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Connection Timed Out Nigeria's Internet Problem

The Internet’s growth remains on the fast track mostly in the Western Hemisphere but, for countries like Nigeria, Internet development falters and often depends on Western innovation or intervention.

Several things were barely imagined when the Internet was first created. This early project for scientists has since defied early criticism and grown exponentially into the most relevant creation of the twentieth-century. Its influence has been phenomenal. The Internet has connected cultures and countries, and reshaped political ideas and movements as it stretches across areas of technology, transportation, healthcare and communication all while creating its own unique set of rules to address these growing economies.

THE INTERNET AND NIGERIA

At the turn of the millennium, there were more than 360 million Internet users. As at December 2018, this number has grown to a network of almost four billion users all connected by the push of a button. The best instances of good Internet connection exist in Western countries where benchmarks of basic economic and individual growth have been met and sufficiently exceeded. More than 312 million people out of a population of 326 million in the United States were connected to the Internet as at 31 December 2017. That leaves less than ten per cent of the country’s people without access. This figure, according to the Pew Research Centre, consists of a significant number of people who have opted for ‘Internet non-adoption’: a voluntary disconnection from the digital world.

The Internet’s growth remains on the fast track mostly in the Western Hemisphere but, for most countries in Africa, Internet development falters and often depends on Western innovation or intervention. Nigeria is not exempt from this. The country’s digital presence remains a shadow of its true potential. Compared to an estimated population of 200 million people in Nigeria (a population made up mostly of young people), only 111 million are connected to the Internet. Although Internet connectivity is a prominent feature of Nigerian urban areas occupied by 51.9 per cent of the country’s population where the high rate of Internet usage and connectivity is due to a sizeable young working population, Internet-dependent businesses, and international organizations which take advantage of infrastructure already present to meet the needs of the masses. The rest of its citizens live mostly unconnected and assumedly away from Internet connection.

THE WIDENING DIGITAL DIVIDE

Most Nigerians have been left behind in the divide formed as a result of the Internet’s accelerated growth. This situation is described as the ‘digital divide’: varying degrees of access to computers and ultimately online resources spurred by the uneven growth of the Internet across countries and socio-economic classes. Even though the lack of Internet access is often explained (accurately to an extent) by a deficit in infrastructure, more salient reasons can be found for the widening gap between Nigeria and the rest of the world. They include the initial development of the Internet in Western countries, favourable government policies permitting its growth, and differences in socio-economic standards across the world.

While Internet access in Africa is often an expensive commodity, Nigeria is not the African country with the most expensive data packages. Zimbabwe takes that distinction with $75 for one gigabyte of data. However, this does not mean that Internet access in Nigeria is any more affordable for every individual. On average, and across several Internet providers, the price of one gigabyte of data is pegged at N1000 ($2.78). With the new national minimum wage, which was raised from N18,000 to N30,000 awaiting implementation, minimum wage earners will be required to pay approximately three per cent of their income for Internet access.

THE ROLE OF THE GOVERNMENT

The foundation of American regulation of digital networks was laid at the advent of the Internet. While much of its use is presently maintained by the private sector, the United States government provides an evolving policy framework to ensure the spread and growth of the Internet and its application to major sectors. This development depends on policies involving competitive pricing and access to Internet resources. Their approach guarantees the growth of the economy enabling America to compete with countries such as China in a new form of an arms race fought without bombs or bullets but with advancements in technology for dominance in the global economy.

Although there are policies regulating the provision and use of the Internet for service providers and users in Nigeria, little consideration has been given to policies regarding its access and growth even as the use of the Internet has become vital to any economy; whereas subsidies exist for other flailing industries such as the petroleum industry. Despite the unpredictable fluctuations in oil prices since 2013, government expenditure remains committed to preserving an industry well past its prime amidst repeated calls for a much-needed reallocation of state funds. These funds may be redirected to areas with greater potential (such as the technology sector) to ensure the diversification of the Nigerian economy and to meet financial and infrastructural needs by subsiding high fees and taxes paid to federal and state governments. Leaving the fees, which are often passed on to the consumer, to be offset by government injection of funds.

