Visafone’s Long Journey to 4G LTE

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Emma Okonji writes that the migration of Visafone subscribers from the Code Division Multiple Access technology to 4G LTE technology on the MTN network, is a blessing in disguise for Visafone subscribers

When Visafone came on board in August 2007, it acquired Cellcom that same year, one of the 13th registered CDMA operators, also known as Fixed Wireless Operators. By the following year, 2008, Visafone also announced the acquisition of Bourdex Telecom, which at that time, had coverage in almost 10 South-eastern states, and providing telecoms services in the Eastern Nigerian telecoms market.

Visafone later acquired ITN, another CDMA operator in the lucrative Lagos market, and promised CDMA subscribers that it would take advantage of its national spectrum, which is the 800 MHz spectrum licence to establish a nationwide roll-out telecoms services in the 36 states of the federation.

However, little did the company know that it will later face stiff market challenges that will lead to its acquisition by MTN, a Global System for Mobile Communication (GSM) operator.
It was a long journey for Visafone that was once the leading operator in the CDMA space in Nigeria, until it ended up in the hands of MTN on January 5, 2016.

The acquisition of Visafone by MTN was occasioned by the dwindling fortune of CDMA operations in the country, a situation that forced all other fixed line operators out of market, remaining only Visafone with less than 2 million subscribers. But the acquisition, however, brought succor to the poor state of fixed wireless operations in the country, as the new owner of Visafone has successfully migrated all Visafone subscribers to its 4G LTE network, that will be commercially rolled out in July this year.

Change of initial plan
The initial plan at the point of acquisition was that MTN will run Visafone as a fixed wireless operator along side its GSM operations. However, the plan changed, which the company attributed to the effect of market forces and competition.
MTN had agreed with the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) the telecoms industry regulator, to run Visafone as a CDMA company, but later realised that the CDMA technology is quite different from the GSM technology, which MTN operates, a situation that made the company to rescind its earlier decision.

NCC, it was gathered, gave approval to MTN to acquire Visafone on the ground that it would resuscitate the dying CDMA sector, where Visafone was operating as the only surviving CDMA operator in the country, along sideMultiLinks that still offers skeletal services to very few subscribers on its network.

Executive Vice Chairman of NCC, Prof. Umar Danbatta, while approving the acquisition insisted that MTN must revive Visafone and run it as a fixed wireless operator. He equally emphasised the need for the resuscitation of fixed wireless operations in Nigeria in his 8 point agenda, which he presented to the media, during an international press conference in Lagos in February this year.

Two months after the acquisition, it became glaring that MTN was no longer interested in running Visafone as a fixed line operator, when it announced its plan to migrate its subscribers to its 4G LTE network.
Disclosing the initial plans on how Visafone would be managed, Corporate Services and Human Resources Executive of MTN Nigeria, Amina Oyagbola, had said that the acquisition, was reflective of MTN’s efforts to deepen the growth and rollout of broadband services across the country in support of the National Broadband Plan for the benefit of Nigerians.
Visafone, according to her, “is one of the leading CDMA/ICT companies in Nigeria offering a number of services including voice, high speed data (3G), internet and other Value Added Services (VAS). Visafone also provides business solutions to small and medium sized companies and corporate organisations in Nigeria.”

She further said: “We are committed to exploring avenues for meeting our customers’ increasing data needs in line with our vision to lead the delivery of a bold new digital world to our customers. As we work to maximise our data capabilities towards achieving broadband of international quality, our objective is to ensure that Nigerians experience a boost in the quality of broadband internet services translating to the much needed enhanced data speeds and value to enhance personal and business productivity.”

Benefits of migration
Two months after the acquisition of Visafone, MTN announced that it would be migrating subscribers on the Visafone network to its GSM network. In a number of ways, this move became a significant one for Visafone subscribers. The subscribers are still using their Visafone numbers on the MTN network, enjoying the benefits of high speed data connectivity and they are even exposed to other offerings available on the GSM network.
To further strengthen Visafone subscribers’ confidence on the 4G LTE network, MTN embarked on a series of stakeholders’ fora aimed at ensuring a seamless migration of subscribers.

The stakeholders’ forum held simultaneously in Abuja, Port Harcourt and Lagos with representatives from the NCC, Visafone dealers as well as individual and corporate customers of the company.
Speaking at the forum held in Abuja, the General Manager, Consumer Marketing, MTN Nigeria, Richard Iweanoge, appreciated the subscribers for their patience and the understanding showed during the period of migration from CDMA to the new GSM platform of MTN.

He said: “We appreciate our subscribers for their understanding even as Visafone begins the process of migration to the MTN platform. We intend to make the process as seamless as possible. So as a part of our strategic initiative, we have organised these forums across the country to engage and interact with all active Visafone subscribers across board before the final implementation of the migration.”

Iweanoge stressed that MTN’s take-over of Visafone’s operations would benefit all stakeholders, while also adding that the company will continue to seek out ways of engaging Visafone subscribers.
“We are confident that this development will be a win-win situation for all parties concerned. At this point, we believe engagement is key so we will continue to create opportunities where we, as the service provider, can get to know our subscribers in order to serve them better,’’ he noted.

Justifying the migration plan

Speaking on the importance of the migration exercise, Iweanoge explained that subscribers moving from Visafone to MTN would still have the opportunity of retaining their Mobile Station International subscriber Directory Number (MSISDN). He added that subscribers would be compensated by doubling the airtime they previously had before migration.
Iweanoge further noted thatVisafone subscribers had a four-week window period for all active Visafone subscribers to register their new SIMs in line with the directives of NCC.
While listing some of the support services available for Visafone subscribers, he stated that over 400 MTN and Visafone outlets have been opened to customers of the network operator to provide assistance while the 222 customer care numbers can also be accessed for enquiry, complaints and request in respect to the migration and other issues.

A new hope for Visafone subscribers
Although it may appear that the acquisition of Visafone by MTN has finally nailed CDMA operations in Nigeria but most telecoms experts still believe that move has saved the operations of Visafone from going into extinction. They added that it has also helped in keeping Visafone subscribers intact, while still operating as Visafone on a GSM network.
The acquisition had generated comments and reactions from industry stakeholders. Fears enveloped the entire fixed wireless sector, ranging from fears as to job losses, fate of Visafone Communications as a business entity and one of the surviving CDMA operator. But those fears seem to have been put to rest following the successful migration and integration of Visafone subscribers into the MTN network. Today, there is a new hope for Visafone subscribers and the entire CDMA sector.