By Chidiebere Nwobodo
The year 2021 marked 20 years of Global System of Mobile telecommunication (GSM) operation in Nigeria. Two decades ago, NITEL was the king of telecommunication in Nigeria. Then, one of the major signs of highbrow streets, exclusively reserved for the rich and influential, was telephone wires that crisscrossed the poles. It showed high tele-density in the area. Inhabitants of those locations felt like the most tele-connected set of people in the country.
Back then, any office you entered without a fixed telephone line looked retrogressive and uninvolved in the happenings of the time. Those that owned fixed phones in the neighbourhood were seen as gateways to the telecom world. Everyone on the street tried to be on good terms with them in order to maintain the goodwill that would enable continuous usage of their phone lines as contact address.
I remember with nostalgia how NITEL technicians behaved like the sun that was orbited by planets vis-a-vis their over-bloated feeling of self-importance as a result of inadequate demand of their attention. They were highly sought after by customers whose lines developed one fault or the other. The challenge of ineffective billing made NITEL offices a beehive of activities where people trooped to lodge one complaint or the other. Only the mighty made use of emergent cellular phones then. A government official was allegedly quoted to have said that mobile phones were not for the poor!
Nigerians virtually slept at NITEL offices and call centres while trying to make and receive calls, especially international calls. NITEL telecom infrastructure was mostly analogue and antiqued. Challenges of congested lines, fluctuating billing system and dropped calls plagued the industry. At that time, NITEL had an estimated 400,000 active lines. Apart from fixed lines and fax, Nigerians had no other option of communication except postal services—letter writing—that usually took up to three weeks to arrive per post.
In 1992, when Decree 75 was promulgated, it signalled a huge step towards deregulation of the telecom sector. NITEL was still the mafia—with monopolistic powers—but the nation was already on the verge of a telecommunications revolution. By 2001, the revolution was ignited. The first set of GSM licences were and issued by bid. The mobile phone sector was liberalised. Two foreign telecom companies, in partnership with some Nigerian investors, got licences and hit the ground running.
Nigerians were buying phones and lines at very exorbitant rates. One SIM card sold as high as N50,000. Calls were charged at N50 per minute. You could only buy N1,500 recharge card—that had 14-day lifespan. At the end of two weeks, if you could not finish the airtime, whatever airtime left would be frozen until you renewed your airtime in like sum. I remember a time I had up to N4,000 airtime “trapped” because I could not exhaust the N1,500 each time I recharged.
How Adenuga factor changed the game
Though GSM had been launched in the country, within a few months, the euphoria that greeted it began to fade. The expensive nature of SIM cards, recharge cards and per-minute billing system kept mobile phones only in the hands of the rich and upper middle class.
Also, the rollout was very slow. The two GSM companies that first debuted in Nigeria’s market were almost a duopoly—holding Nigerians to ransom, until Chief Mike Adenuga took the gauntlet to float Globacom Limited two years after.
In August 2003, Glo Mobile network was born. The real revolution started in the telecommunication industry, especially GSM. The entrance of Glo, the first indigenous mobile operator, altered the market and changed the game for the good of Nigerians. The hold of the duopoly of the first two legacy mobile companies on the country, was broken. A new ray of hope for affordable GSM services shined across the land. A breath of fresh air was felt in the sector.
The Adenuga-led Globacom did not only introduce cheaper SIM cards to Nigeria’s waiting telecommunications industry but also came out with a masterstroke called per-second billing system, against the per-minute system. Others said it was not possible to run per-second billing—Glo made it possible. It demystified the myth of indigenous companies always playing second fiddle.
Competition was birthed. Prices of SIM cards began to nosedive like a waterfall. GSM services got cheaper and affordable. More Nigerians got interested. Enthusiasm and optimism grew. Mobile operators started massive rollout of infrastructure via fiber optics, base transceiver stations, etcetera, with attendant adverts cum commercials to outfox rivals and dominate the market.
Interconnectivity grew bigger. Mobile phone manufacturers discovered a gold mine in Nigeria because of the sudden upsurge in demand of phones and accessories from importers. A huge multibillion-dollar market was opened in Africa’s most populous nation. Millions of direct and indirect jobs were created for the nation’s teeming unemployed populace.
In 2011, to give broadband services a major boost, Glo became the first telecom company in the country to build an $800 million high-capacity submarine fiber optics cable known as Glo 1, that successfully connected Nigeria to Europe. It was a humongous project that needed courage and resources to execute. Chief Mike Adenuga midwifed it. This milestone upped Glo’s share of the market and heightened competition that benefited Nigerians more.
In retrospect, after two decades of turbulent sojourn, Nigeria’s active telephone lines astronomically rose from 400,000 active lines to conservatively 180 million lines. Globacom is the second biggest mobile operator in terms of subscriber base—with over 50 million active lines. The nationalistic roles played by Chief Mike Adenuga are not lost on Nigerians. The timly entrance of Glo in the race broke the duopoly, created a highly competitive market and fast-tracked telecommunications connectivity in the country.
Twenty years down the line, Nigerians have unfettered access to voice and data communications. Internet penetration is moving at the speed of light. Nigeria has become a huge market for smartphones, with a forecast placing smartphone usage at 40 million by 2025. Online banking, e-commerce, e-conferences, tele-medicine, etcetera, have been made possible. Jobs and wealth have been created online. Life has been literally made easier.
Nigerians have been given a voice—social media. Internet access, coupled with availability of affordable smartphones, have made social media the new media in Nigeria. The hitherto untapped potential of Nigerian youths has been unleashed on social media. Information dissemination has been liberalised. Traditional media houses are competing with social media influencers and public relations managers. Social media has become the new court of public opinion.
As we mark 20 years of the advent of GSM in Nigeria, Adenuga’s place in the history of the telecommunication revolution is secured. He is the hero of the nation’s telecom sector and silent revolutionist of the industry. He changed the game, even without taking the credit. Beyond telecom industry, he is one of the biggest employers of labour in the country with diversified interests in other sectors such as oil and gas, banking, etcetera.
•Nwobodo wrote from Abuja; [email protected]