Over the past decade, Nigeria’s telecommunications sector has contributed around 10% to the country’s gross national product, making it one of the biggest in Africa, and even worldwide. Despite the size and potential of the industry, it has only a few players, all of whom most Nigerians know like the back of their hands at this point.
Everyone knows the big four: MTN, 9mobile (formerly Etisalat), Glo, and Airtel. If you’re reading this from Nigeria, you almost certainly use one (or two) of these mobile network operators on the phone you use daily, but is that all there is to Nigeria’s robust telecommunications industry?
In this article, we’ll talk about the mobile network operators (MNOs) in Nigeria and the structure of our telecommunications industry. Also, you’ll learn some of the hidden players in the industry and why you probably haven’t heard about some of them.
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How Many Mobile Network Operators are there in Nigeria?
The term: mobile network operator is an increasingly complex term, and its definition changes as countries make changes to laws governing their operations. However, it would be correct to define a mobile network operator as a wireless communications services provider with the necessary infrastructure to offer services to customers using phones and similar wireless devices.
In regular Nigerian lingo, your SIM operator is the same as your mobile network operator, and this clarification does a lot to simplify this section. Ask any Nigerian who the major SIM providers are and they’ll list them out for you: MTN, Airtel, Glo, and Etisalat; it’s that simple.
In short, four mobile network operators in Nigeria offer telecommunications services to customers. However, searchers sometimes confuse mobile network operators to mean internet service providers and that scenario opens up an entirely new chapter in this discussion.
While all four Nigerian mobile network operators double as internet service providers (ISPs), the list of ISPs in the country is not limited to four. When talking about ISPs, you start to mention names like Spectranet, Tizeti, and CobraNet. While that’s outside the scope of this article, we may get back to them in a later section.
Who is the Largest Mobile Network Operator in Nigeria?
Another question that seems to come up way too often when discussing mobile network operators is the largest MNO in the country, and like most other questions when discussing this topic, it’s an issue of dispute that depends on how you’re looking at it.
By sheer market share, MTN leads the telecommunications industry in Nigeria, enjoying a lion’s share of 37.9% of the country’s total mobile network subscribers. Judging by those respectable numbers, most analysts would agree that MTN is the unequivocal largest mobile network operator in Nigeria.
When you change the goal, however, other network providers start to rear up their heads. For instance, you might’ve seen Airtel promoting itself as the network with the widest 4G coverage in Africa, which is true, but still less significant than having a 37.9% market share. If you work hard to cherry-pick the stats, you can make any of the four big guys come out top, but the most logical and consistent numbers support MTN’s claim to the largest MNO spot in Nigeria.
Fun Fact: MTN is not a Nigerian brand. It’s a South African brand that expanded to Nigeria, growing slowly over the years to eventually become one of the largest mobile network operators in the country.
Which is the Best Network Operator in Nigeria?
There’s quite a significant difference between the terms “largest” and “best”, explaining why there had to be separate sections for the best and the largest mobile network operators in Nigeria.
Before continuing, however, it’s essential to note that the term ‘best’ is highly subjective, even more, subjective than ‘largest’, as it seeks to find the most complete mobile network operator in Nigeria for the most number of people.
The problem with that ask is that different Nigerians have different requests from their mobile network operators, and depending on what you want them to be, your idea of the best mobile network operators in Nigeria might be unique.
For instance, Airtel may have excellent coverage in a city in a Nigerian state, while another city in the same state may have terrible coverage on the same network. In short, there’s no one-size-fits-all ‘best’ network operator in Nigeria; the answer to the question is typically what most people around you tend to default to.
Top List of Mobile Network Operators in Nigeria
1. MTN Nigeria
MTN is a multinational telecommunications company from South Africa with a subdivision in Nigeria that doubles as the country’s biggest national unit. The company was founded in 1994, and in only 29 years of existence, it has grown to become the market leader in Nigeria, and of course, in Africa. MTN Group is also one of the largest mobile operators in Nigeria, coming in at 7th.
While the company has a presence in over 20 countries, over 30% of its total revenue is from its Nigerian subsidiary, and as hinted earlier, the company holds a 35% market share in the country.
