• Friday, March 01, 2024
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BusinessDay

Mafab’s delayed take-off sends mixed signals to 5G investors

Mafab: Timeline of a telco with dormant 5G licence

More than a year after Mafab Communications was announced as one of the winners of Nigeria’s 5G licence auction, the company is yet to hit the streets with its service. This is despite service launch programmes in Abuja and Lagos organised in January where it promised to be in the market within weeks.

Apart from releasing a brand logo (MCom) and announcing a number plan (0801), the company had yet to roll out its service as of Thursday. There was also no word on Mafab’s leadership team, except for the Chairman, Mushabu Bashir. The company is yet to announce a CEO.

Isa Ali Pantami, minister of communications and digital economy, had at the auction in December 2021 stated the ambitions of the government for 5G.

“Let us not forget that Nigeria has the largest digital economy in Africa, Nigeria has the largest telecommunications market in Africa, Nigeria has the largest internet subscribers in Africa, Nigeria has the largest broadband and we hope that by 2022, Nigeria will have the widest 5G coverage in Africa,” Pantami said.

Mafab’s inability to launch means that hope was not realised, although MTN has a sizeable 5G operation ongoing. South Africa currently has the largest 5G market in Africa with 5 million subscriptions. MTN said in its 2022 financial statements that it plans to continue deploying 5G cell sites across Nigeria.

BusinessDay found an incorporation document that noted Mafab has 17 board members but only seven people’s names were listed. The seven board members comprise Bashir, five others, and a company secretary. Apart from Bashir, whose appointment date was not stated, the rest of the directors of the company were appointed on 17 February 2023, barely 22 days after the January launch.

Bashir was also given significant control of the company in January 2023. BusinessDay could not ascertain how much control the chairman now has.

The company, incorporated in October 2020, has struggled to meet nearly every deadline set in the Information Memoranda of the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC).

After the company beat Airtel and emerged as one of the two winners of the licence of the coveted and most expensive 5G licence in West Africa at $273 million, dragged the payment of the licence until the night before the deadline was to expire. MTN paid within days of winning the licence while Mafab was given up to February 24 to pay.

The NCC issued the final letters of award of the spectrum licences to the winners in May 2022 and announced that the two companies were expected to roll out the technology on August 24, 2022.

By August, it was only MTN that was ready to launch. MTN conducted a pre-launch in August and a final launch in September. Mafab, however, released a statement announcing that it has been issued a five-month extension following the delays in receiving its unified operational licence and numbering plan, which did not happen until the end of July 2022. The extension granted to the company by the NCC meant that the new date for launch was January 2023.

While Mafab waited for its extension deadline to elapse, the NCC announced it was auctioning the remaining two lots of spectrum starting at the same price of $273.6 million. Due to the high cost of the spectrum licence, Airtel was announced as the sole bidder of one of the licences in December 2022, bringing the number of operators with 5G licences in the country to three.

Mafab organised two launch ceremonies in January 2023. The first ceremony was in Abuja on Tuesday 24 and the second ceremony was in Lagos on January 26. The company also used the opportunity of the launch to unveil a brand-new logo for the company, which it said heralds the dawn of a new era of infinite possibilities the technology offers.

“The rollout of the Mafab 5G network is the beginning of immense opportunities for the country as it represents Nigeria’s capabilities and infinite possibilities,” Bashir said at the launch event. “The prospect of increased job opportunities as a consequence of the value-chain benefits the technology will generate and offer is the dream we have all gathered here to launch today.”

Mafab’s delay gives MTN the advantage to consolidate its position in the emerging 5G market. Airtel has already paid the $273.6 million and has been issued its licence. The telco paid $316.7 million for 100 MHz of spectrum in the 3500MHz band and 2x5MHz of 2600MHz to boost its 4G coverage in the country. Just like MTN, Airtel is expected to launch its service in August 2023.

A source at Mafab told BusinessDay that the vendors slowed the launch down. “The equipment the company wanted to bring in are yet to be cleared. However things are moving along nicely. And the launch will eventually happen.”

Read also: FG earns $820m from 5G auctioning- Pantami

An industry stakeholder who spoke to BusinessDay on condition of anonymity said the NCC “appears to be willing to relax the licence obligations on Mafab and this is not sending a good signal to the industry”.

“Clearly, Mafab is struggling to raise funds and roll out and this confirms the fear of the industry watchers who were surprised at the award of the licence to an entity that had no identifiable industry record as an entity and at some point, the person’s behind it was even unclear,” the stakeholder said.

A telecom expert who wants to remain anonymous said a clear technical and roll-out plan should have been submitted not only at the point of shortlisting but also before the award.

“This is not good for the regulator, as it weakens its ability to enforce rules set by it in other cases of non-compliance,” the expert said. “From the information available, it appears that there has not only been a breach of the rollout and coverage obligations in the IM, but also breaches of the 5G licence conditions.”