Feb 10, 2008

Naija's Journey into Talk

Children born today will never imagine a time when GSM was just another meaningless and largely unknown acronym. They won't believe in a time when Telecommunications only meant NITEL and some archaic cable satellite company. They'll never know that masts once meant TV and radio stations, and Coca-Cola was the strongest Nigerian brand without any competitor for their colorful and eye-catching billboards.

I remember the days of the 090 (naught nine naught) lines - the NITEL cellular handsets of the 90s. If you owned one, you were considered an extremely big boy. You could receive your calls in any Bank, and no security personnel dared tell you to switch it off. In fact, you wouldn't even be in the banking hall in the first place, you would be in the Branch Manager's office receiving preferential treatment. You would never complain of bad network or poor service, because as far as you were concerned, you owned the best of the best.

Those were the days when you had to depend on luck when going to see a friend, and you had to plan the next appointment before you parted ways. Woe betide you if you left your house without the proper address - short of asking from door to door, there was no other way you get directions. Then, people stuck notepads and pencils on their front doors with stylish signs which read "Drop a note", and there were charts on doors with different attributes such as IN, MARKET, BATHROOM, TRAVELED, etc. It was the time when a man who was working in Lagos and his lover who was undergoing her NYSC in Kano kept their relationship alive through 6 page letters in the post, letters, which took two to three weeks to get delivered... and their love survived! It was the time when the only way you could confirm the safe arrival of your friends was by taking down the registration number of the commercial vehicle and visiting the park 3-4 days later to see if the driver was back from the trip.

Land lines existed, but were only for the rich and influential. The owners would usually lock the phones with a small padlock so their kids would not make calls and incur phone bills in their absence. There was usually a house with a phone line in every neighborhood, and it was common to find different people waiting at houses to receive a call from a family members residing abroad at a particular time. It was also common to have a messenger running to your house informing you that you had a call and the caller was calling back in 5 minutes, and you would quickly leave all you were doing and run to wait for your call.

Evolution soon brought the use of phone cards and calling machines from NITEL. People with phone cards would stand making their calls closely monitoring their units while they quickly made their calls in as few words as possible. Opportunists soon emerged, renting out phone cards to make a quick buck, and fables spread about how an empty phone card could be refilled by freezing it for a number of days.

Alas, it's now all history, thanks to GSM. Anyone who can cough out N3000 can get a phone and a line. The average Nigerian now owns a handset he receives calls with. People have as many as two, three or four lines and are quick to display all their numbers on their personal business cards. Handsets have also evolved. At the onset, if you had a Nokia 3310 or 3330, you were a big boy. If you had a Samsung Blue-I, you were a bigger boy, and if you had a Samsung True-I or a Motorola V50, you were without equal. Commoners used the Trium Mars, Motorola Talkabout and the Sagem's first phones. GSM Lines were as costly as N20000 - N30000, calls were billed by the minute, and the cheapest air time you could buy was a N500 recharge card from Econet.

Now different versions of phones exist, with different functionalities such as FM Radio, Cameras and Video. Phones shaped like planes and those that remind you of walkie-talkies. We now do everything from running excel sheets to checking out our facebook pages on our phones. We play music and watch videos, and send pictures through MMS and bluetooth. The land line is almost forgotten, and the NITEL Phone booths are non-existent. Recharge cards are sold in every corner, and the average 7 year old kid knows how to operate his Mum's phone.

The GSM industry had indeed done a lot of positive things for Nigerians. Apart from bringing communication within the reach of the common man, it has created multiple employment opportunities, not only for those who work in the GSM organizations, but mostly on the streets for recharge card hawkers and phone call center operators. It has also created a big market for mobile phones, such that the Computer Village in Ikeja is no longer only known for computers but also largely known for mobile phones and accessories. With the advent of 3G Plus and 3.5G, we will soon be able to watch movies on our phones, make video calls and enjoy ultra high speed internet. GSM is here to stay, and will continue to change the way we talk, the way we act and the way we live.

Long live GSM!


Which Way Nigeria said...

A good historical perspective of our journey to GSM liberalization, affordability and (un)availability.

