COVID-19 pandemic exposes, among other things, how data providers smile to the bank and data/internet users frown at their purses. Here is a review of Nigeria’s 100 million internet users in the hands of data providers by Gregg Obi
More than ever, mobile data has proved to be a necessity. The need to gain access to the internet becomes increasingly important daily because of its endless benefits and attractions.
The awesome possibilities of having access to the internet can’t be over-estimated. The internet has brought about new businesses, improved productivity, and reaching out to family and friends thousands of miles away is no longer what it used to be in the past.
With mobile data or wifi, you can sit in the comfort of your home and have a family meeting with your kins in other parts of the World. You can get yourself the basic needs like foods, drinks and clothes without stepping out of your comfort zone and more recently, you can hold business or academic conferences from remote locations with the enablement of the internet.
Today, Mobile data and Wi-Fi connectivity are becoming indispensable to our daily lives as the bulk of the world population now depends on the internet for survival. Aside the basic needs to survive, data has become so vital that it has been compaired to air and water, above food and shelter.
Before now, the claim that data is life may sound exaggerated, but the outbreak of the COVID–19 pandemic and its attendant effects tend to have testified to the belief that where there seems to be no life, data could give you much more to stay alive in this information-driven world. The effects of the lockdown in most parts of the world was largely mitigated as physical contact reduced, remote contact via the internet increased exponentially. These has led to a new culture where hitherto physical presence was invaluable but the internet spurred by the policy of social distancing ensured that critical policy issues were conveyed through video conferencing, chats and voice notes.
In a bid to cope with the COVID-19-enforced lockdown and the stay at home order by the Federal Government, Nigerians reportedly spent more time online and more money on mobile data since the enforcement of the lockdown measure started in April.
According to a report by The Guardian, the first four weeks of the stay-at-home order saw a 15 per cent increase in internet services in the country as individuals, corporate bodies, and religious organisations increased their use of the internet services.
Also, the obvious increase in social media interactions and the proliferation of the Work-From-Home (WFH) phenomenon during the lockdown spurred data traffic growth across the country.
However, while Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) smile to the bank as a result of a boom in their revenues, mobile data subscribers are left to complain about snail-speed data services and data depletion.
With over 100 million internet users, Nigeria ranks 8th among the top 20 global internet users and over 80 per cent of the internet traffic in the country originate from mobile devices. This means Nigeria is Africa’s biggest mobile market yet, complaints about the cost of data and poor internet services are rife in the country. An average monthly unlimited data plan cost as much as N10,000.
It may be argued that data is inexpensive in Nigeria because the cost of data seems cheaper when compared to data prices in countries like South Africa and Kenya, but according to Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI), the price of 1GB of mobile broadband data shouldn’t more than 2 per cent of monthly income.
Applying this to the new minimum wage of 30,000 in Nigeria, it means the cost of 1GB data should not cost more than N600. That also goes to say that when the minimum wage was N18,000, data subscription of 1GB should only cost N360.
But that’s not the case in Africa’s biggest mobile market. In Nigeria, the official average rate of 1GB data monthly subscription is N1,000. Subscribers sometimes spend more monthly due to the usual complaints about data rip off.
Undoubtedly, this is too expensive for any Nigerian whose monthly income is not more than N30,000. According to a report by Quartz Africa, data prices in Nigeria need to drop by 97% to be affordable for the majority of the country’s population.
Apart from the high cost of data, it’s also very common to hear complaints about poor connectivity, fast data depletion and inability to roll over unused data. The usually touted unlimited data is usually limited to the extent of usage when speed reduces and data depletes before the end of what was supposed to be a monthly subscription, usually at the middle of the month or after some gigabytes might have been used.
Unfortunately, the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) is not doing much to address what many Nigerians believe to be fraudulent practices by Mobile Network Operators.
Despite the introduction of data calculators by telecommunication companies to enable users to measure how much data they use daily, the perception that telcos engage in data fraud unabatedly persists.
However, it is imperative to note that one of the factors responsible for the exorbitant cost of data and low quality of service in Nigeria according to African Academic Network on Internet Policy has to do with the “activities of Over The Top (OTT) Operators such as Facebook, WhatsApp and other social media networks which provide for messaging and call facilities via the internet.”
For example, Whatsapp allows users the functionality of text, voice and video calls. With this functionality, users with mobile data subscription do not need to patronize Mobile Network Operators for airtime again.
Putting it into perspective, talk time per N100 is 14 minutes excluding messages and other special packages, therefore a N1,000 worth of recharge card will give 140 minutes of airtime (2.3 hours).
But on Whataspp, one minute call will consume 300kb of data on 3G and 1Mb on 4G network.
Therefore, at N1,000 per 1GB, a 3G network user will get 3,000 minutes of airtime (50 hours) while a 4G user gets over 1000 minutes of airtime which is a bot more than 16 hours.
It can, therefore, be deduced from the observation above that the high data price and poor internet service in Nigeria is a deliberate plan to get users to continue buying airtime for talk time and data for surfing and other online activities.
Operational costs have been argued to be another justification for the expensive cost of data in the most populous country in Africa. In 2016, a report by the Guardian stated that telecoms tower maintenance costs increased to 104 million dollars per month. The costs according to the report include the cost of diesel, cost of generator and generator parts, security for the lives and equipment present at tower sites as well as payment of non-legalised levies and vandalism.
Already, data subscription at N1000 per 1GB is a luxury many Nigerians can’t afford and this has to change. To accelerate the economy and bring about the ease of doing business especially for SMEs which constitute more than 80 per cent of total employment in the country, Nigeria needs to make data affordable to all.
Obi, a social commentator and public affairs analyst, writes in from Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial capital