Telecoms masts- the large towering structures which facilitate mobile network communication –have become a part of our landscape. They creep up into the sky from obscure enclaves and impose themselves upon our vision from afar. They remind us of the difficult engineering that makes our easy telephone conversations possible.
We know that these telecoms towers have sprung up rather quickly and swamped a good deal of land over the past decade and a half. Some think they’ve become a nuisance. But it’s not always clear how much of our view of the heavens (or the space closer to the ground) have been taken up by them.
So here’s the story in a nutshell: almost a fourth of the telecoms towers in Sub-Saharan Africa are located in Nigeria. In real terms, that’s well over 29,000 big masts dotting the length and breadth of the country, in a region that has just over 120,000 such towers.
One estimate from Statista, a global statistical agency, says there were probably over 30,000 telecoms towers in Nigeria. Whatever the actual numbers are, everyone who’s in the know about these things says that Africa’s largest economy is also home to a disproportionately large chunk of its mammoth telecoms support installations.
But why do we have these towers? What are they for? And why have they become so numerous in our part of the world?
How Telecom Masts Work
When you make a call with your phone, it sends a signal to the mast. The mast, in turn, picks up the signal and sends it to the service provider’s underground cables. It runs through the underground cables until it reaches the tower nearest to the person on the other end of the phone. It shoots up that tower and goes out to the phone held by the other person.
That’s how mobile phone signals get transmitted via towers and underground cables. And it all happens in less than a second.
Who Owns these Towers?
These towers are set up and managed by tower companies (so-called towercos). They have been operational in Nigeria since 2001; this makes the country the oldest towerco market in Africa. Most of these sites are managed on behalf of telecoms companies. A few of them belong to other organizations, including banks.
About half of Nigeria’s towers are controlled by a single company, IHS Towers. Other players in the industry include American Tower, Communication Towers Nigeria, BC Tell Engineering, Pan Africa Towers, and a number of smaller companies.
Are there Too Many Telecom Towers in Nigeria?
The answer to this question depends on what you’re probing when you ask it.
The Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) recently said that it would be demolishing about 8,000 telecoms towers because they failed to obtain Aviation Height Clearance. In practical terms, they posed an uncertain degree of risk to air transportation in Nigeria.
There have also been complaints about the possible health hazards associated with setting up communication masts within residential areas.
However, the Executive Vice Chairman of the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), Professor Umar Danbatta, has said that Nigeria could do with more towers, not less. According to him, the country probably requires 60,000 base stations to meet its voice and data service needs.
A Possible Alternative
A major alternative to large masts deployed between miles of each other is the so-called small cell. Small cells are small compartments set up closer to each other (to form a local network of some kind). They consist of small radio equipment and antennas that can be installed on streetlights, buildings, or poles. This means they take up less space, and do not disrupt one’s visual field nearly as much as the masts.
These small cells are already being deployed in other parts of the world. They may well become a big part of the telecoms infrastructure here in Africa as 5G and the Internet of Things (IoT) sweep in. They’re more suited to facilitating the faster speeds and greater interconnectivity that’ll come with those innovations, compared to the large masts.
However, the towers will remain with us for a while yet. The economics of telecommunication still favours them, as does the slower rates at which we embrace change in our patch of the world.
Featured image source: Rockcityfmradio