20 Years of GSM and Adenuga’s Factor – By Chidiebere Nwobodo

June 22, 2021
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The year 2021, marked twenty years of GSM operation in Nigeria. Two decades ago, NITEL was the king of telecommunications 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, would had looked retrogressive and uninvolved in the current happenings of the time. Those that owned active fixed phones in the neighborhood were seen as gateway to the telecom world. Everyone around the street tried to be in good terms with them, in order to maintain the goodwill that would enable continuous usage of their phone lines as contact addresses.

I remember with nostalgia how NITEL technicians behaved like the sun that gets 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 sorted after by customers whose lines developed one fault or the other. The challenge of ineffective billing system made NITEL offices beehive of activities where people trooped in to lodge one complain or the other. Only the mighty made used of cellular phones then. A government official was allegedly quoted to had said that mobile phones were not for the poor!

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Nigerians slept in NITEL offices and call centers while trying to make and receive calls, especially international calls. NITEL telecom infrastructure were mostly analogy and antiqued. Challenges of congested lines, fluctuating billing system and drop calls plagued the industry. At that time, NITEL had relatively 400,000 active lines. Apart from fixed lines and Fax, Nigerians had no other option of communication except postal services—aka letter writing—that usually took up to two-three weeks to arrive per post.

In 1992, when Decree 75 was promulgated, it signaled huge step towards deregulation of the telecom sector. But NITEL was still the mafia here—with monopolistic powers—but the nation was already at the verge of a new dawn of telecommunications revolution. By 2001, the revolution was ignited. The first set of GSM licences were bided and issued. Mobile phone sector was liberalised. Two foreign telecom companies, in partnership with some Nigerian investors got the 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 being charged at N50 per minute. You could only buy N1500 recharge card—that had 14-day lifeline. At the end of two weeks, if you could not finish the airtime, whatever airtime left would be frozen until you renew your line in like sum. I could remember a time I had up to N4,000 airtime “trapped” because I could not exhaust the N1500 each time I recharged.

How Adenuga’s Factor Changed the Game

Though GSM had been launched in the country, but within few months the euphoria that greeted it began to fade. Expensive nature of SIM cards, recharge cards and per minute billing system still kept mobile phones only in the hands of the rich and upper middle class.

The roll out was very slow. The two GSM companies that first debuted in Nigeria’s market were creating almost a duopoly—holding Nigerians at jugular, 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 telecommunications industry, especially GSM. The entrance of Glo—being the first indigenous mobile operator, altered the mobile telecom market and changed the game for the good of Nigerians. The hold of duopoly of the first two legacy mobile companies in the country, was broken. A new ray of hope for affordable GSM services waved across the land. A breath of fresh air was felt in the sector.

Chief Adenuga-led Globacom did not only introduce cheaper SIM cards to Nigerian waiting telecommunications industry but came out with a masterstroke X factor called per-a-second billing system, against others’ per a minute. Others said it was not possible to run per-a-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 blew harder. Mobile operators started massive roll out 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 gold mine in Nigeria because of sudden upsurge in the demand of phones and accessories from the importers. A huge multi-billion dollar market was opened in Africa’s most populous nation. Millions of direct and indirect jobs were created for the nation’s teeming unemployed cum underemployed populace.

In 2011, to give broadband services a major boost, Glo became the first telecom company in the country to build an $800m dollars 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 50m active lines. The nationalistic roles played by Chief Mike Adenuga is not lost on Nigerians. The timing entrance of Glo in the race, broke duopoly, created a highly competitive market and fast-tracked the 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 potentials of Nigerian youths have 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 twenty years of advent of GSM in Nigeria, Chief Mike Adenuga’s place in history of 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.

Chidiebere Nwobodo wrote in from Abuja via chidieberenwobodo@yahoo.com.

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