A rant about the evolution of telephony in Nigeria

A long time ago, when chicken had teeth, the whole of Nigeria (not half of it, the whole!) had 400,000 lines for 80 million people. Of course, only the rich had these phones. Everyone went to the business center to make calls and do Yahoo faxes. Or you climb a tree and shout yourself hoarse if you want to talk to someone near.

Then NITEL, the government parastatal, decided to do analog mobile telephones. It cost three arms and ten legs. Only the thieves, the politicians, and cocaine pushers got them. The first time I held an analog Motorola Startac in my hand, I felt like God’s nephew. It was a status symbol for the successful Ibo traders (naught-nine-naught).

Then, the private Telcos brought in their technology. Notwithstanding, Multilink, Intercellular, Starcomms, and others felt telephone was for the rich boys. They cost N150,000 to get one. A few senior executives got these lines to call their girlfriends on the phone (that was before we started calling them side-chicks). The rest of Nigerians were left to shout at each other just to talk.

At this time, just before Abacha bit the apple or kicked the bucket, he handed over GSM licenses to everyone except my uncle. Both Celia Motophone and Mr. Adenuga setup 30,000-line exchanges. Apparently, the target wasn’t the common man. The phone services never saw the light of the day.

Sometimes just after my sister was cleaning the plates used for the 2001 New Year party, the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria got upset, instructed the technocrat leading the NCC, the nation’s watchdog guarding the national electromagnetic asset, to auction some frequencies for $285M a pop. MTN and Econet Wireless raised Benjamins from everyone and got themselves some licenses. Hey, something is gonna happen?

In August 2001, MTN and Econet Wireless launched their brand new but mightily creaky networks. SIM cards were sold for N20,000 a pop, and you can call a few friends for N50 per minute. Again, only the rich could buy SIMs and phones. Wait, won’t these guys learn some lessons from history?

Luckily, guys at MTN and Econet leased some wisdom and crashed the cost of getting a new SIM. MTN did BOGOF (not what you think it is) and it was buddie buddie time at Econet. At this incredible time, everyone had a phone, but calling was still an unforgivable N50 per minute. Someone discovered flashing, and madness ensues.

Everyone had a phone, the poor people flash the rich to call them back, just like “collect call” in the US. If you don’t know what flashing means, ask your uncle. If you have any, ask your “uncle.”

The whole country begged, rolled on the ground, threatened, even sacrificed goats so that MTN and Econet could charge per second, but they said it was technically impossible; God didn’t like it; heaven will crash; blah; blah and damn blah. After a while, they lost all excuses but N50 per minute calls remained.

Somewhere on the horizon, sometimes in August 2003, a green bull galloped into the Nigerian China shop, and hell was let loose. Glo brought per second call billing and within a few days, MTN and Econet (they changed names more times than I have changed jobs) came out with per second billing as well.

Many Nigerians, including yours sincerely, swore for MTN and Econet (or was it Vmobile?).

For the first time, Nigerians found their voices, and since then, with calls getting cheaper by the day, nobody has had peace. Flashing died a withering slow and agonizing death. Even your Maiguards will call you and stay on the phone for 45 minutes at a time.

Now, it seems the end of the beginning has passed.

You see, the Internet has become so cheap and Whatsapp so pervasive that only psychopaths send SMS and nobody calls again. Everything is now done on Whatsapp. ARPU, the means by which finance guys in telecoms skewer themselves, have been steadily declining over the past five years.

17 years is a short time for what the country has done for telephony. I doff my hat. But will the same happen for power, payments, and financial inclusion?

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