Etisalat Targets Rivals for 45% Nigeria Phone Growth

Emirates Telecommunications Corp., the largest publicly traded company in the United Arab Emirates, is targeting subscriber growth of 45 percent in Nigeria by next year as it lures customers from its three larger rivals.

Etisalat, as the company is known, is the smallest mobile phone operator in sub-Saharan Africa’s second-biggest economy. It aims to increase its subscribers to 20 million by the end of next year from 13.8 million, Steven Evans, chief executive officer of the Nigerian unit, said in a phone interview yesterday from Lagos, the country’s commercial capital.

“Most of our growth is coming from people leaving other operators,” he said.

Etisalat, which has operated in Nigeria since October 2008, is looking to boost its customer share in Africa’s most populous nation of more than 160 million people, to become the third- or second-largest phone operator. Its rivals include South Africa’s MTN Group Ltd., the largest operator, accounting for 42.8 million users, according to April data compiled by the Nigerian Communications Commission, the industry regulator. Globacom Ltd. has 20.8 million customers and Bharti Airtel ltd. has 18.6 million.

There were 120.4 million users phones using the Global System of Mobile communication, the most widely used technical standard, in Nigeria at the end of June, according to the regulator.

Big Game

Voice call growth in Nigeria is “slowing down” and “data is a big game,” Evans said.

With Nigeria’s voice market expanding at about 10 percent or less on an annual basis across the industry, data services are providing faster revenue growth, with subscribers on 3G networks started in September last year growing as much as six-fold since then, he said.

Etisalat plans to invest as much as $500 million annually in Nigeria this year and the next to improve infrastructure and fund expansion. The industry regulator fined the four operators in May for failing to meet minimum service standards.

MTN and Etisalat were each fined 360 million naira ($2.2 million), while Airtel was given a 270 million naira penalty and Globacom was charged 180 million naira, the NCC said May 11. Nigeria’s mobile-phone companies reached an agreement in June to pay the penalties.

Service Quality

“Initially all of the four operators were surprised by the move by the regulator and we made it clear that we felt that fining the operators was a very counter-productive move, given the amount of investment all the operators are making into the network,” said Evans. “We agreed a set of strong key performance indicators which the regulator is happy with and we’re happy with.”

Service quality in the country is hindered by a lack of reliable power as the company has to run two diesel generators at thousands of network sites, Evans said.

Etisalat isn’t looking immediately to raise funds for expansion or other expenses, nor considering a stock listing at the moment, said Evans. The focus of the company’s growth is “organic” and acquisition opportunities in Nigeria are “pretty few and far between,” he said.

The Nigerian unit started generating a profit before interest, taxes and amortization in the fourth quarter of last year, though it won’t become fully profitable for at least two years as the company continues to invest, Evans said.

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