Regulator penalises leading mobile companies for QoS issues by shortening their licence period

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In an unexpected move, Niger’s regulator ARM has shortened the licence period for two of the country’s pan-continental mobile operators over Quality of Service (Qos) issues. QoS may become a battleground issue across the continent this year as regulators realise they have the power to insist that agreed standards are met and things improve. For operators, getting network capacity in harmony with demand is full of headaches. Russell Southwood feels their pain.

Last week Niger’s regulator Autorite de Regulation Multisectorielle (ARM announced that it had reduced the length of two mobile operators' licences in a row over quality of service, according to a Reuters report. The culprits are two of West Africa’s leading mobile operators, Zain and Moov (owned by Etisalat).

The 15-year concession awarded to Kuwait-based telecoms firm Zain in 2000 was reduced by five years, according to ARM, until a return to the stated levels of service quality is achieved. Meanwhile, a 15-year licence awarded to Moov, the brand name of West African company Atlantique Telecom, also in 2000, has been cut by three years.

ARM is one of francophone West Africa’s most effective regulators and it has worked hard to liberalise Niger’s telecoms market over the last three years. The tactic of shortening the licence concession period is an interesting one. For although the operator’s do not have to pay a cent, they risk seeing their asset being devalued if they do not address the QoS issues.

Other regulators who have addressed QoS issues over the last three years include Senegal’s ARTP, Ghana’s NCA and Nigeria’s NCC. In both Nigeria and Senegal, quality of service (particularly network congestion and outages) has been a national debate. Some have been more successful in calling operators to order, whilst others have talked tough but made little impact.

Contrast Nigeria where NCC lead a very public campaign to improve quality followed by fines with Ghana where NCA talked tough about fines but never followed through. In the case of the latter, talking to operators behind closed doors has had little impact on the country’s chronic congestion, particularly on the MTN network.

Five years ago a senior manager of a mobile operator explained to me how investment tended to follow increases in customers rather than the other way round. Whilst things have undoubtedly changed since that point, 2010 is a tight year for raising CAPEX. MTN’s promotion aimed at encouraging users to make less use of congested cell sites was innovative but is no substitute for having enough capacity.

But if only it was as simple as spending enough money to put in capacity to meet peak voice demand. With operators now seeking to become Internet operators with 3G and all the other acronyms above it, they are taking narrow pipe networks that were never designed for data and trying to retrofit them to deliver. Globally mobile operators both want to encourage data use to combat falling ARPUs but ration it so that their underpowered networks are not overwhelmed.

African mobile operators are not so different but they have adopted different strategies. Operators like Safaricom and MTN have sought to separate out their data flows by creating separate Wi-MAX networks for data. The solution being discussed in Europe is femtocells where the equivalent of a mini-base station is put in the user’s house. However, another relatively costly CPE is likely to play less well in cash-tight African markets.

So here’s the dilemma for the mobile operators: do they really want to become both voice and data operators, offering bandwidth heavy applications like Triple Play? Or is data just a tactical side-bet they’ve been forced into to stay ahead? Many of the major operators are building large fibre networks in their major markets which mirror their competitors’ investments. Not everyone can be a winner out of this game if national backbone charges come down under pressure from new low international fibre charges which arrived in East Africa in 2009 and will come to West Africa this year.

Whilst 3G modems are undoubtedly better than many of Africa’s over-contended Wi-Fi hot-spots, Africa’s mobile operators have yet to prove that they can create reliable Internet access with good QoS. Without this guarantee, mobile Internet runs the risk of becoming the substitute alternative rather than the service of choice. Unfortunately, with honourable exceptions, Africa’s mobile operators have yet to demonstrate that they can deliver increasingly improving services for both voice and data.

Correction: Issue 486: Former Rwandatel CEO Wanted Over Missing Funds