African 3G race gathers momentum

19 Oct 2004

African mobile subscribers look set to get their first taste of third-generation (3G) mobile services before the end of the year following the announcement of bold rollout plans by Mauritian operator Emtel and South Africa’s Vodacom.

At the weekend Emtel announced that it had signed an agreement with China’s Huawei Technologies for the supply and installation of an island-wide 3G network. The cellco claims to have already undertaken successful trials of the new technology, and has earmarked mid-December for the launch of a commercial offering. Emtel is expecting its high-end business users to be the first to embrace the new service, although it is also keen to keep the service within the reach of its residential subscribers by launching a range of affordable 3G handsets. In addition, it claims to be in discussions with a number of content providers with a view to introducing location-based services to serve the estimated 700,000 tourists who visit Mauritius each year. Emtel has set aside USD20 million for the network upgrade.

Despite being the first African operator to launch mobile services of any kind back in 1989, with 165,000 subscribers Emtel currently plays second fiddle in the Mauritian mobile market to state-owned Cellplus, which had 390,000 customers at the end of June 2004. A third operator, Mahanagar Telephone, subsidiary of Indian telco MTNL, was awarded a 15-year concession in January 2004 but has yet to launch services.

Vodacom meanwhile is also expected to be targeting its own pre-Christmas 3G launch, although the cellco says that it will not announce the official launch date until 9 November. Some sources claim that Vodacom is looking to steal a march on Emtel by introducing 3G services on 1 December. However, Vodacom’s chief communications officer Mthobi Tyamzashe recently claimed: ‘We are still on track for December to launch our commercial offering, but more important than being first in Africa is to offer the right service at the right time, so we are more focused on that than we are on being first.’

Vodacom received its 3G concession in June and expects to spend around USD35 million on upgrading its nationwide GSM network with the new technology. Its current infrastructure boasts 5,000 base stations and provides coverage for 95% of the population. Vodacom commands a 52.7% share of South Africa’s mobile market with 10.58 million subscribers at the end of June 2004, up from 8.9 million at the end of 2003, ahead of rivals MTN (6.49 million subscribers) and Cell C (3 million).

Mauritius, South Africa, Emtel, Vodacom Group
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