After being fined $7.38 million for providing poor service, Nigerian telecom companies have apologized, saying they are investing more than $2.5 billion in improvements. But companies say it will take more than a year to implement the upgrades, and that they cannot be expected to provide the highest quality of service without regular electricity or security.
In Nigeria, it is not hard to find someone who is angry about the cellphone networks. Calls are often dropped, pre-paid airtime occasionally disappears and sometimes, when you can get through, you can't hear the person on the other end.
Mohammad Hassan, who works in marketing, says other African countries-particularly the home of MTN, Africa's largest wireless company-have better quality phone lines for lower prices.
"If you went to South Africa you can't get a network like this," said Hassan. "You can't get a crackling network, because you can get a message clearly. You can deliver your message the way that you need [to]."
Last week, Nigerian regulators fined the country's four biggest telecom companies more than $7 million, saying the companies did not comply with industry quality standards established in January. MTN, Bharti Airtel, Etisalat and Globacom together serve more than 99 percent of Nigeria's mobile phone customers, roughly 90 million people, with MTN having the largest clientele.
Nigerian Communications Commission Public Affairs Director Tony Ojobo says the companies agreed to the quality standards and then later claimed they could not meet them. Ojobo says an evaluation of service in March and April showed not only high levels of dropped calls, lost credit and poor call quality, but also a lack of communications with customers.
"It is just after the sanctions that the service providers are beginning to tell the consumers their challenges," said Ojobo. "We have had situations where there have been problems on the networks and nobody talks to the consumer. Nobody tells anybody anything."
Earlier this week, the telecom companies released a joint statement, apologizing to consumers for bad service and promising to invest and improve. But the companies say the improvements will take longer than 12 months to implement. They warn that additional fines in the meantime could discourage investment and force them to spend money on sanctions rather than service improvements.
The companies say the main reason they cannot meet quality standards is a lack of available power, a challenge for almost every business in Nigeria. They complain that both their equipment and employees have been attacked and call for increased security. The companies also blame the government, saying federal and state agencies shut down sites to demand taxes that have already been paid.
Chairman of the Association of Licensed Telecommunications Operators of Nigeria, Gbenga Adebayo, says rather than fining the companies, the government should be addressing the issues that cause the poor service. Some Nigerians agree.
Omar Isah is a computer technician. He says all companies are held back by electrical woes, including big telecom companies. He says, in 26 years of life, he has never seen electricity for two days in a row. When told the petroleum minister has promised to increase Nigeria's power supply by roughly 50 percent by the end of the year, Isah shakes his head.
"I can't believe by the end of this year we are going to get 6,000 megawatts of electricity. No way. No way. I don't believe that. For the past eight years that's what they've been saying and there is no change," said Isah.
Isah agrees that mobile phone companies are providing bad service to Nigerians, but says if they did not have to supply their own power, things might be different. Regulators, however, say cellphone companies have been profiting in Nigeria for 11 years without reliable power and are now using it as an excuse.