Nigeria’s fibre connectivity journey: so far yet still a long way to go

Omoleye Omoruyi
The fibre optics evolution in Nigeria may be underway
The fibre optics evolution in Nigeria may be underway

Our story on the fibre optics revolution begins in 2018 with a Nigerian telecommunications company, Globacom, which made a critical step towards the transformation of the ICT landscape in the country with the construction of a multi-billion naira optic fibre submarine cable. Tagged Glo 2, the roadmap for the project was unveiled at a contract-signing ceremony between the national operator, Globacom, and global telecom solutions vendors, Huawei.

Then, Globacom’s Regional Director, Technical, Sanjib Roy, said the submarine cable would be built along the Nigerian coast from Alpha Beach in Lagos, where Glo 1 landing station is located, to the Southern part of Nigeria. The facility will ensure ultra-high capacity connection to South-South Region and provide the capacity to offshore oil platforms and the communities.

Glo 2 will be the first submarine cable in Nigeria to land outside Lagos as the five existing submarine cables only landed in Lagos. Glo 2 will have the capacity of 12 Terabit per second and will provide ultra-high speed connection to oil platforms and communities to empower data coverage and support Enterprise market growth in this part of Nigeria.

Sanjib Roy

Glo 2 was meant to complement the Glo 1 international submarine cable built by Globacom in 2010. It was reported as the only international submarine cable in Nigeria managed end to end, from Lagos to London, by one company and currently provides sufficient bandwidth for the West Africa sub-region.

Building on this, in June 2018, telecommunications operators were reported to have deployed about 52,000 kilometres of fibre optic cable to bridge access gaps in the country. They had deployed 33,000 2G, 29,000 3G and 4000 4G|LTE sites across the country.

The lack of this infrastructure and corruption was the reason NITEL was pushed to the background as market leaders.

You will want to know that fibre optic infrastructure made telephone lines increase from 400,000 NITEL lines in 2001 to over 199.5 million active mobile phone users in March 2022, 109.2 million internet users in January 2022 and achieved a 104.3% teledensity growth as of May 2022.

A bit of history of the fibre

Fibre optics, often known as optical fibre, is a technology that uses light pulses to convey data over a glass or plastic fibre.

The Romans must be proud to have invented lead pipes around 2000 years ago. They found an easy way to carry their water from one place to another. Now, imagine what they’d make of modern fibre-optic cables – pipes – that can carry telephone calls and emails right around the world in a seventh of a second.

The fibre optics evolution in Nigeria may be underway
The fibre optics evolution in Nigeria is underway

Interestingly, fibre optic technology has its roots back in the Roman times when they started drawing glass into fibres. In the 1970s, the ‘’optical telegraph” was invented. A series of lights were placed on towers, in order to transmit messages from a place to another.

In 1840, Daniel Colladon and Jaques Babinet, both physicists, managed to prove that light can be directed along jet of water in the fountain displays. By 1854, John Tyndall, also a physicist, took it one step further. He proved that light could travel through a curved stream of water; therefore a light signal could be tilted.

Fast forward to the early 1980s, telephone companies started to use fibre optics to rebuild their communication infrastructure. In 1988, the first transatlantic telephone cable went into operation.

And in 1991, Emmanuel Desurvire and Payne demonstrated amplifiers were built into the fibre optic cable itself. Also in 1991, the photonic crystal fibre was developed.

A fibre optic cable can contain a few up to a hundred of these glass fibres. Another glass layer, called cladding, surrounds the glass fibre core. The buffer tube layer protects the cladding, and a jacket layer acts as the final protective layer for the individual strand.

Fibre optic cables are usually used because of their advantages over copper cables. Some of those benefits include higher bandwidth and transmit speeds.

How the fibre optics works

Light travels down a fibre optic cable by bouncing off the walls of the cable repeatedly. Each light particle (photon) bounces down the pipe with continued internal mirror-like reflection.

The fibre optics evolution in Nigeria may be underway
The fibre optics evolution in Nigeria is underway

The light beam travels down the core of the cable. The core is the middle of the cable and the glass structure. The cladding is another layer of glass wrapped around the core. Cladding is there to keep the light signals inside the core.

For instance, let’s say you want to flash a light beam down a long, straight corridor. Just point the beam straight down the hallway – light travels in straight lines, so it is no problem.

