The mobile phone has become a part of a lot of Nigerian people’s lives. Though it might still be a source of irritation, especially if you have to sit beside a continuously jabbering person on the bus for 30 minutes (who pays these people’s bills?), but the benefits really do outweigh any disadvantages which usually arise just from people’s lack of concern towards other’s comfort.
Life depended on it? Cellular phones have taken over the world! In Oyingbo near Port Harcourt where I lives, there are two mobile connections per person! Can you imagine that? What could be a logical explanation for this unhealthy gadget fetish? True, we live in an age of modern technology, and cell phones make work easier, communication more efficient, and distances smaller. How many people do you know, who have a cell phone, but actually, need it? Not the kind of person to NOT give credit where it’s due, I would like to congratulate the service providers and phone manufacturers for creating such ludicrous desire for this wireless piece of wonder!
Everybody wants one, or should I say, everyone owns one, not many need one.
And interestingly, science has woken up to the fact that it isn’t only a money-spinner, it is the technological development of the late twentieth century that has had the most impact on development. Eyebrows might be raised at this; after all, everyone knows that accolade should go to the computer and the Internet. But actually, how many computers are contributing to development in the villages of our local communities? Computers are efficient machines, to some urbanites indispensable, but to have good computer systems working you need reliable continuous power supply. Those who live in Lagos and Abuja and other urban cities in Nigeria have all experienced the pang in their hearts when their computers crash as a result of a blackout and in the villages, where the voltage fluctuates extremely, and the situation is rather laughable.
Unlike my Nigerian compatriots, and very much like my English supervisor, I was a bit lax about hopping on to the mobile bandwagon. It was only after almost everyone of my acquaintance had been using a mobile for some time, that I thought that I might acquire this rather ‘useless’ thing. I couldn’t see who I would need to call at such expense, or why a few words via text messaging would give the same pleasure as a nice e-mail, or better yet a hand-written letter. I couldn’t abide never being totally alone, always knowing that your parents or loved one could intrude and demand to know your whereabouts. Carrying around a piece of equipment which curtails your liberty seemed a bad bargain just for the point of proving you do adhere to some fashion.
Before NITEL loses more value and investor attractiveness, perhaps the Government ought to consider splitting it up into three component parts; Access, Transport and Mobile communications. The access portion, which for our purposes refers to the delivery of the “last mile” to the subscriber, should be sold off to existing and / or new regional operators with a clearly defined roadmap on how they will integrate the acquired technology and customer base assets into their network. This model has worked in markets like the US, Brazil and China.
The GSM portion which showed sluggishness in deployment when compared against MTN and Econet (now zainmobile), should be sold off as a separate entity and what is left should be re-branded and sold as a transport/transit network capable of interconnecting all fixed, fixed wireless and GSM providers across the country. Two things will be achieved by doing this: the access technology providers – by this I mean all forms of access including GSM – will be able to focus on delivery of innovative products and services to compete in the market place. The transport company can then be properly regulated in terms of fair tariffing and quality of service.
Secondly, a more focused and re-branded Nitel is more likely to attract investors than the current entity. I can anticipate counter arguments of sectoral monopolies being created by the regional disposition of Nitel’s access business. The response to this already exists in the form of a second national operator, Globacom that is licensed to compete across the entire spectrum, and has shown signs of a determined focus to do so. Indeed this arrangement might provide Globacom and others an opportunity to conserve investments in transmission /transit infrastructure. It is a possible contemplation that they could be invited to take a stake in the transit company, invest jointly on the transmission backbone and differentiate themselves on the innovativeness of their access services, management competence, pricing and customer service.
But, as with most cases in science, it is not a good idea to pontificate unless you have actually experimented. Taking a leap is the main thing: to spring requires courage, but you’re bound to end up someplace. And so, I leaped, and found myself succumbing. Having become a total convert to the ubiquitous joys of carrying around another piece in my already heavy backpack, all my past prejudices have been totally swamped. What isn’t more natural for parents and husbands and wives than to know where their children is at all times and thus being relieved of their anxiety as well as letting the youngsters enjoy some much-needed freedom.
Still, one of the favourite promises of Nigeria politicians when they go to rural areas is the promise of computers, computer centres etc. and what not. Until the PHCN/NEPA improve Nigeria’s electricity situation, this is an expensive and unwise thing to promise. But this is not the case for the mobile or cell phone. It is a bit amusing that the joke seems to be that at one time even beggars in the FCT, Ekoo or our own garden city of Port Harcourt will all have mobiles, as if this were something only for the technically savvy and well-off. But, maybe we should look at it in a completely different way, and consider it as another great tool of developing nations on their road to development.
In a recent paper, economists William Gate, Dora Akunyili the Nigeria’s ICT minister and Melvyn Fuss asserted that mobile phones raise long-term growth rates and their impact is twice as large in developing countries as in developed ones. Their model suggests that in a typical developing country, an increase of ten mobiles per 100 people boosts GDP growth by 0.6 percentage points. This paper has basically worked out a theoretical model, however real examples of the benefits that mobiles bring to poor countries are considered, and the evidence comes close to supporting their conclusions. Given the opportunity and some simple teaching, poor people around the world are flocking to acquire mobile phones.
In Nigeria; a sub-Saharan African nation, subscribers’ growth exceeded 150% last year, 2008. The benefits are very clear, and they are different to the benefits of the usual talking, chattering, and sending of text messages between friends and relatives we commonly associate with mobiles. Mobile phones do not depend on a permanent electricity supply and can be used by people who cannot read and write. They can enable fishermen or farmers to check prices at different markets before selling their produce, they can make it easier for people to look for jobs, and they can prevent wasted journeys. In areas were roads are bad, fixed-lines almost non-existent, the post unreliable, they can be a Godsend. Mobile phones thus reduce transaction costs, even allowing in cases for the farmers to cut out the middlemen. Small businesses use them to see from where they can get good and inexpensive supplies. Several African nations use them to make cashless payments, thus obliterating the need to carry around lots of cash in a lawless region.
The mobile phone is actually already at work in our country. It is heartening that Nigeri
a was one of the first countries where the power of the mobile to help the poor was first understood, and as in many other cases, Econet took the lead here too (in 2001). The ‘telephone ladies’ of MTN Nigeria have provided models for many developing nations. Because of the costs, mobile phones in rural areas all over the world are widely shared.
One person in a village buys a mobile phone, usually using a micro-credit loan. Others then rent it out by the minute; the owner derives a small profit that is enough to pay back the loan and produce a living for her. Today there are 60,000 ‘telephone ladies’ supplying telephone service in 80 per cent of the villages in Nigeria.
In villages where there is no power supply, solar energy panels are used to charge the telephones. There are people able to read and write can set up as text message entrepreneurs. Texting is much cheaper than making voice calls, but you need to be able to write, so some people sell their services of sending and receiving text messages for the illiterate. The benefits are clear, so what can do the government do to help? Indeed, it’s best if it does as little as possible. Making the environment freer for competition to arise will result in more and more companies coming onto the market, and thus improvements to be made more quickly. Recently there was a protest by mobile phone users in FCT where they demanded that the four mobile companies currently operating cut their call charges. At present, there are less than 2 phones per 100 people, but with more competition and lowering of costs as well as a bit more knowledge of how mobiles can enrich lives, this number should certainly rise. Just the entrance of Arabian company Etisalat Telecom prompted Glo-Network to cut its charges by 25%. Let us all wish for a mobile world!
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