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Govt renews MTN Nigeria licence amid 20 years of ‘GSM phones’

Govt renews MTN Nigeria licence amid 20 years of ‘GSM phones’

MTN Nigeria, the nation’s largest mobile network operator (MNO), has secured regulatory approval of the renewal of its operating licence for another 10 years, Technology Times can confirm.

The 10-year operating licence otherwise known in telecoms industry lingo as universal access service licence (UASL), comes into effect on September 1, 2021 and expires on August 31, 2031, according to regulatory filings by the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) reviewed by Technology Times.

MTN Nigeria’s licence renewal comes as the Nigerian telecoms industry marks the twentieth anniversary of the commercial launch of digital mobile services back in August 2001 by Econet Wireless Nigeria (now Airtel Nigeria) and MTN Nigeria, following the licensing rounds of January 2001 in which NCC sold each licence at $285 million. 

Technology Times file photo shows Dr Mike Adenuga, Globacom Chairman, making a phone call at the commercial launch of Glo Mobile service in August 2003 in Abuja, Federal Capital Territory.

“In addition, consumers have benefited from steadily declining prices”, which for instance saw “mobile starter pack prices decrease from ₦20,000 in 2001 to ₦1 in 2004 for basic prepaid services or overall fixed voice prices fell by an average 24% in between 2003 and 2004.”

Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC).

The commercial launch of digital mobile services otherwise popularly called “GSM phones” in reference to the mobile technology standard favoured by majority of the big operators has grown voice subscriptions from a mere 500,000 lines at January 2001 to 187,611,501 active phone lines by June 2021.

As of today, MTN Nigeria is one of the eight UAS licensees that includes three other market segment competitors, Airtel Nigeria, with its licence expiring November 11 this year; Emerging Markets Telecommunications Services Ltd, trading as 9mobile, with licence expiring April 16, 2022 and NATCOM Development Investment Ltd trading as Ntel, with licence expiring February 8, 2031.  

Other UAS licensees include Intercellular Nig Plc, with licence expiration date of November 30, 2026; Gamjitel Ltd, August 5, 2023; Smile Communications Nigeria Limited, June 30, 2029;  and Global Independent Connect Limited, May 31, 2028.

Dr Okechukwu Adinde, NCC Director of Public Affairs recently said that the renewal of Airtel Nigeria’s licence was “still undergoing required regulatory process” at the Federal telecoms regulatory agency while denying the operator’s claim that its operating licence has been renewed.

***Screenshot of NCC website showing the latest list of UAS licensees in Nigeria as of August 2, 2021.

List of Unified Access Services Licensees

MTN Nigeria Communications Plc
Unified Access Services
MTN Plaza, Falomo Ikoyi, Lagos.01/09/202131/08/2031
UASIntercellular Nig Plc
Unified Access Services
79, Younis Bashorun Street, off Ajose Adeogun, Victoria Island Lagos01/12/201630/11/2026
UASAirtel Formerly Celtel Nig Ltd
Unified Access Services
Plot L2, Banana Island, Ikoyi, Lagos.01/12/200630/11/2021
UASEmerging Markets Telecommunications Services Ltd
Unified Access Services
Plot 19 Zone L, Fed. Govt Layout, Foreshore Estate, Banana Island, Ikoyi, Lagos.17/04/200716/04/2022
UASGamjitel Ltd
Unified Access Services
Ahmed Talib House, 18/19 Ahmadu Bello Way, Kaduna06/08/201305/08/2023
UASSmile Communications Nigeria Limited
Unified Access Services
Plot 39C, Ahmed Onibudo Str. Off Adeola Hopewell Str. VI Lagos01/07/201930/06/2029
UASNATCOM Development Investment Ltd
Unified Access Services
NECOM House , 17th Floor, 15 Marina Lagos09/02/201608/02/2031
UASGlobal Independent Connect Limited
Unified Access Services
Plot 934, Idejo Street, Off Adeola Odeku Street, Victoria Island, Lagos01/06/201831/05/2028
Source: Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC)

Nigerian telecoms industry steps back on recovery track

Professor Umar Danbatta,
Executive Vice Chairman of NCC

The Nigerian telecoms industry is gradually stepping back on market recovery after being hit by month-on-month subscriber losses linked with the SIM sales and reactivation embargo ordered on December 9, 2020 by the Communications and Digital Economy Ministry. 

Dr Isa Pantami, Communications and Digital Economy Ministry directed that telcos should link their subscribers’ SIM records with their respective National Identity Number (NIN) under plans to accelerate the government’s digital identity programme designed to register all Nigerians and residents in the country. 

The lifting of the sales and SIM replacement embargo has brought a new lease of life for some telcos that have gradually recorded uptake of phone subscriptions, but yet to ramp up internet services subscriptions. 

