Award for free roaming service in Africa
A glance towards Africa and the Middle East may have European travelling cellphone users rubbing their eyes in disbelief at the vista of mobile roaming at no extra charge, right across the continent, for everyone. Countries covering an area several times that of the EU and economies with many hundreds of millions of inhabitants are profiting from the deal. Mobile phone group Zain this week received the first AfricaCom award for the "best pan-African initiative" for the scheme. Many African network operators are also trying to increase sales by offering flexible pricing options.
Zain started doing away with roaming charges on its own networks some time ago. The scheme, known as "One Network", now covers 16 countries in Africa and the Middle East. Zain customers can receive calls without charge on the company's networks in other countries. They pay the standard local rate for making calls. Since most customers are pay-as-you-go customers, being able to credit their accounts in other countries is also an important feature. Zain Africa CEO Chris Gabriel noted that "The One Network service is driving many customers to Zain given the many benefits it offers," in comments at the award ceremony in Cape Town. "This service is stimulating economic activity across many borders and allowing loved ones to stay in touch at affordable prices."
Zain's success has persuaded South African mobile phone group MTN to follow suit. MTN's One World follows Zain's One Network model and will allow MTN customers from 21 countries to use MTN networks in other countries without paying roaming charges. It will also be possible to load credit in other countries. The offer is already available in Ghana, Cameroon and Nigeria, with Benin due to join them later this month. By the middle of 2009, all 21 MTN networks in Africa, Asia and the Middle East will be part of One World. In Europe, only UMTS network operator 3 (owned by Hutchison Whampoa) offers a comparable service. The scheme allows Austrian customers, for example, who are on a contract, to use 3's networks in Australia, Denmark, the United Kingdom, Hong Kong, Ireland, Italy and Sweden at the same price as they would pay in Austria.
A number of network operators with operations in Africa, such as Orange, Vodacom and Zain, are trying to increase revenues by offering flexible pricing without investing heavily in network capacity. The goal is to stimulate traffic in little used parts of the network. To achieve this, the utilisation of individual mobile phone cells is monitored in real time. Customers on certain tariffs receive a discount depending on the degree of network utilisation. At Vodacom South Africa, for example, discounts of up to 75 per cent are offered, with discounts rising to up to 99 per cent for calls to other phones on the same network.
Vodacom Tanzania originally adjusted its discounts monthly. The installation of a network management tool from Aircom now allows discounts to be adapted to traffic levels on an hourly basis. The current discount rate is broadcast using a cell broadcast and displayed on users' mobile phones. Blind people can find out the current discount rate by calling a free information line. Network operators are reporting a 20 to 30 per cent increase in call volumes. This is both raising revenues and attracting new customers, drawn to the prospect of discounts.
(Daniel AJ Sokolov)