While MTN Nigeria mostly experiences ups, it has its fair share of downs as a result of its service in Nigeria too. For example, the viral South African xenophobic violence of 2019 drove many enraged Nigerians to vandalize MTN stores here in Nigeria, prompting the Minister of Information to release a statement clarifying that most of the shareholders and staff of MTN Nigeria are Nigerians.
Also, the company was slapped with a $5.2 billion fine in 2015 due to its noncompliance with the NCC’s SIM registration policy, forcing many company executives to resign. Despite these challenges, the company was able to overcome and assert itself as the leader among mobile network operators in Nigeria.
2. Airtel Nigeria
While Airtel Nigeria is similar to MTN Nigeria by its shared foreign ownership, Airtel has its history more deeply rooted in Nigeria. Oldies would know that the company started in 2001 as Econet, the first company to start offering any form of mobile connectivity services in Nigeria at the time.
Thanks to Econet’s unbelievably rapid growth, it quickly got acquired by Vodacom in 2004, a company that rebranded to Vmobile after Vee Networks took over the company’s management. Two years after the Vee Networks takeover, Celtel acquired Vmobile.
In 2008, Celtel sold all of its shares in the company to Zain Group in a deal worth more than $3 billion, leading to a rebrand that stuck. Just two years later, Indian multinational telco, Bharti Airtel, bought Zain for $10.7 billion, overseeing the company’s rebrand to Airtel Nigeria in the years that followed.
Thanks to some structural reforms, Airtel Nigeria is now a subsidiary of Airtel Africa, a company that’s in turn a subsidiary of Bharti Airtel, the Indian multinational. Airtel Nigeria is also publicly traded on the Nigerian Stock Exchange at N363 per share.
If there was an award for the most ‘Nigerian’ mobile network operators in Nigeria, GLO would come first, as it’s pretty much the only network operator founded, led, and still owned by a Nigerian in Nigeria to this day. Unlike Airtel, MTN, and Etisalat, it doesn’t have a history of ownership or acquisition by foreign companies and tycoons.
As you probably already know, GLO is the brainchild of one of Nigeria’s richest men, Mike Adenuga, and despite the company’s massive success over the years, it’s yet to go public. While it started as a telco, it has since expanded to include real estate and property development, petroleum marketing, and crude exploration and marketing (Conoil).
While a significant of GLO’s telco operations are based in Nigeria, it has launched in some other African countries like Ghana and Benin. It also seems to be making moves to dive into the juicy Cote d’Ivoire market, having acquired submarine cable landing rights.
4. 9mobile (Etisalat)
9mobile (formerly Etisalat) is currently one of the most embattled network operators in Nigeria, going through a major restructuring process that came after it became unable to pay its huge debt to a consortium of Nigerian banks. It allegedly ‘sold’ itself to Teleology Holdings soon after an attempted takeover by the consortium of banks, a deal that was shrouded in secrecy and is now being debunked.
As expected from a telco going through so much trouble, 9mobile’s user base kept dropping, with the company shedding nearly half of its entire user base from September 2015 to March 2020, a trend that continues to show no signs of slowing down.
While 9mobile’s ownership continues to be shrouded in secrecy, one thing we know is that it’s not gaining a significant market share increase anytime soon. Its shoddy leadership and unnecessarily expensive internet rates only reinforce the company’s downward trend, and 9mobile doesn’t seem to know how to learn from experience.
Is MTN faster than Airtel?
As hinted earlier, the answer to this question depends on your location in Nigeria and what kind of device you’re using to access the internet. However, it’s essential to note that MTN was the first telco to acquire a 5G license in Nigeria, while Airtel focuses mostly on internet coverage.
Which is better, MTN or GLO?
While GLO prides itself on offering some of the cheapest data plans you’ll find anywhere, MTN focuses on innovative moves like deploying 5G. If you’re an innovative user who’s after all the cutting-edge tech, MTN is your network, but if you’re after dirt-cheap data deals, you can’t possibly abstain from what GLO has to offer.
The competition in the mobile network operators space in Nigeria is not the fiercest, as there are only four key players in the market. If you’d love to know what these players are and how well they fare in the market, this article is your ultimate resource.
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