Telecoms subscriber base reports in Ghana – are they real?

A few weeks after mobile number portability took off in Ghana, some journalists managed to get authentic statistics, which showed 50% of the total number of successful ports going to Vodafone, and only a few porting out of Vodafone. When those figures were published, an executive from another telecoms company questioned the rationale for publishing such information and said it was not relevant to the public.

At the time this writer did not give any answer, not because he did not have one, but because he thought that executive, of all people, should have known the answer to that question, because the network that the executive works for is known for making the most noise about their subscriber base.

Like a typical Ghanaian, I would put my answer in questions – what is the rationale for MTN celebrating every millionth subscriber milestone – what is the rationale for MTN spending millions to create commercials to promote the fact that it has the ‘biggest family’ in the industry – what is the rationale for Glo saying almost two million people have made requests for Glo numbers – and what is the rationale for Airtel saying it is the fastest growing network in Ghana?

Telecoms, like politics, is a game of numbers. Telecoms operators everywhere in the world make a huge capital of their subscriber base at every flipping opportunity. This has proven to be an attraction to prospective customers. It is for the same reason that those who have relatively fewer customers do not utter a word about their subscriber base, because it has a potential of driving off existing subscribers.

So, clearly, there is a solid rationale for an operator brandishing its success story in MNP, and that information is greatly relevant to the public, because it has a potential of driving subscribers to that network. It is all about numbers.

In Ghana, the telecoms companies submit their subscriber base figures to the regulator, the National Communication Authority (NCA) every 90 days. The NCA publishes the figures, and that is how the public gets to know how each telecoms company is doing, and how the country is doing in terms of mobile penetration.

But each operator uses a different method to generate its subscriber base and the NCA does not do any audit to determine the authenticity or otherwise of the figures submitted to it. Experts say because of the differences in the methods, it would be difficult for the NCA to have a common audit system to audit the figures. That explains why the NCA published wrong figures from Tigo in June last year and later publish another set of figures Tigo submitted.

But is the NCA really interested in auditing the figures, particularly when its position is that increase in subscribers translates into revenue for the companies, and the NCA is at a loss why the telcos keep complaining of dwindling revenues when subscribers are increasing.

The telcos too are more prone to cashing in on the marketing value of the subscriber base they report and so they are more likely to report an over-bloated version of the figures. There is one version that captures only active subscribers within the 90-day period, and there is another which captures both active and inactive subscribers. Some report the former and others report the latter.

There is also the reality of double reporting, where each telco tend to capture and report subscribers who may have vacated the network and joined another within the 90-day reporting period. Such subscribers get captured twice, because the network they left and the one they joined capture them as subscribers. This is a classic example of how the subscriber base gets over-bloated.

A cursory comparison of what the NCA publishes, and what some individual telcos publish in their quarterly and annual reports, reveal different levels of disparities in the figures. In fact, in recent times the comparison has revealed a more striking phenomenon, where the NCA’s figures show a different market share structure, compared to what Tigo published in its annual report for 2011.

At the end of December 2011, the figures published by the NCA showed there are 21,165,843 mobile subscribers in the country, which represented 84.7% of Ghana’s estimated 25 million population size.

Out of the figure, market leader MTN had 10,156,112 subscribers (48%), Vodafone came in at second place with 4,275,521 subscribers (20.2%), long time second place Tigo was third with a subscriber base of 3,921,754 (18.53%); Airtel was next in line with 2,625,705 (12.4%), and Expresso trailed as usual with 191,779 (0.88%).

Those were the figures the telcos had submitted to the NCA by the close of December last year. Meanwhile the telcos themselves are reporting different figures and different market shares in their annual reports.

The most striking feature of the NCA’s figures was that Vodafone has overtaken Tigo as second largest operator in Ghana by subscribers, and this is where the one of the biggest controversies begin.

Tigo reported in its Annual Results for 2011 that it closed the year with 3,508,372 and not 3.9 million as it reported to the NCA. Tigo also reported that mobile penetration in Ghana is 66.1% (16.53 million subscriptions) and not 84.7% – and its 3.5 million subscribers was 21.3% market share and not 18.53% as the NCA’s report said. It also insisted categorically in the report that it is STILL THE SECOND LARGEST OPERATOR IN GHANA in terms of subscribers.

These are very controversial claims because the NCA report presents an entirely different market share structure where Vodafone has taken over the second place from Tigo and maintained it since October 2011, while Tigo’s subscriber base keeps dropping consistently, as Vodafone’s keep rising.

Indeed, this writer later found out from some circles that as per the activity across networks, Tigo actually has over 21% subscribers – MTN has over 51% subscribers, which is closer to the 52% MTN reported in its full year results for 2011; Airtel has over 12% market share – close to the figure it reported to NCA; Expresso has 0.8% – close to the 0.88% reported by NCA, but Vodafone has almost 15% market share, which is way below the 20.2% in the NCA report.

In terms of actual figures of active subscribers, Tigo has 3.5 million subscribers, MTN has almost 8.3 million subscribers, Airtel has almost two million, Expresso has almost 170,000 and Vodafone has about 2.5 million subscribers.

If that is anything to go by, then what is each telcos reporting – is it strictly active subscriptions, or some are infiltrating the system with the millions of inactive subscriptions sitting on their networks; what are the telcos supposed to report, and who monitors to ensure the figures they present to the NCA are actually active subscribers, particularly because it is common knowledge in the industry that each operator easily has hundreds of thousands of inactive subscribers sitting on their networks.

So who is including the inactive subscribers in their subscriber base and who is not – MTN, Tigo and Airtel have clearly stated they each report only RAS-90 (registered active subscribers over 90 days) – but Expresso and Vodafone have not bothered to provide answers to questions about how they generate their subscriber base.

The other question is why as a country we cannot have a common method for generating subscriber base so it can be audited to ensure no one is throwing dust into the public’s eye just to score points. Indeed, having inactive subscribers does not mean they are not subscribers, but in a market where some telcos claim to capture only active subscribers in their reports, and others seem to capture both active and inactive subscribers, that could lead to the confusion over what is the true telecoms market share structure.

As Glo comes into the market, there is a concern that the situation could even get worse because Glo was reported as having made claims about the subscriber base in other markets, which did not exactly reflect the reality.

Glo Ghana Chief Operating Officer, George Andah worked for MTN Ghana as Chief Marketing Officer, and also for Airtel Nigeria in a similar capacity, and so pundits expect that the approach, as far as he is concerned, would be different. Already, Glo Ghana has reported that some 1.87 million Ghanaians have made number reservation requests ahead of commercial launch; that should be clearly understood to mean those are not yet subscribers but requests. George Andah said he is hopeful those requests would translate into active customers when they go commercial sometime next month.

It is my humble opinion that it is time we found a common way of generating telecoms subscriber base in this country to avoid all the confusion over which telco’s figures are right or wrong. It is important that the telcos do not throw dust into the eyes of the media and by extension those of the public, about their subscriber base.

By Samuel Nii Narku Dowuona

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