Nigeria is trying to bridge internet inequality and boost access by cutting expensive red tape

Nigeria’s long-held ambitions of boosting local internet access and speeds largely depend on making it easier for internet providers to operate outside the country’s largest cities.

With major undersea cable projects typically landing in Lagos — the coastal urban center that doubles as its economic hub, there’s a clear gap with internet access and connection quality compared to more interior states. But the government is hoping a temporary policy change will play a role in bridging the gap: it is waiving charges for laying fiber optic cables on federal highways until December 2022.

In theory this should make it significantly cheaper for internet providers to lay down cable infrastructure along major highways across the country. The move could play a key role in helping to meet the targets of Nigeria’s national broadband plan which aims for 90% coverage of the population by 2025 and download speeds of at least 25 Mbps in urban areas (10 Mbps in rural areas).

If successful, it would represent a major increase from the current average download speed of 1.56 megabits per second. Africa’s fastest speeds are found in Madagascar at 22.6 Mb/s, South Africa (8.4 Mb/s), and Kenya (7.6 Mb/s).

But implementation will not be straightforward.

Nigeria’s federal mode of government means the waiver policy only applies to road infrastructure maintained by the national government and cannot be enforced on state governments. It leaves state governments across the country able to charge whatever right of way fees they wish — a major problem given the different right of way charges levied on internet providers. Indeed, despite the federal government’s recommendation of $374 per kilometer, more than a quarter of Nigeria’s 36 states increased right of way charges in January, with Lagos, for instance, charging $12,900 per kilometer of fiber optic cable laid.

There’s a glimmer of hope for a broader approach to charging cheaper right of way fees though. Back in May, Ekiti, one of Nigeria’s smallest states by landmass, slashed right of way charges by 96% as part of plans to achieve full broadband penetration by 2021. But part of the state’s long-term gameplan also hinges on driving down internet costs and attracting not just internet service providers but also the growing number of startups that are rethinking the merits of setting up shop in Lagos.

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