Until late last year, telephones were a luxury that only a few privileged Nigerians enjoyed. But with introduction of cellular phones last August, more people now have access to telephones, and that is changing people's lives. Grace Yusuf talking picks up her cellular phone and calls her husband. He is a civil servant in Nigeria's capital, Abuja, hundreds of kilometers from her own base in Lagos. Just under a year ago, they could only communicate while at work with their employers' telephones.
But the story has since changed, thanks to the arrival of cellular phones or GSM as it is known here. Mrs. Yusuf now calls Abuja regularly whenever she likes. "It's communication made easy. Wonderful, she grins".
Until last year's August, Nigeria, with a population of over 110 million, could only boast of about half a million functional telephones lines. After a public auction early last year, three companies were licensed to operate mobile phone services. At least 700,000 cellular phones are now in the hands of appreciative Nigerian users. Most of them say it has made life a lot easier. Goddy Ikeh is a journalist. "It has helped my job, reduced cost, for me it's a revolution".
Otome Oyo, an engineer, agrees. He says everyone has been affected positively by the advent of GSM phones. And if there is any disadvantage, he says, it is the exorbitant rates the operators charge. "in truth GSM's only disadvantage is the cost".
Consumers say the tariff, about 30 U.S. cents per minute, is among the highest in the world. The operators respond, saying the 285 million dollars they each paid for their license was equally exorbitant. They also complain about the high operating cost in Nigeria. For example, because of the absence of reliable public infrastructure, they have to provide alternative facilities including power sources. But if the high cost is making users angry, the GSM business has brought good fortune to thousand of other people. It has created jobs for engineers, technicians, sales and marketing personnel. Equally smiling to the bank are people selling accessories like handsets and recharge cards. Margaret Iroha, who sells recharge cards, says it is a profitable business for enterprising people. if you're able to sell, you can make up to 50,000 at the end of the month.
On the whole, government officials say the development is good for the economy. But critics disagree, saying consumers are not getting efficient services despite the exorbitant tariffs. They suggest that the tariffs should drop as more users get connected to the network. Government officials say they see that happening in the near future with increasing competition among operators. For hard-pressed consumers, the earlier this happens, the better.