These problems are surmountable if working long-term schemes and policies are developed through collaborations between the public and private sector. Projects already in place such as Google’s partnership with twenty-first-century technology to provide high speed Internet for public use areas has received initial encouragement from the federal government. Yet, in an economy characterized by monopolies, new entries in any market are often met with resistance. Several Internet service providers and industry players have petitioned the Nigerian Communications Commission and the federal government to either scrap or regulate Google’s activities.

Ideally, Nigeria’s policies regarding solutions to its Internet connectivity problem may evolve into an adoption of a more objective and collaborative stance. However, this would do little to alleviate pervasive problems of income, class and literacy, which act as barriers to economic growth and widen the difference between our Internet capabilities and those of Western countries.

DEEPER THAN JUST WIRES

Barriers to access are not only measured by physical proximity. It is necessary to consider whether those groups given access have the skills required to utilize the Internet to suit their needs. While such efforts may take Nigeria a step closer to the rest of the world, they are not enough to solve the problem of a second digital divide where Internet users do not possess the skills to take advantage of the service. Even as structural solutions to Internet access are developed to counter Nigeria’s problems, the issue of a second digital divide still exists: where these Internet tools are dispatched, do the users possess the skills to use them?

In the words of Isabelle Durant at the 2019 United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, ‘If you only have countries that have bicycles how can you ask them to join Formula 1?’

Notably, most Internet users in Nigeria are connected on mobile devices due to a competitive mobile phone market. This has so far altered the landscape in terms of accessibility and marks a distinction between access to the Internet in general and access to specific social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. Partnerships with telecommunications providers such as Airtel and 9 Mobile’s collaboration with Facebook aim to provide social media, as well as other Internet tools, to users at no charge and they have widened access to information and connection to a wider global audience.

Nonetheless, some users have limited access to these websites and tools due to their computer illiteracy. Even though the websites pose limitations on the type and quality of information available, they are easy to manipulate and are built to be accessible. WhatsApp is a popular networking platform in Nigeria – 41 per cent of the population were active users in 2017. The app’s popularity has led to high rates of dissemination of unverifiable information, but this problem is not exclusive to any one country as even the most literate societies have also been taken in by the spread of false information now widely referred to as ‘fake news’. This kind of second-hand, unverifiable information slips through the cracks to a large and receptive audience and creates a second and equally worrisome form of digital divide centered on the quality of access to valued online networks.

The integration of digital learning aids into school curricula ensures the cultivation of necessary skills as early exposure prepares children for a future society in which technology, and the ability to operate it, will be key tools for progression. Rapid advancements in more digitally enabled societies is a direct contrast to the slow-paced growth of Nigeria’s influence in the global economy. While ICT is a popular subject in most schools in the country due to programs stemming from the National Policy on Education (2010), it is taught in a vacuum devoid of relation to other aspects of the syllabus. The government has made attempts to integrate digital technology into the regular teaching system such as the ICT policy developed through the National Information Technology Development Agency but none have ever quite hit the mark. Additionally, schools often teach computer skills without the aid of physical computers. Where these devices are available, the ratio of devices to school students makes for a subpar learning experience. The consequences of this is already evident in first-hand accounts from supervisors of the Unified Tertiary Matriculation Examinations which paint a picture of low levels of computer literacy among Nigerian teenagers.

Border lines blur on today’s Internet, allowing trade and communication to thrive at a rate beyond comparison to any moment in history. Countries are able to match this level of innovation, pushing and reshaping what it means to be connected in the modern world. While there may appear to be no rush to address the widening inequality, sole dependence on international contributions does little to encourage growth nationally especially as the need to address the digital divide is as urgent now as ever. Taking into consideration the dangers of being left behind in a fast-growing economy which is becoming increasingly dependent on Internet access and tools, Nigeria’s inability to equip its citizens to meet these challenges head on risks stagnation in its development and growth