The Misery Of Communication

27 Nov 2012

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In our beloved country there is never a shortage of misery of things for us to bemoan. The most current is the misery of communication; the agony of making a mobile phone call that the world today takes for granted. In our case, a GSM company can rake in billions of naira in profits, sponsor all manner of frivolities from beauty pageants to quiz shows, while providing abysmally poor service – and get away with it! That is of course what MTN has done since August 2001 when it launched its then novel GSM with its first subscriber Mrs Joy Taylor of Lagos. Right from then, MTN has been riding on the crest of the novelty of mobile telephony even after other players like Econet and Glo came into the business, and long after the novelty factor should have worn off.

Let us be clear about one thing. In my view, the fact that MTN’s service to its 35 million Nigerian subscribers has remained appallingly sub-standard has absolutely nothing to do with MTN. Rather it has everything to do with MTN’s Nigerian consumers. Let us step back and consider the telecommunications environment in which MTN launched in 2001. The closest thing to a mobile phone in Nigeria at the turn of the millennium was the Nought-Nine-Nought analogue handset provided by NITEL.

Cumbersome and ugly, it was the status symbol of the time. I remember coming from the UK (where I had used mobile phones for more than two years) and being utterly flummoxed by the excitement surrounding this technological monstrosity. Let us remember also that before this, NITEL’s landline telephone network was on the verge of collapse. NITEL remains prostrate today and thus Nigeria is the only major nation I know which has no landline telephone network; where businesses depend principally on GSM, with its attendant risks that cowboys, fraudsters and 419ers can practise their trade literally with mobile impunity.

It was in this arid yet fertile telecommunications environment that MTN and ECONET got their licences to launch the country’s first mobile telephony. MTN was quick to turn its spectrum licence into a licence to print money. Coming from a developed technological environment like South Africa, I do not imagine that MTN did not know the right technology required to provide an efficient GSM service.

Rather I suspect that it was their Nigerian partners and sponsors who led them astray; who probably told them that they did not need to invest in hi-tech best practices; that Nigerians not having had mobile phones before would be happy with just about the basic technology; that Nigerians were used to making do with how-for-do; well known for shuffering and shmiling. Sincerely, I can think of no other explanation because if MTN were to dare give their South African subscribers the same garbage they provide here, they know that Vodacom and their other rivals would knock them off their perch from Kwazululand to Cape Town.

But there again, if my theory is tenable, then MTN’s partners and sponsors were right. They read their fellow citizens correctly. With the introduction of MTN, Nigerians behaved like a boy with a new toy; like a native who was suddenly handed a tooth paste and brush after a lifetime of using chewing stick. Nokia-to-Nokia took over from Nought-Nine-Nought. It did not matter that we had to dial a number a dozen times to get it once; and even after new players came into play, we still had to have three handsets to make one mobile phone call. It was an intoxicating time nonetheless.

Showing off the new gadget was the easiest way to draw attention to one’s new status. Nigerians were known to call one another even when they were in the same room just so that they can be noticed as one of the new class of GSM owners. Others, especially my Igbo brothers, made a habit of speaking into their handsets at the top of their voices to ask: Container’am onatago? (Has my container arrived?). Even newspapers introduced new sections called Me and My GSM! In this heady atmosphere, we forgot to insist on best practices from the networks; to demand the same standards that applied elsewhere.

Any surprise that when Econet launched a few months later to cash in on the cash-cow, its own technology was infinitely worse than that of MTN. Even with its much touted fibre optic technology Glo is only marginally better than the rest. Apart from the sentiment that it is a wholly indigenous enterprise, Glo is on the whole the same 10 and 10 pence, as is Etisalat, the latest major entrant. Interconnectivity remains a nightmare for subscribers.

We can blame MTN all we like and the National Assembly can give them the entire ultimatum in the book. But you and I know that in a free market economy, there is a limit to what sanctions the state can impose on a major continental commercial organisation like MTN without serious trans-border consequences that may even impact adversely on our own economy. I believe, therefore, that we must look inward for the reasons why we are so badly served by the mobile networks. First we should recognise the failure of the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) in policing the system. It was not just enough to hand out spectrum licenes and rake in money.

Nor to occupy a fancy office block built by the Chinese. Customer satisfaction through efficient service that gives value for money should not have been sacrificed as it clearly was, for whatever reasons. A regime of compliance is either non-existent or weak. Secondly, the Nigerian consumers should also assume their own portion of blame. In our excitement with our new manual toothbrush, we failed to notice that the rest of the world had graduated to electric toothbrush! While we are still playing verbal tennis ball over what is virtually already obsolete technology, the world is moving on to the next level of high-speed 4G spectrum.

In truth, we seem to say that we deserve the kind of service we get. Two things are quite painful about this. First is that Nigeria has a worse GSM service than the failed State of Somalia which has not had a functioning government for nearly 20 years. (How else do you think the Somali pirates communicate?). The second is that MTN as the biggest player does not need to re-invent anything in order to provide efficient service. In a world of globalisation and technology transfer, the mobile networks have no excuse whatsoever for inflicting on us the technology that Lord Lugard left behind. For if they can’t make or buy it, they can copy or steal it as Taiwan and China did and the heavens did not fall. But rather than invest their massive profits in developing and up-grading their service, they deploy them in promoting themselves and enticing new subscribers.

It is the same theory of technology transfer that I apply to our perennially “on-going power projects.” I say, tell the Chinese what you want and they will install it for you before the ink dries on the contract. In 2003 while attending a broadcast conference in Sudan, we toured one of the most sophisticated oil refineries in the world, one so digitalised that you were not allowed to use a mobile phone in the vicinity, else it would set the plant ablaze. We learnt that the Chinese installed that refinery root and branch in 18 months.

But is it only MTN that serves its millions of customers badly? And if not, why should they do better? Have we set a benchmark for best practices in any area of our national life, a tradition for new enterprises to comply with? MTN has watched us bundle (bungle?) PHCN, un-bundle it, commercialise it, jack up its tariff and still leave us in darkness. They see us finish, as the pidgin expression goes. Where can we point to as an example for MTN, is it our health service, our roads, or airlines? They realise that here it is possible to grow without developing, without satisfying your customer. They have seen our universities “grow” to more than 100 that produce un-employable graduates, and which, together may not qualify as one world-class university. Does our private sector set any higher standard of service, and does the Nigerian not accept this disservice with equanimity; how-for-do?

At one of the “Five-Star hotels” in Lagos a few days ago, a bottle of Tonic Water sold for an astronomical N800. When I went up to the bar to pay my bill, I smelled something putrid, like rotten beef. I enquired, pinching my nostrils. The barmaid blithely told me: “Oh, a rat died there,” pointing to the food and drinks cupboard. Amidst the putrid smell the bar was still packed; people were eating and drinking merrily, obliviously. Why? Because the hotel and even the decomposed rat know that in this country no one holds anyone to account.

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