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TELECOMS: THE JOURNEY TO MOBILE PORTABILITY

By NBF News
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The GSM industry in Nigeria has progressed in amazing ways since its inception. Even more amazing is the fact that the industry has recorded astronomical growth in its relatively short time of existence. Making phone calls and sending text messages and other perks of the GSM have in no mean way contributed to the growth and development of Nigeria as a country. While contributing to the GDP of Nigeria, it has also made the art of carrying out business transactions easier.

Consolidating on the progress thus far made, the Nigeria Communications Commission (NCC) recently embarked on a nationwide SIM registration exercise with a view to making sure that there is a current and up-to-date database of the general information of all the mobile phone users in the country.

Chronicling the journey of mobile telephony in Nigeria, one will observe that in 1993, the Nigerian Telecommunications Service (NITEL) went into a partnership with a company hitherto based abroad; the Digital Telecommunications Service in Atlanta. This partnership birthed the Mobile Telecommunication Service (MTS), this company would then go on to become the first telecommunication service provider in major cities of the country.

MTS began with an initial mobile capacity of 10,000 lines which was quickly used up in the first year due to acceptance of the relatively new mobile telecommunication idea in the country. MTS as a company also provided other telecommunication based services such as voice mail and paging. The company had installed three switch boards in the cities of Lagos, Enugu and Abuja. MTS however shut down their operations in the mid 90s due to its inability to pay NITEL interconnection and other fees. This gave rise to the need for the establishment of a mobile provider wholly owned by NITEL. This was the genesis of the creation of the first indigenous mobile network operator: M-TEL.

However, during this period, growth in the telecommunications sector was inhibited due to an apparent lack of interest by the government observed through the absence of government commitment in investment in the sector and the absence of foreign investors to invigorate the slow moving market. In the year 2000 however, the door was finally opened for foreign investors to take advantage of the large market and licenses were given, after a credible bidding process, to ECONET wireless Nigeria and Mobile Telephone Networks (MTN) Communications Nigeria to begin the provision of wireless telecommunication services in Nigeria.

The NCC set precise goals for the licensed operators. These goals include issuance of at least 100,000 lines in the first year of operation, then 1.5 million in the subsequent years with a minimum of 5% geographical coverage in each of the country's geopolitical zones. Despite the initial challenges which included the lack of pre-existing telecommunications infrastructure for the new service providers to take advantage of, the newly licensed providers still embarked on vigorous advertisement of their services and their operations rolled out soon after the issuance of the licenses.

There were initial fears that due to prevailing economic situation in the country at the time, the cost of setting up infrastructure and running the business that would be incurred by these operators would drive up the prices that subscribers would have to pay for these services thereby taking the services beyond the reach of the average, low income earning Nigerian.

The initial expected cost of the mobile telecom services were expected to be affordable by only the employees of large companies and high income earners. However, in spite of these initial concerns, the revolution in the telecoms industry took off smoothly. Brilliantly conceived and expertly delivered commercials by these newly licensed operators took over the Nigerian media. Those who could afford to get the new GSM devices went ahead and got them. Those who couldn't afford them patronized the retail vendors who offered those same services for a fraction of what it cost. Despite the challenges initially faced by the operators and subscribers alike, the GSM industry opened up new opportunities for business and economic development in the country.

In 2003, after overcoming the challenges it encountered during the initial bidding for a telecoms license, another indigenous but privately owned telecom service provider rolled out its services in the industry bringing with it a revolution that would lead to hitherto unimaginable development of the industry. GLOBACOM introduced the per-second billing option and brought the cost of SIM packs from over N20, 000 to as low as N200 and even less.

This forced other operators to bring down the costs of their services and sparked off a downward slope in the cost of telecommunications services in Nigeria. This revolution has led to the creation of direct and indirect employment opportunities, Inter-connectivity leading to a higher productive tendency for individuals and corporate bodies alike, faster economic growth etc. Also, this revolution has led to the manufacturing of cheaper and more affordable cell phones by the cell phone manufacturers thereby making it affordable for the low income earners and ensured that even they didn't get left behind.

The NCC, in keeping with its objective of enabling and monitoring/regulating the telecoms sector has been there to witness all these regulations and make sure that in all of these developments, the interest of the consumer (subscriber) is paramount and that improvement of quality of service is achieved while ensuring that the exploitative tendencies of the operators are reduced and the subscriber is protected at all times.

In all of these, it was discovered that there wasn't any harmonized database for the over 90 million subscribers in the telecoms sector. It was observed that even with all the growth recorded and the success achieved, there was no comprehensive and reliable subscriber database upon which strategic and developmental policies could be based and Nigeria as the fastest growing telecoms market in Africa was being left behind in this aspect.

This prompted the NCC to initiate a nationwide process of SIM card registration. This process was to make sure that it was possible to put a name and a face to every single GSM line in Nigeria in a bid to use the data as a base for developmental policies and to set ensure that further realistic goals are set to improve on the development thus far recorded.

Despite the initial hiccups that attended the SIM registration exercise, it turned out to be a huge success and the NCC now has a harmonized database of telecommunications service subscribers that cut across the various service providers and its now easier to formulate developmental strategies seeing as an almost accurate number of subscribers, complete with pictures, bio data and phone numbers, has been obtained through the SIM registration exercise. Armed with these details, the NCC now has an easier job of regulating the telecoms industry to make sure the interests of the Nigerian populace is at the center of any decisions taken by private operators and government agencies alike.

With a further view of making the telecoms sector in Nigeria compete favorably with other sectors in developed countries of the world, the NCC has announced its intention to embark on a new task. This task is known the world over as MOBILE NUMBER PORTABILITY (MNP). Mobile number portability is a service that allows the subscriber to move from one network to another while keeping the same phone number. It means a subscriber can change his/her network service provider without having to change his/her phone number. This removes the trouble of having to move about with multiple cell phones. It will also give rise to healthy competition amongst the service providers as they will realize that it is now easy for a subscriber to migrate from their network to another network if he is not satisfied with the quality of the service they provide.

The MNP is a laudable project and when it is done, will be an improvement on the quality of service as it currently obtains in the telecoms sector. It will enhance efficiency, creativity and productivity on the part of the network service providers and lead to reduction of stress and worry on the part of the subscribers by making the process of operating mobile telephones less cumbersome. It will be interesting to see how the telecoms regulator pulls off this new task.

Dike writes from Onitsha