As good as it sounds, the downside remains the reap-off by the operators.

Let's we forget the users while the operators smile to their banks. Indeed, it is not yet uhuru with customers service. Until the customers are placated, the journey is at a stand still.

darkelcee said...

It was the time when the only way you could confirm the safe arrival of your friends was by taking down the registration number of the commercial vehicle and visiting the park 3-4 days later to see if the driver was back from the trip.

So we have Obj to thank for this.

I remember those Nitel days, then call card era? all of us posing inside phone boot?

Thank Goodness for G.S.M

ibiluv said...

history.....nice...but i do thank God or is it Baba for GSM-life is soooo much easier

mesma said...

well said indeed; and funny as hell. ur pic reminds me of some1 tho i cant think who yet!!

Omodudu said...

This sotry is incomplete bra.., I'd like to see the early days of MTN and Econoet when we were all turned into staue of liberty...looking for signals. I cant beleive I bought that old shool ericson fone for 29k...chei.

Tayo said...

@which way nigeria, there are so many complaints about telecomms services. I believe we're still in it's formative stages. Let's see how it unfolds.
@darkelcee, LOL ... I remember my folks used that method whenever I left for school.
@ibiluv, yes oh. We really thank God for GSM
@mesma, thanks a lot. Hmmm ... who do I remind you of? Think .. think ..!
@Omodudu, Oh yes o! I forgot to include that one ... when the only place you could be assured of network was St Anne's road ... lol

anonymous gal said...

yeah wat ever i love my GSM

Anonymous said...

Pure nostalgia, I remember buying 3 MTN sims for 32K, what a waste! Little wonder these tele-coys made billions and broke-even within a year. I owned a true-i and it was the best around but the only augmented function aside from the core was storing a couple of pictures.

But even so, we are moving to a world where VOIP will be taking over from the GSM technology at a fraction of the cost.

Anonymous said...

This is so funny! I really do identify with the story. The days when NITEL staff used to 'show' us. Sometimes they 'toss' ur line without owing a dime. The phone card days were horrible in Uni then, I used to avoid certain chics cos they will spend hours talking and you can NEVER hear anything just their giggling.

I was a proud Trium owner then, my first phone even though the ring tone was just horrendous.

I believe the telecomm sector has really improved but we need to ask for more. Rather than the expensive pay as you go, credit worthy customers should be offered juicy contract deals.

I believe we need more free texts and calls etc.They have done well but they can do better.....True talk

1stpet2v9 said...

my daddy had a 090 and one day he let me take it 2 church so i cud call for a ride after choir practice...

U can imagine d rest of the story

Tayo said...

@anonymous gal, who doesn't??
@Yinka, you owned a True-I? That was the biggest thing then! Let's see how far VOIP will go, I'm not sure we have sufficient bandwidth to carry it yet.
@anonymous, yes o! I remember those days at the phone booths... and all those girls that can call 10 people before leaving there
@1stpet2v9, so you Dad had one of those devices? Wow! You must be from the UPPER UPPER side of town then!

trae_z said...

nice journey-into-time post, nice it's-a-wonder-how-we-ever-survived feeling.

onydchic said...

Im with omodudu, in school, i remember for months you could only send atext if you stood on this tree stump and raised ur hand to the high heavens... or if you strategically stood by a particular window. We almost threw a party when we came into the room one day and texts could go from our beds!

We've been suffering with mediocre service though. As for the so-called 3G all these companies are boasting of, they shouldnt get me started! im yet to make a video call, talk of even see the 3G sign on my phone!

Sha said...

awww... NITEL! does NITEL stil exist in naija BTW?

nanadc said...

this was very funny and so true. somehow makes me miss the old days, though.

Tayo said...

@trae_z, yes o! Can't imagine how we survived
@onydchic, LOL! That was so true. Getting network required strategy. I've seen the video calls a couple of times. Seems to work only on the Island and Gbagada areas for now thought.
@sha, beats me! No one know.
@nanadc, lol! I don't miss the old days at all

Afrobabe said...

You mean the time when close up and maggi when the kings?????...lol...

The time when we bought Astra for school and Milo and peak meant u were well off...