In spite of the tremendous growth in Nigeria's telecommunications sector, poor service delivery is fast eroding the gains.But co-location of infrastructure is a sure way out of the imminent danger, writes Emma Okonji
In 2001 when Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) was introduced, Nigerians embraced it with a lot of passion, having been starved of mobile communications for years. Then it was Econet Wireless (now Airtel) and MTN before Globacom was licensed in 2003. Etisalat joined the race of telecoms service providers in 2008. In the enjoyed full scale service delivery as calls went through without the slightest congestion.
As the number of subscribers increase, it was expected that telecoms operators will increase infrastructure rollout at a commensurate level with subscriber growth. But little attention was paid to infrastructure improvement until a time when network congestion sets in, leading to subscribers experiencing poor services delivery.
However, telecoms operators blamed the situation on government, which they said did not provide telecoms infrastructure for network rollout. The operators complained bitterly that they were investing their profit in infrastructure rollout such as building and installing Base Transceiver Stations (BTS), popularly known as base stations.
Providing solution to the challenges, the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), the telecoms industry regulator quickly recommended co-location of telecoms infrastructure for all telecoms service providers, a situation that will enable them share infrastructure like BTS, built by Helios Towers and IHS. Although the telecoms operators saw that advice as good, implementation became a challenge because of perceived fear of sabotage from their competitors, should they share BTS in common.
Initial Gains of Telecoms
For almost 10 years now, mobile usage has grown faster in Africa than anywhere else in the world and the growth rate continues. The mobile industry improves consumers' access to information, benefits business owners, and increases productivity, which means that the mobile phone has helped to grow the economy. Nigeria's telecoms industry, controlled by the NCC leads the way with the highest number of mobile phone subscriptions in Africa, measuring about 20 per cent subscription penetration in the continent, and is adjudged as one of Africa's fastest growing telecommunications markets.
McKinsey, a leading global consulting firm, recently published a report on the increase of the African consumer in which it observed that, while mobile phone usage has increased dramatically, mobile systems now need to serve a growing demand for connectivity.
The report said over 50 per cent of urban dwellers in Africa were at par with China and Brazil, in the use the internet, as African consumers use their mobile phones to do what people in the United States and Europe would need a PC or laptop to do. So the use of mobile phones is improving quality of life in many ways but the issue of service quality remain largely unresolved because operators are not collocating effectively.
Need for Co-location
Helios Towers Nigeria (HTN) is one company, just like few others that is putting in place a number of measures that will reduce the impact of mobile proliferation. As an independent operator of telecommunications towers, they enable mobile operators to share infrastructure, rather than having each mobile operator build and maintain their own sites and power their own generators. It has built and installed several BTS that are ready for co-location among telecoms operators.
Speaking on the need for telecoms operators to co-locate, President of the Association of Telecoms Subscribers (NATCOMS), Mr. Deolu Ogunbanjo said the presence of HTN and other mast builders, would remove proliferation of masts and would also improve service quality, as infrastructure maintenance would be better managed by the mast builders. "Network congestion in urban areas will reduce because it is cheaper for mobile operators to rollout more services on already built and installed base stations, than building their own, which might not be cost-effective for one operator to build and maintain," Ogunbanjo said.
Co-locating with HTN
HTN was the first-ever independent towers company in Africa, pioneering a successful US business idea in Nigeria. HTN is also pioneering energy saving devices that reduce diesel usage and result in cleaner air, which means that the cost to consumers of mobile services will continue to reduce, even as patronage goes up.
With over 1200 towers under management, which is an increase of 500 in the current year, HTN is the largest independent tower operator in the country. HTN has invested in a world class management team, systems and processes and typically achieves best-in-class service levels among independent tower operators in Nigeria.
A look at the activities of HTN in Nigeria shows that it has added a record number of base stations co-locating on its sites this year. According to the company, " In 2012, over 700 new BTS(GSM/3G/4G) which is approximately 15 per cent of new base stations got inaugurated on HTN inventory from its key customers like MTN, EMTS and Airtel."
Apart from supporting established mobile operators, HTN has also enabled a number of wireless data operators to launch competitively priced internet services to the public due to the cost benefits they have enjoyed from using HTN's tower infrastructure.
Co-locating CDMA Operators
Apart from providing co-location It is not only GSM companies that are enjoying the co-location services of HTN. The company is also supporting the Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA) operators that provide fixed and wireless landline services. As the telecommunications industry continues to expand, the competitive landscape for operators using CDMA technology has proved challenging. "Multi-Links, a key HTN customer has been able to work through the difficulties because of the operational support of HTN and the financial support of HTN's investors, the company said, adding that its support for CDMA operators has been critical especially in the new era of consolidation of the CDMA industry in Nigeria.
The consolidation process is well underway with international investors, led by Capcom, set to acquire Multi-Links in the near future.
International Financing Support
With so many growth opportunities on the horizon, premier global investors, including Helios Investment Partners, recently provided additional equity financing for HTN to enable the company support the growth plans of its customers. Financial support for its business is also coming from a number of major banks and global development finance institutions including the International Finance Corporation (IFC).
What Telecoms Operators Must Do
As mobile usage in Nigeria continues to grow and the impact of poor service quality is biting hard on telecoms subscribers owing to network congestions and non-adherence to co-location, analysts said there is need for telecoms operating companies to embrace the service offerings of co-location from mast builders. HTN and others are already innovating along the way to provide service in urban, suburban and rural locations and operating in an environmentally friendly way. Services of this nature, no doubt, will help Nigeria connect to a more prosperous