to compete with the private sector unfairly.

In the longer term, I would like Galaxy to evolve into being a PPP (Public-Private Partnership) but we only really have a set of possible development options at this stage. We have to ask: how much of the Government is comfortable in receiving services from Galaxy if the private sector is involved and to what extent will the private sector get involved if Government is the main shareholder?

It’s a policy/strategy consideration. I’m a businessman so I have to ask: have I serviced my primary market (Government) before going into other markets.

Q: Have you started operating yet?

Within the limits of take-off funding, we’re providing services. We’re selling something in the order of 12.5 megs of capacity and we might have to double that capacity by the end of March this year.

Q: What’s Government using the services for?

Firstly, they’re providing Internet access. Coming from the private sector, we take that for granted but it’s still a significant in Government. Secondly, we’re providing a small number of VPNs.

Future services will include messaging and collaboration, hosting portals and recovery services.

We have a commitment to providing connectivity to the post office through Netpost. There are plans to turn post offices into full service centres.

There won’t be a formal start date and we’ll evolve our operations over time. The Government is formally communicating to Ministries that they have to use us and it will resolve who pays and how.

Q: Will you be building your own fibre networks?

This is purely a business decision. There was an e-Government infrastructure project which focused on connecting everything by fibre. We have to ask: do we build our own fibre or use stuff that’s already there? We have experience of using third party suppliers and they have been reliable over time. If they’re unreliable, we can build our own fibre or lease it.

However, there’s a scarcity of infrastructure and this is very much an issue. A person asked me recently whether we would be interested in getting involved in building a cable from the (SAT3) Nigerian landing station to another West African country. We have to have a level of market intelligence to do things like that and there’s always the danger of over-supply.

So my focus is service to Government and other areas that puts me in the direction of. Our policy and strategic objectives come from Government. I can give them advice but they set the direction.

Q: Are you taking responsibility for NigCommSat?

No. We are collaborating to avoid overlaps. Most times we will use capacity from NigCommSat.

Arguably we have the most advanced VSAT network in Nigeria, offering both KU and C band capacity. It’s probably the single biggest network in West Africa. There’s a hub in all local government centres and we’ll go wherever Government offices might require service, to places like post offices and schools. For example, as I mentioned earlier, we have a request to interconnect 2,500 post offices.

The impact will be revolutionary. Access for Government will be provided on an unprecedented scale. Government will be the single biggest buyer.

In terms of fibre, VSAT is the option we’ve inherited and it’s there. With other technologies, it’s a case of how quickly you get things like fibre and Wi-MAX off the ground. So at that level, we’ll use whatever technology works and is available. Connectivity, service and infrastructure are the main elements of what we do.

Q: How much do you think demand will grow?

Final demand is not going to be anything like initial demand. After the mobile revolution, the second revolution in Nigeria has been ATMs which are being put in all over the place. I can now see a “common man” queueing to use an ATM.

There are million civil servants in the public sector. There could eventually be one connected computer for every one of those civil servants. But even if you assume one machine for every civil servant in the medium term, that’s 300,000 connected computers. And that’s before you look at education and the schools….

Q: Why is the Internet not on a larger scale in Nigeria given the size of the country?

It’s a combination of factors. There’s cost fact and there’s an investment factor. The argument that the Internet is a utility service that Government might provide or will back the providing of has not really been accepted. To a certain extent, the performance of Nitel undermined our development as it should have been doing this. The question is who will fill the breach?