The telecommunications industry in Nigeria

Introduction

I have a forum post about the recent experience I had in a Samsung store In Lagos, Nigeria. Egged on by kind commenters, I have decided to give a glimpse (after all I can only scratch the surface) into the Nigerian telecoms industry. It is even more appropriate now given Nilay's recent piece.

The carriers: A familiar place to start

Given the amount of influence carriers have in the US, I thought this would be the easiest way for most readers to ease into the piece. The way its set up here is identical to how it is in Europe. Most carriers operate interoperable GSM networks. You are expected to buy your phone outright (no credit system that is widespread just yet, they’re working on it), buy your SIM card form virtually anyone, pop it into your phone and you’re good to go. The carrier has no say from the acquisition of your phone and to its use on their network. Here’s how it works:

Daily Lingo

SIM Card: We’re mostly all familiar with this. The tiny chip that connects you to your network, stores your phone number and if you decide to, your contacts. In Nigeria they go for 200 Naira ($1.20), which is dirt cheap. In fact, its common practice for someone to have one phone and up to 3 SIM cards. If he runs out of credit on one, he pops the other in. It might not make sense at first; he might as well put all his credit on one SIM and use it, but its more complex than that.

Recharge Card: Most people are on pre paid plans. You buy a recharge card ranging in value from 100 Naira (80 cents) to 1,500 Naira ($10). Depending on the amount of credit one purchases, these cards can go from a tiny strip of paper to a glossy, well-formed card.

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A 100 Naira recharge card I used on MTN recently. MTN sucks. via i.imgur.com

Calling and tariffs: Different rates per second when you call different people. Depending on your network and whom you are calling, the rates are between 15 and 60 kobo (0.094 – 0.375 cents!) per second. While this again might seem ridiculously cheap, remember that most people here survive on less than a dollar a day. This is why despite how inconvenient it may be; a man can have Several SIMs to call different people on different networks simply for lower tariffs. Another thing, we only get charged to make calls, receiving a call is free.

Text Messaging: Just like most parts of the world, its on a decline but its still prevalent. A text message to someone costs 5 Naira if they are on the same network or 9 Naira if they are on a different one.

Carriers

There are 4 major ones; here is a brief summary of each of them.

MTN: A company based in South Africa, they are the largest and arguably the best. They also happen to be my carrier of choice. They share very similar characteristics to Verizon in the US in that they love to shaft customers for price. All carriers here drop calls, supporting 160 million people on GSM networks is no easy feat, but I have found MTN’s 3G coverage to be the most widespread and reliable in Lagos. I don’t carrier hop though, my experience probably is not the best source. I switched to Etisalat on Monday. They are a revelation! Amazing HSPA+ speeds so I can stream Spotify on my 2 hour commute to work! We have terrible traffic, it's a Lagos thing.

Globacom: A wholly Nigerian owned carrier. To be honest, I think that’s the only thing they have going for them. Too many people complain of poor signal and terrible call quality: our very own AT&T.

Etisalat: A rather popular Arab carrier that only landed here about 3 years ago. In that short time they’ve built an impressive 3G network that isn’t congested… yet. Recent update: OMG! These guys as stated before rock! Reliable coverage and amazing speeds. In the five days I've been with them I've been extremely happy. I bought a 3 GB data plan for 6,500 Naira ($40) and i've been eating through it like a Nigerian hungry for reliable data.

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My Etisalat SIM pack via i.imgur.com

Airtel: The Nigerian analogue of the American T-Mobile. This carrier has often always gotten the short end of the stick and has been taken over so many times, its a shame. They tend to be a budget carrier with great rates, but I wouldn’t know how good they really are. Don’t know anyone who uses them.

The Phones

In stark contrast to the States and Europe, the Blackberry remains the ultimate device. To quote a friend, if you don’t have one you might as well not exist. I don’t have one, its true. Everything is done over BBM. You meet a girl; you ask for her BBM pin, not her number. You want to know where the party is, check BBM. I’ve tried to get along using just Whatsapp, but it has been less than ideal.

Others:

The iPhone: Here, it is purely a fashion statement and nothing else. iTunes may be operational in Nigeria, but its not helped it much. Apple has no retail presence here and no support. Most people that have iPhone’s usually have AT&T’s model, which doesn’t work on our 3G networks. These people phone shuffle between their Blackberries when they want to get things done, and their iPhones when they want to "flex" (we use the English language in unique ways, so many colloquialisms its ridiculous!).

Android: There is no Android in Nigeria; there is only Samsung. Really. Ask anyone what Android is, they give you blank stares, however once you mention "Galaxy" there’s that "Oooooh, d Samsung Galazy!" (Spelling emphasizes pronunciation). It is the only smartphone officially in Nigeria. I’ve seen so many S II’s in the wild amongst the elite its somewhat strange because elsewhere its the iPhone that has so much presence. The S III is only going to help Samsung cement this more. People still use the S II alongside their blackberries though. There are a couple of Huawei and ZTE Froyo phones, but Nigerians would need to be paid to use them. There is no compelling reason to get one over a Blackberry.

Nokia: Oh how the mighty have fallen. Nokia phones have been relegated to phones fit for drivers and other people with blue-collar jobs. I’ve seen ads for the Lumia on TV, but no stores that carry them. The Nokia phones you will find here are thinner versions of the classic 3310 with a flashlight accessory. Its especially sad because 5 years ago, when I was in my senior year in high school you needed to have a Nokia phone to be anyone. Most especially if it was an N-Series phone. That’s how the cookie crumbles I guess.

Actually using the networks

Blackberries have been so optimized to work here that they function perfectly on EDGE networks. I on the other hand suffer with my Nexus. Twitter is really huge here (if you go to trends, you can set your trends to show those in Lagos, Nigeria. We are the only West African nation this supports; the only other country is South Africa). At a party, people whip out their Blackberries post a tweet, reply someone else’s and I’m languishing there hoping my Timeline will load. Its not that 3G is sparse, its just that all buildings are made of concrete and they are all so nucleated that 3G signal just can’t get in. We live on the edge with EDGE, our very own concrete jungle.

Update: Etisalat, Etisalat, Etisalat.

Carriers are dumb pipes.

As stated earlier, I just switched networks on Monday. If one doesn't meet your standards, switching is ridiculously easy and cheap. The market is a free one and the points Nilay raised today remain valid. I.E the carriers have to offer more for less, however they still rake in revenue. I personally think this is how the mobile market ought to be.

Future prospects.

RIM has a chokehold of the market, but its only because people need them not because they want them. Samsung is already making inroads into the market and seem more likely to usurp RIM in the near future. Nokia no longer have fan boys here anymore. Windows phone is non-existent, I’m hoping Windows Phone 8 can do well here, but Samsung will keep pushing their Android line and Nokia won’t be convincing the first time around. Apple cannot come here just yet, there is no contract system and hey will not be able to sell their phones subsidized. Samsung sells something they call the Galaxy Pocket here, and its doing fairly well. Most Nigerians buy it for the mobile hotspot functionality but that Galaxy name is there, ingrained in very catchy jingles.

Banky W and Sasha P - Me & My Samsung (Official Music Video) (via SamsungMobileNigeria)