Guest Post #5: GSM in Nigeria

The mix of GSM operators present in Nigeria (Zain has now been taken over by Airtel)

GSM, also known as Global System for Mobile Communications, has birthed huge changes throughout Nigeria since it was first introduced. Today, Nigerians now have access to a variety of different services, such as mobile banking, online payments, cheaper international calls, mobile TV and the internet. This development, however, was quite a story.

Created by the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI), GSM, an abbreviation of Global System for Mobile communications, is an open, digital cellular technology used for transmitting mobile voice and data services. It was created to describe the protocols for digital cellular networks used by mobile phones and is now the default global standard for mobile communications, operating in over 219 countries and territories. In Nigeria, GSM was launched in 2001 after the deregulation of the mobile phone market previously monopolised by the unreliable fixed line services of Nigerian Telecommunications Limited (NITEL). The inaugural operator in the country was the Nigeria Mobile Telecommunications Ltd (M-Tel), renamed Econet. In starting operations, Econet launched the 0802 prefix number. MTN followed shortly after in the same year with the 0803 prefix number. These two starkly dominated the mobile space in these early years, unnerving consumers with ridiculous prices and intermittent service. Almost as if to meet national cries for competition, Globacom emerged on the scene in August of 2003. Glo, as the company was famously called, used the 0805 prefix.

Glo brought competition and some innovation to GSM in Nigeria. Before Glo, connecting any mobile number on one dial seemed impossible. Glo mobile, thanks to it’s new technology, made it possible. Perhaps most importantly, Glo also offered per second billing, a package unavailable on other networks. Prior to Glo, GSM services was expensive and elitist. A SIM card cost as much as N30,000 and calls were charged by the minute irrespective of whether the user exhausted that minute. This meant users had to pay for time they did not use. With its per second billing, Glo ensured that users at least got more benefits per call. Additionally, the provider made SIMs cheaper with its N1 SIM offer, which not only attracted millions of subscribers, but also made Glo into the fastest growing GSM network in the country at the time.

Over the following years Econet, which wasn’t as active as MTN and Glo, was relaunched and renamed to Vmobile and a couple of more times to Zain, Celtel and now Airtel, as it changed hands from company to company. In 2008, another operator was added to the fold when Emerging Markets Telecommunication Services (EMTS), launched as Etisalat Nigeria with the 0809 prefix number.

While Glo undoubtedly contributed to the GSM revolution by offering Nigerians cheaper GSM access on the software end, Nokia completed the cycle by offering cheaper GSM hardware. Nokia offered affordable and durable GSM phones without compromising on quality. Some of these were the sturdy Nokia 3310, the Nokia 1200, the Nokia 1208, the Nokia 5130 etc. Other phones in the early Nigerian market were by Samsung, Motorola, Alcatel, Sony Ericsson etc.

Irrespective of how fortunate Nigerians now are with a GSM phone in hand, the story has been one lined with high call costs, shoddy service and poor penetration. However, if there is a silver lining in the cloudy story of GSM in Nigeria, it has to be the internet. GSM has made internet more affordable and accessible than it has ever been in Nigeria. There is reportedly 67.0 million active internet users in Nigeria, the 8th in the world. GSM has also empowered thousands of Nigerians to make a honest living on the internet as web publishers, bloggers, app developers, internet security consultants, social media consultants, and online marketing consultants. With such significant internet penetration in Nigeria, businesses now strive for online presence, and this continues to create more opportunities for people who use the internet, many of whom have continued to make good living off it.

– Contributed by Josephine (




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