But, what if the corridor is narrow? You could place a mirror at the bend to reflect the light beam around the corner. What if the corridor is continually narrow and has multiple bends? You might line the walls with mirrors and angle the beam so that it bounces from side-to-side all along the corridor.

This is exactly what happens in an optical fibre.

The evolution of fibre optics in Nigeria

In 1856, the first submarine cable connecting Lagos and London was established by the Cable and Wireless Company of the UK, creating a foundation for innovation that comes next.

In 2001, the South Atlantic 3/ West African Submarine Cable (SAT-3)/(WASC) -which was a
replacement of the SAT-2 cable, established in early 1990s as a replacement of the SAT-1 cable which was constructed in the 1960s- was established, and began operations in 2002 stretching across 15 countries, and was the only source of internet connectivity in Nigeria.

It was funded and owned by 35 telecoms operators around the world including the Nigerian Telecommunications Limited (NITEL).

SAT-3 enjoyed the monopoly until 2010 when GLO-1 and MainOne cables were laid. The West African Cable System (WACS), owned by MTN, was introduced in 2011, introducing a competition system for the Cabling Companies.

The fibre optics evolution in Nigeria may be underway
The fibre optics evolution in Nigeria is underway

Before the market entries of the other companies, SAT-3 was damaged in July 2009, which
caused internet blackouts in multiple West African countries including Benin, Togo, Niger and

Nigeria suffered a loss of 70% of bandwidth which caused problems for her in the various sectors which included the economy, the banking sector, the government, etc.

The SAT-3 returned in May 2016, when its present operator NTEL, announced its returning, stating that the cable was successfully repaired and was ready to get back on track. With the new system upgrade IV, the capacity of the SAT-3 was boosted from 420Gbit/s to 900Gbit/s in the Northern segment and from 340Gbit/s to 800Gbit/s in the Southern segment which would result in the increase of Nigeria’s bandwidth and also boost internet connectivity.

As of September 2018, the SAT-3 cable, Main One Cable, the Glo 1 – and Glo 2 – cable and WACS already invested over $1.4 billion to hasten the broadband revolution.

In 2019, MainOne boosted its efforts with a 2,700 kilometre length of fibre optic coverage.

Funke Opeke, CEO, MainOne
Funke Opeke, Founder, Mainone

Then, the Chief Executive Officer of MainOne, Funke Opeke, said the company is looking at collaborating with the Lagos Government and all other relevant stakeholders to build a digital state.

MainOne is pleased to have the opportunity to present plans for Digital Lagos, a proven path to ubiquitous broadband connectivity. This plan will involve the investment by MainOne of over ₦25 billion over the next two to three years, to develop critical fibre optic infrastructure to enable broadband services across Lagos.

Funke Opeke

After this announcement, the NCC, reacting to a piece of misleading news, said, in 2020, that digging and fibre optic cable laying by some telecoms operators were in accordance with the agreements reached during meetings by the Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Dr Isa Ali Pantami, and management of the NCC with the Nigerian Governors’ Forum (NGF) led by Kayode Fayomi, the governor of Ekiti, in January 2020.

Then, the forum gave its commitment to allow the network operators expand their networks by granting right of way (RoW) approvals for telecommunications infrastructure expansion unhindered across their states.

It means that the revolution had began and people were seeing the activities of these telecoms companies.

To prevent chaos, on May 14, 2020, the Lagos House of Assembly approved the unification of fibre infrastructure for telecom companies. This meant the deployment of a single cable duct for all telecom companies and other utility providers operating in the city.

A “dig once” policy was put in place to prevent the illegal digging of state roads by different telecom operators and Internet service providers.

Later, in 2021, the Lagos Government announced that it has installed a 3,000 kilometre of Fibre Metro Network connection within the year 2020 across the state as part of the comprehensive Smart City Programme aimed at providing a 24-hour driven economy.

Commissioner for Science and Technology, Hakeem Fahm said an additional 3,000km will be installed in same year. This is in line with the Smart City Project of the Lagos government.

Commissioner for Science and Technology, Hakeem Fahm

Fahm said that the Implementation of the Smart City Project is to enable governance, connectivity, and environmental security, saying that the use of technology would make reporting of security, health incidents easy to reach, and promote access to major stakeholders in the government.

