At the start of last year, Nigeria seemed on course to clock an important milestone: hitting 100 million mobile internet users. But that’s no longer the case. New data from the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) shows a steady decline the country’s internet user numbers, despite a fall in mobile internet data prices.
Since mid-2016, mobile internet prices in Nigeria have fallen to less than a third of what they were in 2015 after the regulator removed a data floor price, leaving telcos to set prices as low as possible.
The most obvious reason for the continuing slide is the clampdown on unregistered sim cards by NCC, the telecoms industry regulator. Unregistered sim cards, Nigeria’s government has previously claimed, have allowed Boko Haram terrorists and other criminals communicate undetected by the country’s mobile networks.
MTN, Nigeria’s largest operator, felt the brunt of the clampdown on unregistered sim cards when it was slapped with a record $5.1 billion fine in a long-running dispute which it later settled for $1.7 billion. Since Oct. 2015, when NCC announced it was fining MTN for not deactivating unregistered sim cards, the operator has lost over 10.8 million internet subscribers.
Perhaps just as important as the clampdown on unregistered sims, Nigeria’s economic headwinds are also likely impacting its internet user numbers. With record inflation and a shrinking economy, the purchasing power of the average Nigerian has been hurt. Despite lower prices, mobile internet is still considered a luxury in a country where the monthly minimum wage is around N18, 000 ($56).
Ismaila Sanusi, a tech blogger, says while the recession doesn’t necessarily mean fewer people are buying data, there’s something else to note. “It can also mean that fewer people are buying data on multiple sim cards as was the practice before,” he tells Quartz. As of 2015, Nigeria was the global leader in the use of multi-sim phones with 66% of the 140 million active lines in the country at the time in multi-sim phones.
Nigerians could also be shifting from relying on mobile networks for internet connectivity to opting for other internet service providers (ISP). Over the last five years, data-only wireless providers like Smile and Spectranet have become more popular. Offering users the option of being connected on multiple devices, these ISPs offer more value for money.