Mobile competition ups the game in Botswana with third entrant beMobile

Telecoms

The entrance of a third mobile operator – beMobile (owned by the incumbent BTC) – in 2008 has shaken up what was previously a cosy duopoly and forced all three operators to bring innovation and price cuts to the market,

The battle for subscriber loyalty has seen all three operators competing in a wide range of products and services for pre and postpaid customers. Thanks to the intense competition, prepaid customers, who comprise the majority of mobile phone users in Botswana, have access to services such as sharing of recharge units between subscribers, call me back facility, lower recharge units and many others. Standard services across all operators include voicemail, call waiting, conference calls, roaming, caller identification and others.

Competition in the post-paid arena has mostly been around the provision of attractive packages that usually include all the frills associated with prepaid, and in addition, itemised billing, high-tech cellular phone deals and more. Over the last two years the three mobile phone operators have fine-tuned the provision of standard services and products, giving them more or less an equal footing in terms of their appeal to consumers.

The battle has thus shifted to the race for the latest mobile technology, with the three operators frequently launching new cutting edge products and services around the mobile telephony. One of these is the smart-phone revolution which has seen the entry into Botswana of mobile phones offering advanced capabilities, often with personal computer functionality.

Among these smartphones, the BlackBerry phenomenon is creating waves in Botswana, as the country joins a worldwide phenomenon that has approximately 21 million users worldwide, from 425 service providers in 150 countries. Although local statistics are unavailable, globally Blackberry smartphones are the second most popular after Nokia's Symbian and ahead of Apples iPhone.

In Botswana, Blackberry's entry has added yet another dimension to the tussle for dominance in the mobile phone sector. While Orange Botswana got an early lead on its rivals in the iPhone and Blackberry phenomena, as recently as last week, Mascom heaved its weight into the battle with the release of its own BlackBerry service and product offering. Seven Blackberry models are presently available either as one-off sales or on contract, with the Storm and Bold, being the most popular and marketed. Relative newcomer, beMobile is likely considering a leap into the fast moving smartphone arena, given the growing number of executives and middle-incomers driving demand.

The swing towards smartphones in the turf wars is thus the result of growing demand for these highly advanced phones. The BlackBerry's spectrum of cutting-edge features leaves no room for guesses as to why the "young and hip" view it as the phone of choice. "Some of these BlackBerry models have full internet and push email with full download capability, facebook, twitter and many other features. You can take a picture with the camera phone and send it on facebook or you can open your yahoo, gmail or whatever web-based email account and send and receive as much you like.

"This is the future of mobile phones and obviously everyone wants to have it," said Kgomotso Phiri, a new BlackBerry user.

The extent of consumers' loyalty to a particular operator will come under scrutiny in future when the Botswana Telecommunications Authority (BTA) unleashes Mobile Number Portability (MNP). Already introduced in South Africa to the gain and loss of certain operators, MNP enables mobile telephone users to retain their mobile telephone numbers when changing from one mobile network operator to another. In Botswana, this would blow the game wide open, levelling the playing ground for all operators, regardless of current subscriber base or age. The BTA has previously said MNP will reach local shores in the not too distant future.

Mmegi