Kamar Abass was the pioneer CEO of ntel, Nigeria’s foremost 4G network service provider. He led the network through its establishment, which began with the acquisition of core telecom asset previously owned by Nigeria’s national fixed and mobile operators- NiTel/MTel- by NatCom Development & Investment Ltd. (NatCom) in a liquidation process supervised and approved by Nigeria’s Bureau of Public Enterprises and a court-appointed liquidator.
In this interview with PREMIUM TIMES’, Ben Ezeamalu and Oladeinde Olawoyin , Mr. Abass spoke on the challenges in the telecoms industry, the firm’s vision and mission, its future prospects, among other issues. Excerpts:
You launched your operations in 2016, how has it been running the business in a recession?
Well, we launched business to customers in April 2016. Since then we have expanded our roll-out to cover three cities –Lagos, Abuja and Port Harcourt. We now have very significant network coverage in Abuja, which is the biggest for 4G and also as big as 3G coverage in Lagos. And in Port Harcourt, it is significant coverage; and in total, we are targeting to make sure that we can cover all 3G areas with 4G in the cities that we go into. We now have more than 300 staff – directly employed, we now have many, tens of thousands of customers. We have a full range of services – we have robust, high-speed data which is the fastest in Nigeria; we have messaging; and, of course, we have high definition voice services. And we continue to develop our portfolio to add other flexibilities to make all our customers enjoy our services more; different ways in which to pay and, of course, multiple locations in which they can buy services from us and reach out. And so, we are very pleased with the progress we have made. We have put ourselves firmly on the map as a provider of broadband services in Nigeria’s three biggest cities which account for almost half of all broadband spendings in Nigeria.
It appears the recession has had no effect on your operations…?
(Cuts in) We don’t have a prior year against which to compare. So, in our first year, we did the things we did because that’s what ought to be done to provide our services to customers. Honestly, maybe in 50 years we’d look back and compare but right now, we started well from, errr, zero and whatever we do, we bring in improvement.
You mentioned that in Lagos, you have better coverage of the state; but some customers have complained they are not getting strong signals – in Ikeja, for instance. Could it be because you are still rolling out your ….?
Kamar: (Cuts in) So we are in the process of completing our roll-out. In Lagos, it is roughly 75 to 80 per cent. And when it completes, it would be the case that everybody who has access to 3G signals would be able to access 4G from us. But today we are probably just the final way to go…on our roll-out in Lagos. And in Abuja, we have less than ten per cent of our roll-out that remains to be done. In Port Harcourt, it’s about 15 per cent that remains to be done. So, for us, you would see improvement in access to our networks in Lagos, certainly. This improvement would be material –in Ikeja, Surulere, Lekki, Oshodi-Isolo, Ajah.
Still on the issue of business environment, Etisalat had issues and we’ve also learnt of some other networks having issues. What are you doing differently because you appear not to be feeling any sort of pressure or challenge?
It is hard for me to know the services of other people but what we have considered very carefully is where the telecoms market is going. And when you consider that question, you realise it depends on which market: the market for 2G services is in decline – it has been falling since the middle of 2015. People are spending less; the market for data is growing. There are 3G and 4G data and 4G data is better –and we are building a 4G network. We are building a solution to the present and emerging demand characteristics of this market. And for that reason, we see ourselves as working in a way that will take advantage of the customers’ evolution in the market. In a way, others may plan to do that but the additional benefit we bring is that our own business is focused on data and the whole of the way we go about our services is all about data and how we provide to customers. Today, we are a new network and we are servicing a market where there are 50 million broadband customers and they are on 3G and those 3G customers want a network which is faster and more reliable. So that’s what we do: to catch the market at where it is going.
What’s the relationship between your mobile network and NITEL?
NITEL and Mtel are part of the previous government’s company. And NITEL filed for bankruptcy in 2008, there were various attempts to sell them between 2005 and 2015. In 2014, a liquidator was appointed and a strategy of selling the asset. And so, we bought some asset of NITEL and Mtel. We’ve taken these asset and we have had additional asset to what we bought and we used it to create a brand-new telecoms company.
So, for example in 2008, 4G didn’t even exist as a technology standard and we couldn’t have inherited that from NITEL and MTEL. It was simply the licenses, the spectrum and some buildings. There are satellite ground stations and there were towers. So, most infrastructure around the core telecoms applications and of course assets like licence. These are the things we acquired –they are among the important building blocks of telecoms and we have added other building blocks.
What about the staff?
The staff had been previously made redundant by NITEL who had been redundant in previous years. There was a small number of staff left over, between 350 and 400 and they have been a very useful addition to our team.