The Nigerian telecoms industry mid-year market data reviewed by Technology Times shows that telcos are recording marginal gains in voice subscriptions but continue to lose internet customers since Q4 2020.

By mid-year 2021, overall phone subscriptions across the country are now back to 187,611,501, representing 98.28% coverage, which is a marginal growth over the May figure of 187,026,517 (97.98%) in a service segment that has recorded dropping numbers from Q4 2020. 

Nigeria’s phone line growth reached its peak of 207,954,737 (108.94%) in October last year before recording monthly drops up till December when phone lines dropped to 204,601,313 (107.18%).

The market at mid-year 2021 is back on the recovery path 187,611,501 active phone lines and the first month in the year that the industry has reversed the month-on-month loss of customers in the voice segment.

On the internet service front, the active subscription base which reached its peak of 154,878,203 connections in November 2020 has continued a free fall of subscriber count in that segment to 140,175,169 by mid-year 2021.

There is positive outlook on the broadband front as Nigeria’s subscription to the higher speed internet service which reached a peak of 87,675,911 representing 45.93% in October 2020, has seen its monthly losses reversed by June when numbers returned to 76,289,063, representing 39.97%, an increase of the previous month’s figure of 75,569,442, representing 39.59%.  

Why Nigeria embraced unified licensing regime

The Nigerian telecoms regulator had back in 2015 decided to throw the telecoms playing field open by granting USALs after the expiration of five-year mobile exclusivity attached to the digital mobile spectrum licences granted the bigger GSM operators in January 2001.

This was to allow the smaller private telecoms operators (PTOs) that existed prior to the January 2001 licensing of GSM operators to operate on equal footing by scaling up their limited mobility services to allow them national coverage for their services.

NCC announced back in February 2005 that it was introducing a unified licensing regime in Nigeria to open up the telecoms landscape and allow existing fixed wireless and mobile licensees to provide both services subject to geographical/regional limitations contained in their licences.

The introduction of unified licensing after the exclusivity period meant that all wireless licences “shall not be segmented in terms of mobile and fixed service categories. Once a spectrum is allocated, licensed operators in the category will be free to offer voice, data or multimedia services as they deem fit”, NCC said at the time, opening a floodgate for GSM and PTOs to acquire UASLs at the time.

The first wave of UASL in Nigeria

The thinking within the Federal telecoms regulatory agency was that unified licensing will encourage the growth of new applications and services; simplify existing licensing procedures to ease market entry and operations and equally promote regulatory flexibility expected to address market and technology developments.

List of First Unified Access Services Licences Granted in Nigeria

The regulator also said that the converged licensing model of UASL will allow NCC to provide an enabling environment for efficient use of network resources that enables individual networks to offer a broader range of ICT services and encourage the entry of “a full range of operators, including large scale and micro-entrepreneurs.”

Market reforms introduced into the telecoms industry have seen Nigeria’s phone users grow from about 450,000 lines by December 2001 to about 19 million by December 2005 driven by the strong performance of mobile operators, NCC said.

This also resulted in stable growth that saw teledensity rise from 0.5% in 2000 to over 7.5% in December 2004, NCC said at the time underscoring the ‘less dynamic but consistent growth in the provision of fixed telephony” that saw PTOs being the main contributors to fixed-line growth figures by offering broad service packages including voice, fax, and internet during that era.

According to NCC, that was also the era that ushered in a new lease of life for the Nigerian economy when “mobile cellular telephony became an integral part of the everyday life for many Nigerians for the first time.”

While most PTOs hitherto offered limited mobility, “thus providing a convergent telecommunication platform”, NCC said that the competitive market setup brought to life by the entry of GSM networks provided “greater consumer choice allowing consumers to select the most appropriate services.

“In addition, consumers have benefited from steadily declining prices”, which for instance saw “mobile starter pack prices decrease from ₦20,000 in 2001 to ₦1 in 2004 for basic prepaid services or overall fixed voice prices fell by an average 24% in between 2003 and 2004”, according to NCC.

Added to the telecoms price drops was the continued inflow of investments into the telecoms market, which the regular said has seen an estimated $6.08 billion invested between 2001 and 2004, making the local telecoms become the largest generator of foreign direct investments (FDI) after the oil and gas industry. 

Govt renews MTN Nigeria licence amid 20 years of ‘GSM phones’

While the telecoms sector reforms have expanded availability and accessibility of network and service provision, NCC said that “telecommunication sector reform was also accompanied by employment generation as more operators were licensed which gave rise to corresponding business opportunities.”

*** Editor’s Note: This report has been updated with a screenshot from NCC website and link showing the latest list of UAS licences as of August 2, 2021.

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