Wednesday, November 20, 2013

GSM Phenomenon and Service Delivery Challenges in Nigeria

Are there regulators for the Nigerian Global System for Mobile Communications industry? I am not unaware that the Nigerian Communications Commission; Senate and House Committees on Communications of the National Assembly as well as the Federal Ministry of Communications have oversight functions on our GSM operators. But it will seem they have all gone to sleep while our mobile phone service providers continue to operate with impunity, ceaselessly providing poor quality services. When Nigeria joined the elite league of GSM operators in 2001, we all shouted Eureka. Finally, we thought the days of inefficient and ineffective Nigeria Telecommunications is over. No more being at the mercy of the almighty NITEL.  No more pains and agony while queuing up at NITEL pay phones to make calls (at least, that’s what some of us who are too poor to own fixed telephone lines resort to).

To some extent that was true. NITEL did die a natural death when the new kids came on the block. The ever-changing Econet (later Vmobile, Vodacom, Zain now Airtel), Mtel, and MTN were first licensed in January 2001. Additional two – Globacom and Etisalat were later certified to operate. Now, we have five GSM operators.  As of July 2013, information  gleaned from the website of the NCC shows the subscriber base of the five musketeers are as follows : Airtel  – 21, 065,801 (19 per cent) ; Etisalat – 15, 515,615 (14 per cent) ; Globacom – 22, 828,918 (20 per cent) ; MTel – 258,520 (0 per cent) while MTN has 47 per cent of the market share with 52, 198,079 subscribers.

For years, these GSM operators called for our understanding while claiming to be facing teething problems. They said they paid exorbitant licensing fees (the first licensees paid $285m while others paid $400m and above). They blamed lack of infrastructure for their prohibitive operational costs. They told everyone that cared to listen that they had to build base stations, provide two generators to run each of the stations and still have to provide security at the stations. They promised to inject billions of dollars in infrastructure development and that the take-off problems would soon be over when they laid their optical fibre network and acquired state of the art facilities to improve their services.

It’s been some 12 years those promises were made. In 2013, it’s still the same old story.  Drop calls have increased, inability to load credit on the pre-paid lines has not abated, while network coverage is still limited. In the last two weeks or thereabout, MTN, in particular, has been offering unsatisfactory services as it’s been highly difficult making calls and sending text messages. It has been a very frustrating experience. It’s not only MTN that has these problems, I have three mobile lines and the difference between the services they provide is that between six and half a dozen. Has anyone noticed that in spite of the introduction of mobile number portability on April 22, 2013, most subscribers have not “ported” as envisaged? We still carry between two to four dual SIM handsets and subscribing to most of the networks all in a bid to communicate.

There is no doubt that the GSM has improved considerably our means of communication. After all, I don’t have to travel to see friends and family again, unless it is absolutely necessary. Even for those abroad, there are multifarious ways to keep in touch with them. I can call, text, and chat with them on social media (Facebook, Twitter, Skype, etc.).  Life has definitely been made easier with the advent of the GSM. Today, even the poor can afford to own a mobile phone. Farmers, artisans, traders, government and private employees all have access to mobile telephones. For some time now, I only call my tailor to pick up any new cloths I need to sew Recently, when my car had an electrical fault, I just had to call my “rewire” to meet me at the spot of the incident and pronto, he fixed it.

These GSM operators also provide internet service with which we link the rest of the world whether for research or pleasure. With internet service, one can send and receive electronic mails as well as go on the social media to keep abreast of latest gists around town. One can also read newspapers of any country in the world that is online as well as watch television, video and do many things via the internet provided by the GSM operators. Such is the beautiful and wonderful world the GSM has created. The operators have indeed made the world a hamlet, a small village.

In fairness to Nigeria’s GSM operators, they have been facing daunting challenges. All their excuses are genuine but not sufficient enough not to provide improved services. It is true that terrorists have been burning some of their base stations in the North-East zone. Some of their cables have been vandalised and they have to provide light and security for their base stations. In spite of these operational challenges, they have been providing corporate social responsibility in terms of setting up of educational foundations, sponsorship of music and sports events and giving back to the society through various educational competitions and bonanzas.

The value chain of the GSM in Nigeria, like in many other countries where it has been embraced, is very robust. The GSM has provided market for manufacturers of mobile phones as many brands abound from Samsung to Nokia, Techno, and BlackBerry. They come in various models. It has also opened a floodgate of market for mobile phone accessories – battery, charger, bluetooth, earpiece, memory card, etc. Jobs have also been provided for those who can repair these mobile phones as well as those manufacturing and selling recharge cards.  The technology that gave birth to the GSM is no doubt fascinating. It’s amazing what can be done under GSM beyond the basics of making calls, sending and receiving text messages, chatting, recording, taking and sending pictures

There are no doubts that the GSM comes with loads of benefits which the consumers should enjoy at a pocket friendly fees. However, it is not just good enough that after 12 years of operation, GSM consumers in the country are still heavily shortchanged by being charged high fees for poor services. It is high time the NCC, the Federal Ministry of Communications, the National Assembly and indeed President Goodluck Jonathan ensured that GSM operators provided value for the money charged the over 153,665,438 Nigerian subscribers. Enough of this rip-off!