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Battling New Challenges of Expansion 17 Years After GSM revolution

Telecommunications revolution is daily transforming the Nigerian society in diverse ways since the dawn of the new millennium. A breakthrough in telephone infrastructure emerged in January 2001 when the sector was totally liberalised with the licencing of MTN and ECONET, now Airtel. Both operators injected over a million lines within a year before Globacom came into existence two years later.

The journey to GSM spread begun in earnest in a fashion never anticipated from state to state and city to city. The introduction of ubiquitous mobile phones for chatting and messaging further ignited the revolution.

The new era was all that was needed to end the monopoly of the Nigerian Telecommunication Limited (NITEL), which was the lord of the Manor for decades on the fixed line turf. Mobile phones became the veritable tools to bridge the existing digital divide.

While government’s liberalisation policies provided the fertile ground for the emergence of the new network providers, they, however, put paid to the monopoly hitherto enjoyed by NITEL and opened a new vista for substantial private sector investments. With this development, mobile phones spread to the villages and have since served as useful communication links among rural dwellers.

Then came the Internet, one of the technologies available for global resources and information sharing. It has become a common platform for seamless sharing of information across the world. With Internet, geographical distances and borders have been broken, just as it has proven to be a powerful democratising force offering greater economic, political and social latitudes to communities and nations globally.

From 450,000 telephone lines to over 150 million active connections 

August 8, 2001 marked the commercial launch of GSM operations in Nigeria. Though the journey actually started in January of the same year with the Digital Mobile Licence (DML) auctions, conducted by the then Dr. Ernest Ndukwe-led Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) during the regime of President Olusegun Obasanjo. The auction produced Econet, now Airtel and MTN, after they successfully paid $285 million each to procure the facility.

Prior to the era, Nigeria had 450,000 telephone lines, with government owning about 50 per cent of it. But today, investment in the industry is in the region of $70 billion with more operators, including Etisalat that joined the fray in 2009. Etisalat has since metamorphosed into 9Mobile.

There is also ntel, which began operations in 2016 with a promise to make a difference. There are now over 250 million connected lines out of which 150 million are active and 93 million unique subscribers. The country has crossed the 100 per cent tele-density mark and accounts for nearly 100 million Internet users and 22 million Facebook users, the largest in Africa.

Nigeria has no doubt grown phenomenally ever since. It is in this light that the chairman of the Association of Licensed Telecommunication Operators of Nigeria (ALTON), Gbenga Adebayo, tagged the industry as the only surviving sector of the country’s economy.

The Executive Vice Chairman of the NCC, Prof. Umar Danbatta, at an event in Abuja in 2016, revealed that the sector contributed N500 billion into the national economy in 2014 only, adding that it created about 2.5 million direct jobs in 10 years and multiple indirect employments.

The industry has contributed almost 10 per cent to the GDP with a target of 25 per cent by 2025. The last GDP rebasing of 2014 rated the telecommunications sector highest, describing it as the most performing sector in the country’s economic development.

Some players that are enabling this phenomenal growth include the quartet of MTN, Globacom, Airtel and Etisalat, now 9Mobile. Others are MainOne, Phase3 Telecoms, Rack Centre, VDT, ntel, CWG, ipnx, Microsoft, Google, Cyberspace, Zinox Technologies, Jumia, Konga among several others.

Subscribers not satisfied with current service offerings 

While these achievements speak volumes, subscribers, who pay the bills running into trillions of naira through call cards and others, are, however, still craving for improved services and lower tariffs as a favourable regulatory environment devoid of recurring rancours between the regulator and operators.

A number of subscribers ventilated their misgivings to The Guardian. First was Joke Jolaosho, a subscriber and banker. According to her, issues of drop calls, unsolicited SMS, airtime deductions were disturbing.

Jolaosho, who works with a new generation bank, noted that operators still need to work on their networks, adding that “though they are better than where we started, I believe we can achieve 95 if not 100 per cent call success rate. For now, it is very appalling.”

Borno-based Zarkariyau Biu called on operators to increase investments in the North East, stressing that relative peace had returned to the region. In an email message from his United Kingdom base, Kehinde Aluko commended the operators for their foray but urged the four major GSM operators to improve service delivery by undertaking more investments.

For Emeka Nnamdi, the operators should desist from exploiting subscribers. A major vehicle spare parts dealer at Ladipo Market, Lagos, decried the spate at which operators’ milk subscribers by deducting money for services not rendered, among other infractions.

Slow investment drive 

So far, $70 billion has been invested in the sector in almost two decades, with a bulk coming from Foreign Direct Investments (FDIs). While it hopes to wind down next year, the repayment of a previously syndicated loan of N329 billion taken in 2013 for capital and recurrent expenditure, MTN Nigeria last week secured another N200 billion facility from 12 local banks structured with a two-year moratorium and a repayment plan of five years.

Its Chief Executive Officer, Ferdie Moolman, at the MoU signing, said the loan was a major landmark in the firm’s expansion programme. At a post-event interview, the Chief Financial Officer of the firm, Kunle Awobodu, disclosed that for this year, the South African firm is committing N180 billion on network expansion, stressing that in the previous two years, MTN committed N192 billion and N252 billion on roll-out and service obligations.

Earlier in April, Otunba Mike Adenuga Jnr’s Globacom announced the commencement of the construction of Glo 2 submarine cable system. Globacom signed a MoU with Huawei for the construction of the submarine optic fibre cable. The facility, which comprises three fibre pairs, is to offer solutions to the protracted issue of non- availability of telecommunications service on off shore platforms.

Speaking on the occasion in Lagos, Globacom Enterprise Coordinator, Folu Aderibigbe, said:This dedicated submarine optical cable will provide ultra-high capacity connection to oil communities as well as enhance the network efficiency in all its operating areas. – The Guardian

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