“Hello, Hello, can you hear me?” said student, Pere Juslin for the 20th time in frustration, as she tried to contact her sister over the phone. Her newly acquired Glo SIM card seemed just as unreliable as her old MTN network. Three days leading up to the call, her MTN connection had been a nightmare—calls dropping, internet disappearing. “I couldn’t make a call or browse for more than 2 minutes without my network going off completely. It was frustrating,” she said. The following day, MTN Nigeria experienced a prolonged network shutdown that disrupted its voice and data services for several hours. On social media, the telecom giant blamed multiple fibre cuts, promising engineers were racing to fix it. This wasn’t the first nationwide shutdown for the network provider in under a year. Last October, MTN experienced a similar outage, which it also blamed on multiple fibre cuts. 

Yet, MTN’s challenge is just one part of the bigger problem. Since January, Airtel, another major network provider in Nigeria, experienced significant disruptions for most users across the country. Several Airtel users have reported network unavailability for as many as 6-hours on some days. Glo, another prominent network provider faced a similar challenge. “During the MTN outage, most of the students in my school who use MTN networks had to buy Glo sims. Only for it to also have a terrible service,” said Juslin. These frequent disruptions, as Juslin’s story exemplifies, have severe consequences for various stakeholders.

The mystery behind Nigeria’s network disruptions

Network providers offer internet access to customers, using different types of infrastructure and technologies, such as cable, DSL, satellite, wireless, and fiber optic. In Nigeria, fibre optic is the common option most network providers use to deliver internet service to their customers. A report by the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) indicates Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) accounts for over 70% of total internet subscriptions in the country.

Fibre optic is a technology that uses thin strands of glass or plastic to transmit data as pulses of light. It offers high-speed, low-latency, and symmetrical internet service, meaning the download and upload speeds are the same. Generally, fibre optic installations are quite reliable. However, that doesn’t mean that they are indestructible. No matter how well-planned and well-built a fibre optic line is, chances are that sooner or later it might get damaged, interrupting the availability of the network it supplies. This damage can be a result of bad weather, wildlife, or construction work. 

In Nigeria, fibre cuts are one of the most common causes of network outages. Another common cause of power outages in Nigeria is vandalism. According to the Nigerian Communications Commission report for Q2 2023, fibre optic cable infrastructure vandalism contributed to over 30% of all reported network outage incidents. According to a study by Heavy Reading, mobile network operators experience five outages or service deteriorations per year on average. The duration and impact of these outages may vary depending on the cause, location, and severity of the incident. Fibre optic networks require a lot of investment and maintenance, as they involve laying new cables, installing optical network terminals, and repairing damages. Hence, network providers that offer fibre optic services usually charge higher prices than other types of internet service.

 The true cost of mobile network outages

Car salesman Osaze Smart, who lives on the mainland in the commercial city of Lagos, faced a frustrating day on February 28th, the day MTN experienced its recent disruptive nationwide shutdown. Smart got a business call to come inspect and potentially buy a car from a client on the island, a 1 hour 8 minute (48.9 km) drive (without traffic). He woke up at 4:30 am and was out of his house before 5 am. He had to leave early if he was going to make it to the Island before the intense traffic of the day began. He arrived early, only to face further delays due to his client’s unforeseen lateness. However, the biggest hurdle came when Smart’s MTN mobile network went down for hours. The sudden disconnect severed his connection with his client who was also an MTN customer. After several hours of waiting and hoping, Smart was forced to abandon the meeting without securing the potential deal. “I ended up spending N20,000 for a ride-hailing service, with the disappointment of losing a business opportunity,” he said.

MTN has 92.71 million mobile subscriptions, making it the largest operator in Nigeria. The network’s mobile internet subscribers in Nigeria grew by 9 million between May 2022 and May 2023. In addition to the growth of active data users, individual data usage grew by 29.1% as data usage per user grew to 8GB. The active mobile subscriptions for MTN Nigeria, Airtel, Glo, and 9mobile were recorded at 225.8 million as of 2023. The Lagos Chamber of Commerce and Industry states that 80% of businesses in Lagos alone use mobile internet. Consistent mobile outages can affect communication and online transactions leading to lost productivity, revenue losses, and customer dissatisfaction.

The repercussions of mobile network disruptions are higher for businesses that rely on reliable internet connectivity for their entire operation. For example, businesses reliant on point-of-sale (POS) systems for accepting payments can face delays and lost sales during outages. This can have a cascading effect, impacting other businesses in the supply chain. A report by the Nigerian Economic Summit Group (NESG) estimated that vandalism alone costs the Nigerian economy N21 billion annually due to lost productivity and repairs

Consistent network outages disrupt the daily activities of individuals and businesses. It slows down Nigeria’s broadband penetration target. Outages could also discourage investments in new infrastructure and hinder efforts to expand mobile network coverage to underserved areas. According to Ubale Maska, NCC Executive Commissioner,  Technical Services, “Vandalism of mobile network infrastructure, particularly fibre optic cables, is a major obstacle to achieving nationwide network coverage and quality service delivery.” It can also stifle and discourage the adoption of digital financial services, especially in underserved rural areas. Interestingly, the Nigerian government has prioritized the National Broadband Plan 2020-2025, aiming to achieve broadband penetration of 70% by 2025. This plan heavily emphasizes the deployment of fibre optic infrastructure. However if these outages persist, so will Nigeria’s economic losses.

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