I have been a champion of mobile internet services as a means of bridging the digital divide here in Nigeria and Africa. I was a believer years ago when most people were skeptical. Today, the primary reason why our internet penetration is as high as it is is because of deployment of mobile internet services across the country by GSM operators. My predictions about these services have come to pass and I am still a believer more than ever before. However, we are still far from the utopia that we all dream of.
For many subscribers across thee country, all that is available to them is still nothing other than basic GPRS and EDGE. It is better than nothing, but it is not good enough. Not in 2013. And when I say “across the country”, I mean even in the large cities like Lagos where operators flaunt 3G broadband services. In many locations, it is either that only GPRS/EDGE is available, or 3G is so unstable that it makes sense to just stick with GPRS/EDGE. In a congested city like Lagos, attempting to use EDGE to get work done will often be a pain in the neck.
It would work for light email, Twitter and WhatsApp usage, but you might as well forget anything that requires more muscle.
Take my end as an example: Airtel 3G is mostly a zero signal affair, and it strays in on occasion. Etisalat 3G used to exist. Now, my phone or modem just displays an SOS sign. MTN 3G is a few bars strong here. Glo is the only GSM operator with a full 3G service here, and so I use their service as my primary data connection. If my Glo 3G connection coughs and sputters, I can only fall back on MTN, and only with trepidation. Should the two connive to make life hell for me, I am without anything to fallback on.
Two years ago, myself and another member of the MOBILITY team were at Zaria. At the Ahmadu Bello University (ABU), getting a data connection on three of the four GSM operators was like fishing for ice in hell. Speaking with our contact there, we were told that only one operator’s data services worked there. That’s on the grounds of a prestigious university!! If university students cannot get access to mobile internet (not to mention broadband), then we still have a long way to go. A place like ABU should be a priority to GSM operators in terms of mobile internet. A priority. Every university campus is a potent market for data and broadband.
It is shameful that we can still be talking about poor 3G coverage and service at this time. While I understand the challenges of the GSM operators, this particular situation should not arise at this time. Covering a city like Lagos (or Abuja or Port Harcourt) with 3G service should be a given. I must add here that I have been impressed at how many cities outside of the Big 4 that some operators have deployed 3G networks. For example, I was at Ogbomosho in South Western Nigeria some time back, and enjoyed rock solid 3.5G connections. It is cheering news that 3G is not being seen as for a privileged few anymore.
However, the networks need to make sure that where made available, coverage should be as seamless as possible. And reliable too. Black spots within coverage areas just mess up the experience. I really do not care if a network claims to have 3.5G, 3.75G, or 3.99G, if your subscribers cannot use it, it means nothing. Zilch.
Mobile broadband needs to be taken more seriously here in Nigeria. Again, the bulk of the responsibility lies on the GSM operators. They have the coverage, the technology and the financial muscles to make it happen.