Chidi Obineche and Chidinma Adiele
In the beginning
Before the advent of the Global System for Mobile Communication (GSM) into Nigeria 19years and 6 months ago, precisely on the 6th of August, 2001, a lot of water , as they say, passed under the bridge.
There was consternation and anxiety when neighbouring countries of Benin and Ghana had the GSM in use and its non availability in Nigeria was perceived as a huge slack and oversight on the part of the leadership of the country.
With pressure mounting on the government from several groups, individuals (entrepreneurs and politicians inclusive) it became incumbent on the government of Chief Olusegun Obasanjo to fastrack the inconclusive bid by the late General Sani Abacha military regime begun in 1998 to introduce it in Nigeria.
The pressure was heightened with the realization that it had at the time taken roots in about 27 out of 53 African counties and was already wearing the toga of a nascent global communication order. The government set to work. Several contacts were made within and outside government for proposals. The initial intention by Obasanjo was to open it up to foreign investors only.
A group of Nigerian Investors based in Lagos also showed interest. They linked up with some foreign partners and made a bid of $300 (Three Hundred million Dollars) to kick start the project. Although the bid was at a putative stage, waiting for government nod, no name was yet assigned to the company which in reality was acting as a consortium.
At this time, there were a lot of under the table maneuvers before the government rejected the bid and opted for open bidding (Auction) that drew a lot of investors from within and outside the country. That auction, the first in Africa, was adjudged transparent and world class by the both the World Bank and the International Telecommunications Union (ITU).
The NCC (Nigerian Telecommunications Communications) had placed the asking price for each license at a conservative $100m. But at the end, the sum of $285m was arrived at, and Airtel, then known as Econet, from Zimbabwe braced the tape. MTN, from South Africa swiftly followed.
The advent of GSM brought a high progression on the economy and also led to the abrupt end of Nigerian Telecommunications Limited (NITEL), which could only boast of 425,000 phone lines, mostly analogue under the administration of then President, Olusegun Obasanjo.
The industry immediately created thousands of career well paying jobs, grew the economy with the sprouting of ICT markets. It is estimated that in just less than two decades, it has grown from a $50 million sector in investments to over $78 million.
It has brought into the federation account over N15 trillion, evolved a new socio- economic order. At some period, Nigeria was the fastest growing mobile market in the world and kept the record for five consecutive years.
In a space of 18 years, tele- density has grown from less than1% to an amazing 108%. Contribution to GDP has reached over time to nearly 10%.
From the pioneer Chief Executive of NCC, Prof Ernest Ndukwe, to Dr Eugene Juwah and now Prof Umar Dambatta, the regulatory body has maintained consistency in discharging its statutory functions.
From the initial $2m subscribers in the first few months, the subscriber level has since grown to an impressive $145m today. As at that time, there was no ‘per second’ billing which made the call rate to be at Fifty Naira ‘per minute’.
Globacom Nigeria Limited introduced the ‘per second’ billing for the first time and this led to an increased competition among all the networks as it brought cheaper rates for people.
The Nigerian Telecom Industry is said to be the fastest growing Telecom industry in the world today. Though, a late entrant into the GSM market, Nigeria has outpaced many countries across the globe in terms of market size and telephone penetration.
In as much as the industry is growing, which helps boost the economy, it also faces some challenges. At inception, a conspiracy was obviously wrought which left the subscribers largely at the mercy of the Service providers. This ranges from high tariff system to poor regulatory mechanism.
Although the Nigerian Communications Commission, NCC which is the sole regulatory body has meted out sanctions for infractions on the GSM companies, there has been no marked reduction of the abuses. In fact, the four GSM providers – MTN, Airtel, Globacom, and Etisalat, now 9mobile were about four years ago slammed with a fine of N1.17 billion for poor service delivery.
In agreeing to pay the fine, they urged the government to improve on infrastructure which they cited as inhibiting smooth operations in the sector. Some of the users of these network providers during interactions with them, made mention of some problems they face with these service providers such as being defrauded of their data and airtime which are deducted even without use. Watchers of the industry insist that the rot and fraud in the industry is all- encompassing.
There have been allegations of complicity in the shortchanging of subscribers by the operators using high net-worth politicians and civil servants who are said to be materially compromised to turn a blind eye to their excesses. The GSM operators have been accused of focusing on building market share instead of quality services to their customers. It is rare these days to make a GSM call with full certainty that it will go the first time.
The People speak
A random vox pop conducted by Daily Sun depicts a harrowing level of despondence, anger and helplessness. Mr. Friday Onuh, a business man in the Opebi area of Ikeja, Lagos State, complained about subscribing for mobile data on Etisalat but could not make use of it and by the next day, the data was drained.
He said at that time, he did not do anything because the first time it happened, he reported to the Customer Care Representative and was told it would be rectified, but nothing happened afterwards and that has affected his confidence on the firm. According to him, it is a recurring issue.
Mrs. Nnenna Oguh, who sells recharge cards at the Ikeja roundabout also complained about the coating used to seal the pin for recharge cards, especially Globacom. She said it was too hard and often leads to customers scratching off the pin, and it poses a problem for her customers because it takes a long period of time to be rectified. She also talked about the seconds used to warn customers about their low airtime balance and how the airtime is being deducted from it, yet the main call had not been made and this has happened to her severally.
Mr. Charles Oginiyi, a barber, is unhappy about subscribing about 1.5 Gigabytes on his Airtel line for mobile data but was shocked to see it drained within 4days after his subscription, even though he had not made use of it. He also complained about the poor network coverage of Globacom which he claimed is also very selective.
He did not leave MTN Nigeria out as he said he could not subscribe on his MTN line due to overcharged subscription and it was too expensive for him to keep maintaining it even though their network service was better.
Mr. Chimezie Ike said he recharged his MTN line and did not owe the network Service provider, but the airtime was deducted for charges unknown to him. When he called the customer care, the personnel apologized to him but still did not do anything to refund the already deducted airtime.
A customer who chose to remain anonymous, said recently, he recharged his Globacom line an hour before his subscription expired as he usually subscribes weekly and does roll-over for the data.
The airtime required for the data was debited from his account but no data was given and the previous data was not rolled over. He commended the Customer Care Service unit for their fast response, and a short cut was provided for him to try subscribing again which did not work till after two hours.
When the problem was rectified, the previous data was not rolled over and he called the customer care service again. But after persistent trials and obtaining an apology from them, his data was not returned and nothing was done thereafter.
Grievances by subscribers have continued to grow steadily, almost to astronomical levels. For instance, in the first ten months of last year(2019) about 19,977 complaints were lodged against Mobile Network Operators (MNOs.)
The reports , lodged on four dedicated channels of the Nigerian Communications Commission, (NCC), ranged from billings, call centre/customer care; quality of service/experience, sales promotion and advertisement, among others. Billings took the lion share of the complaints. Subscribers demanded to know certain changes in their account balance and the difficulties encountered in altering their tariff plans and other settings.
Many subscribers also cried over their helplessness in hooking on to help lines describing the situation in some cases as “absurd”.
They berated the carefree attitude of agents who often tossed them up and down and offer premeditated standard responses to every problem. There are issues of call interferences, unsolicited messages, advertisements, inability to receive calls, call divert, call barring; persistent unexplained data depletion; poor signal/no network among others which have continued to dog the operations of the Mobile Network Operators, GMOs.
=To be continued next week.