Big Three GSM operators light up 3G services in Nigeria


MTN Nigeria, Globacom and Celtel Nigeria, the big three GSM operators in Nigeria, have completed the initial phase of network upgrade to deliver third generation (3G) services providing enhanced mobile data services to subscribers in the country.

Signals have come on air and have been picked up in the Lagos area, the niche urban market where subscribers on the three networks may be the early bird beneficiaries of the high-speed mobile service.

Technology Times sources with the mobile networks, citing the need to safeguard 'competitive' information, did not disclose specific details of the planned go live of their 3G offerings. But they hinted as much that commercial services is likely to begin in Lagos area where they eye as a major niche market for the value added service.

This comes just as Domain Standard Networks, unveiled the report of a search for 3G signals conducted by the Lagos-based technology consultancy to ascertain service readiness among the four companies issued 3G licences in March by the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC).

The telecoms regulator says the nation’s phone subscribers has increased to 46.2 million lines at the end of third quarter (Q3) of the year bringing the nation's teledensity, considered the number of phone to 100 people, to 27.42.

Total connected lines at the end of Q3 2007 stands at 46,228,173 lines with GSM mobile users dominating with 43,593,310 lines (94%). On the other hand, fixed wired/wireless services trails with 2,235,257 (5%) of total connected lines while mobile CDMA accounts for 399,606 lines (1%) during the same period, according to NCC.

The big three and little-known Alheri Engineering, a unit of the Dangote Group, promoted by businessman, Aliko Dangote, were issued a licence at $150 million apiece by the regulator raking some $600 million into the coffers of the Federal Government during the auction of frequency spectrum for 3G services.

According to the report, 3G signals have so far emerged on the mobile network radar for only MTN Nigeria, Globacom and Celtel across locations in Lagos, the commercial capital of Nigeria. But Alheri Engineering is missing from the radar as no signal was detected for the new entrant player that was sold the fourth licence, an indication that it is yet unprepared for the market.

Also, the ailing fourth GSM network, Mtel, is currently missing from what analysts consider the next phase of the mobile growth path delivering faster browsing, downloads and other enhanced offerings on mobile phones while opening new revenue streams for operators beyond the traditional voice.

Domain Standard Networks says its 'sniffing' of 3G signals in the Ikeja area of Lagos also showed that only Globacom has network supporting the service ready along the old Toll Gate area which forms a major entry point into the nation's commercial nerve centre from other parts of the country. Additionally, "around the Ojota flyover, all three of MTN, Celtel and Globacom have a 3G network ready."

Around the Alausa/Secretariat Area of Lagos, says the report, sniffing devices found that, "in the Lagos State Secretariat area, again all three of MTN, Celtel, and Globacom have 3G networks. Mtel, of course, not being a 3G licensee, does not have 3G presence." However, no 3G network was found to have been activated yet in the Ojodu/Omole Area of Lagos.

Also, the company report was cautious about claims by operators that the service is ready for the market in weeks citing that "the term 'weeks' can mean anything from less than a month to 6 months from now."

According to the report, "as you may have noticed, there does not seem to be a sign of Alheri anywhere in the locations we checked. Of course, that is understandable, especially if the company is starting out from scratch. Their immediate focus will probably be areas like Abuja, Victoria Island and the like."

However, the company is positive that when 3G implementation under way among the companies goes live, the cellular technology, which delivers data speeds up to 2 Mbps, "will provide true broadband internet access via mobile phones."

Ahead of the frequency sale, NCC had said that 17 companies responded to the tender for 3G licences, and the four companies that made formal applications Alheri Engineering described by the regulator as "an existing long distance landline operator" promoted by businessman, Aliko Dangote; Celtel Nigeria owned by Kuwaiti Zain Group; Globacom, owned by businessman, Mike Adenuga and MTN Nigeria, owned by South Africa's MTN Group.

According to the regulator, "the four applicants' submissions were evaluated with respect to the compliance details outlined in the Information Memorandum. Each applicant was found to have been fully compliant. In these circumstances, where the number of applicants matches the number of lots, no further allocation process is required. As such, the NCC announced that each of the applicants has been successful in its bid for a 10MHz lot in the 2GHz band."

The three operators have been making progress towards meeting a rollout target of 2007. For instance, Globacom, says it had earlier in August, last year switched on a trial 3G trial platform with plans to take the service in the first phase to Abuja, Lagos and Port Harcourt. It hopes to extend to Ibadan and Benin, according to insiders.

Globacom had signed on equipment supplier, Alcatel-Lucent, to roll out a network based on UMTS/HSDPA technology that will enable its subscribers enjoy mobile broadband and triple-play services in some selected cities.

Also, MTN Nigeria’s upgrade of its network for the service, the company had earlier said, will deliver 3G services. The $650 million network expansion and upgrade project flagged off earlier this year will deliver 3G capabilities on the MTN network.

Also, Celtel Nigeria is switching on its subscribers on a 3G platform launched in November 2006and has successfully gone through the necessary trials.

However, analysts are concerned that Alheri Engineering, the fourth licensee for 3G services may miss the target set for go-live by the big three. Alheri has been linked with plans to buy stakes in Mtel, Intercellular among others to enable it acquire an existing network to fast-track its planned entry into the intensely competitive telecoms market.

Technology Times