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Bharti bets on Nigerian broadband

Technology

London - Bharti Airtel’s Nigeria unit said a partnership with China’s ZTE to provide 4G high-speed broadband will see it add subscribers and narrow the gap with market leader MTN Group in Africa’s most populous country.

The Indian company is seeking “to lead the industry in terms of new customer acquisition CEO Segun Ogunsanya said in an interview in Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial hub. Airtel will start to move subscribers to the 4G service from 3G “in the next three to four months,” he said.

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A girl checks her mobile phone as she walks past the Bharti Airtel office building in Gurugram

Airtel was Nigeria’s third-largest wireless operator with 34.7 million customers at the end of March, according to the most recent data published by the Nigerian Communications Commission. That’s 43 percent below Johannesburg-based MTN’s 60.4 million, although Airtel has recorded the highest quarter-on-quarter growth in the last two periods. Local operator Globacom is number 2 in the West African nation with 37.3 million subscribers.

Airtel has invested more than $1.5 billion in its Nigerian network in the past five years, seeking to tap rising demand for mobile and data services in a country with 180 million inhabitants. The government is seeking to increase broadband penetration to 30 percent of the population by 2018 from 4 percent four years ago, and MTN has also acquired spectrum to deliver 4G services.

The launch of 4G spectrum with ZTE will enable Airtel to build on its market position and “surpass achievements in recent quarters,” Sola Fanawopo, managing director of Lagos-based consultancy Emaginations, said by phone. Nigerian subscribers are “crying out” for consistent and fast data services, he said.

Airtel has seen a surge in data consumption in the country since 2015 as increasing access to smartphones enables Nigerians to use their devices for lifestyle, commerce and health services, according to Airtel’s Ogunsanya. Data is growing faster than voice and will probably account for more than half the revenue of telecommunications operators in the country “in the next couple of years,” he said.

Read also: Bharti Airtel forced to cut back on debt

Bharti Airtel has operations in 15 African countries, having sold businesses in Burkina Faso and Sierra Leone to Orange SA earlier this year. The depreciation of the naira against the dollar contributed to a fall in sales in the year through March, the New Dehli-based company said earlier this month.

An increase in dollar supply by the Central Bank of Nigeria has enabled Airtel to fund an improvement in service quality after a severe shortage of the US currency hampered investment, Ogunsanya said. Access to dollars is “better than it was about three or four months ago,’’ he said.

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