Wednesday, April 29, 2009

A Brief History of Cell Phones in Nigeria

Back in 1995, when I wanted to call my family in the U.S., I had to go a couple miles to the main telephone office, enter a booth, and shout a few sentences to my family while listening to other people shouting to their loved ones.

Around 1997, we paid about $200 to get a landline installed in our house. We still couldn't call outside the country, but at least we could receive calls from abroad. Our line often went dead--especially in the rainy season. In 2005, our phone went down, and we didn't feel like paying to repair it. After 6 months, I just unplugged it and packed it away. I don't know anyone who uses a landline these days. I doubt that even 1% of the homes in Jos ever had a landline.

I don't remember when cell phones entered the scene, maybe around 2000 or so, in a limited way. I finally broke down and got one in 2004.

Now in 2009, I can pretty confidently say that 95% of the adults in Jos have cell phones. It's just assumed that everyone has one. Even people who earn less than $50 a month have a phone.

Phones can be as cheap as $15. Of course, there are also very expensive models available. You can buy a $2 SIM card for any of the four major networks. Just put the SIM card in the phone and then buy a card worth of "credit." Load the pin code into your phone and you're all set. Phone credit comes in increments as small as 70 cents up to about $10.

As long as you have even 1 cent of credit on your phone, you can 'flash' someone you want to talk to. If they feel like it (and if they have credit), they may call back. You can still receive calls even if you have no credit.

If your phone is lost or stolen, you can fairly easily reclaim your old number. A few years ago I had a phone stolen from inside my zipped purse while at church on Dec. 24th. I guess someone really needed a last minute Christmas present! Almost everyone can tell one or two stories of how a phone was stolen.

Perhaps one of the biggest challenges is keeping your phone battery charged since the electricity can be so erratic. I have often said to someone: I couldn't reach you! Their reply: my battery was dead.

Many people carry two phones (and sometimes three!) with different SIM network cards. That way, if one network is down, you can try another. I prefer to use my MTN network phone throughout the day, but the problem is, I can't receive or make calls on it inside my house. It's a common occurrence to see my neighbors outside, looking for higher ground, so they can hear their caller. I also have a phone that uses the Zain network. This allows me to take calls inside my house.

I primarily use my phones for texting which costs about 10 cents per text. Dialling a call within Nigeria is approx. 20-30 cents per minute. I don't call the U.S. that often, but it's very easy, and I think it costs about 50 cents per minute. (I could be way off on that--if you know, feel free to correct me.)

These phones won't work in the U.S. Thankfully, my parents always loan us one of theirs when we travel. Somehow, I think it's a little more complex to get started with a phone and a plan in the U.S.--especially when we're only there such a short time.

I'm quite sure it's against the law to use your phone while driving, but unfortunately, many people still do--and the vast majority of our cars are manual transmission--so figure out how to do that!

Having cell phones during the 2008 Jos crisis made it much easier to get information and to check on friends and relatives than it was during the 2001 crisis. In fact, before I stepped out of my house on the seemingly calm morning of the 2008 crisis, I had information from two different parts of Jos and from Bayo in the capital city that I should stay home. If we didn't have this communication network, we all just would have ventured out that day.

I bought phone credit today and asked Tobi to fill my phones. I figured it was a good exercise in following directions and achieving accuracy. He had a bit of frustration with punching in all 16 numbers just right, but he figured it out. What kid doesn't love messing around with a phone?

1 comment:

PS (PSanafter-thought) said...

As I understand it, it is far cheaper to put up cell towers than string land lines, so many countries that didn't have the infrastructure have cell phone networks.

We were amazed when we were in Uganda in 2007 to hear cell phones ringing. Same ring as my husband's work phone...that was an irritant because he didn't want to think about work. But for the purposes of our travel group and for our hosts, the cell phones were invaluable. Some of our travel group could call the US on their own phones that they brought along.

I had to conclude that cell phones in Uganda, as you mention for your country, must be far cheaper than they are in the US. In the US,it is hard to find a contract for less that $60 or $50/month. Signing up for 2 years usually gets a person a free phone, but if you want a better phone or no contract, you might pay $100 - $300 for a phone. Yikes!

I'm way past my contractual obligation and I have no interest in a new contract or a new phone, but the company is pushing this with every bill and I get phone calls and emails about it as well.

One fly in the ointment is that in a number of locations a certain cell company might work, but not other companies. They don't cooperate enough. My AT&T phone doesn't work at half of my relative's homes.

My friend finally got a Track phone. This costs more per minute, but there is no contract and it cooperates with the various companies, so it is better for traveling. I guess you have to buy a phone initially, but then just the minutes, like you are used to. I've heard that if you let your minutes run out, they can sell your phone number to somebody else.

There are so many cell phone stores all over, multiple stores in the malls. I figure that much of the cost of using cell phones must go to support these stores rather than to the actual cost of the phone service.