In April 2022, the project deployment kicked off in June 2020 with a 24-month completion timeline and has recorded several successes.

These include the completion of over 2600 kilometres of the fibre infrastructure; the connection of over 1000 Telecom base station sites of MTN and Airtel to the fibre infrastructure; the signing of agreements with Liquid Telecom, MainOne, Dolphin Telecoms, Swift, Spectranet, etc.

This project has become the most important success driver for Google’s Equiano submarine cable, Facebook’s 2 Africa submarine cable and the evacuation of large scale broadband capacity (delivered by the foregoing submarine cables) which would otherwise have been stranded to different parts of Lagos and through the same fibre pipes to other parts of Nigeria.

However, the divisional chief executive of ipNX Nigeria, Segun Okuneye, in April 2022, noted that low level availability of fibre optic infrastructure in the country is a major problem. He also complained of the Right of Way hurdles.

The proposed Unified RoW is yet to be accepted by several states and their agencies, and as they continue to administer RoW differently with financial demands, this poses major challenges to operators’ rollout plans. This is in addition to the divergent policies and inability to obtain R0W permits from the various states.

Segun Okuneye

“The cost and process of accessing forex still remain a major challenge to the fibre sub-sector operators, and this could further create a setback for 5G deployment. In addition, operators are still experiencing security challenges, sometimes leading to the temporary shutdown of telecom services – caused by Infrastructure vandalism, thefts, and community issues. Hence, security will continue to be a challenge if not effectively tackled,” he said.

In other words, we are not there yet.

Why connectivity is so important

Findings by a joint study by the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) and EDHECinfra, a venture of the international EDHEC Business School, revealed that large markets such as Nigeria, Ghana, South Africa, Brazil and parts of Asia have huge potential to attract digital infrastructure projects but are untapped markets for fibre optics investments. 

The fibre optics evolution in Nigeria may be underway
The fibre optics evolution in Nigeria may be underway

This, according to the report, can be linked to uncertain economic growth that has made fibre-penetration levels uneven, despite a clear demand for fibre infrastructure projects.

The study points out that the increasing desire for higher speeds and reliable online access will inevitably lead to a huge expansion of fibre optic installations in new networks in low and middle income nations as well as in existing networks in higher-income countries. Ultimately, fibre, which has already begun to make inroads in networks everywhere, will replace legacy (primarily copper) infrastructure completely, particularly as 5G rolls out.

If you are of this world, you’re undoubtedly using cloud-based services to keep your business running smoothly. The introduction of cloud computing services and technologies has altered the way businesses operate. We currently live in a world where it is expected that information be available immediately.

To keep up with instant accessibility, businesses must assess their network infrastructure. Slow internet speeds, high latency and “capped” connections can be the cause of losses in business productivity and efficiency. These are problems fibre-optic broadband solves.

Fibre to the home has been proven to increase customer satisfaction, and enables operators to offer new services, such as video on demand, 4K TV and smart home connectivity.

Deploying FTTH in rural areas opens up new markets for operators, enabling them to reach more consumers and increase revenues – and finally start financially including people in the rural areas.

The economic benefits of FTTH, for residents, businesses and for Nigeria are potentially enormous. While there are upfront costs in FTTH deployments – especially ROW fees, equipment and methodologies are evolving to reduce these significantly. Now is therefore the time for operators to look at extending their FTTH networks and creating new revenue streams for the future, while encouraging growth in rural areas.

Nigeria could rank fifth among fibre optic cable producing countries on African continent next year, according to George Onafowokan, Managing Director of Coleman Wires and Cables. 

Onafowokan said that his company’s cables would serve the telecommunication, oil & gas and some other sectors. 

“It will make Nigeria to be the fifth in the production of cables in Africa. The key impact of this is that we will meet up with the local supply and demand of fibre optic cables and for us, this is a game-changer for the country.” Onafowokan said. 

He added, “For nearly 170 years, corning has combined its unparalleled expertise in glass science, ceramics science, and optical physics with deep manufacturing and engineering capabilities to develop life-changing innovations and products. The installed capacity of this Coleman’s fibre optic factory ranges from 100,000km to 150,000km of fibre cables annually.”

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