The month of August is indeed an august month in the strategic sphere of Nigerian telecommunications. Time was when the former Senate President, then as Minister of Communications, David Mark told anybody who cared to listen that the telephone was not meant for any Tom, Dick and Harry. Back in those days, it used to cost as much as N200,000 to get connected to a haphazard telephone line. Telephony only functioned in the major cities.
Then came August, 2001, and the telephone revolution was launched in Nigeria. The Global System for Mobile (GSM) Communications was launched forth in Nigeria through an unprecedented auction, two years into the civil regime of then President Olusegun Obasanjo, by Dr. Ernest Ndukwe, the Executive Vice-Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC). The auction which was globally adjudged as transparent netted for the Nigerian government a colossal $1 billion because each of the winners paid $285 million for a spectrum licence.
The winners were Econet Wireless, MTN, MTel and CIL. The CIL would later lose its bid for failing to meet the payment deadline. The company came back two years later as Globacom, equally winning the Second National Operator licence. This year therefore marks the 14th anniversary of the landmark achievement.
It needs to be recalled that the first mobile phones that appeared in the world commercially in the 1980s were analogue. Digital mobile phones became a common feature of telephone services in the 1990s in much of the world with Nigeria lagging way behind. The military regime of Gen. Sani Abacha had spuriously licensed about 17 operators before the demise of the dictator in 1998.
With the coming of civil rule in 1999 under Obasanjo, the process was opened up under the watch of Ndukwe’s NCC. At about the auction time in August 2001, Nigeria had less than 500,000 active telephone lines but by June 2008, seven years after the inaugural, there were about 55 million active subscribers which translated to about the population of South Africa, Ghana and Sierra Leone put together. The phenomenal growth can better be appreciated with the recall that by 1998, the total number of connected phones on the entire African continent was 14 million lines. South Africa then led the charge, followed by the North African countries, with Nigeria not having up to the half million mark..
The four GSM operators in Nigeria, namely MTN, Airtel (formerly Econet Wireless, Zain etc), Glo and Etisalat are upping the ante in providing multiform services. Econet (now Airtel) kicked it all off; MTN claims pride of place as the most subscribed network, while Glo has the distinction of starting per-second billing.
The latest network, Etisalat, has remarkably gained considerable market share. According to Dr. Ndukwe, the igniter of the revolution, “Though we didn’t envisage what happened in terms of its magnitude but it was obvious to everybody there was going to be a major demand by the Nigerian people.” The tele-density of Nigeria at Independence in 1960 stood at about 0.5 telephone lines per 1,000 people. In short, the country could only then crow of 18,724 telephone lines. Now Nigeria has hit the 100 million mark, putting Nigeria’s tele-density at about 65 percent of the population.
There are well over $18 billion private sector investments in the nation’s telecom industry today. The underside is that even as the service providers are making staggering profits, the subscribers more often than not end up being shortchanged through inefficiency, poor quality service, outrageous billings, call dropping, dubious promotions, poor voice quality, unexplained deductions etc. Experts argue that Nigeria needs more than 60,000 base stations for quality mobile telephony, yet the telecoms operators have only built well below 20,000 base stations.
The GSM firms need to do more in their social responsibility services in the country given the tons of money they make. A good half of the subscribers use the Internet, thereby boosting Internet connectivity. Social networks such as Facebook and Twitter are now everyday aspects of Nigerian life, thanks to the GSM revolution. Virtually all the mobile networks in Nigeria are competing to have the largest market share in the connectivity services.
The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) published that Nigeria had 23,982,200 Internet users as at December 2009 but, by the first quarter of 2011 Internet users had gone well over 43 million to surpass Egypt, Morocco, South Africa and Kenya as the largest Internet market in Africa. In reality 40 percent of all Internet traffic from Africa comes from Nigeria. Within the 14 years of GSM, access to computers increased by well over 1000 per cent. These gains should be replicated in the quality of daily Nigerian life. The GSM revolution in Nigeria is indeed worthy of celebration.
-UZOR MAXIM UZOATU e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org