Thuraya and Inmarsat battle for satellite phone customers in Kenya

Thuraya now has some competition as Inmarsat seeks to enter the East and Central African markets. This is the first real competition for Thuraya, whose devices have enjoyed unrivalled acceptance in remote regions where several factors combine to make other options untenable. Over the last four years, Thuraya satellite phones have been communication gadgets of choice in unreachable or war torn areas, with Iridium satellite phone, the only competitor, being silenced through lower pricing. The sales and marketing manager for Indigo Telecoms, Peter Gacheru, says Thuraya has captured the market through affordable handsets. While its average phone costs Sh52,000, that for Iridium costs three times as much. Indigo Telecoms, a local satellite telephone provider, is currently Thuraya satellite phones service provider and has also struck a deal as the service provider for Inmarsat. Like Thuraya, Inmarsat competes on handset prices, with cheaper calling tariffs thrown into the bargain. Inmarsat's SAT 1 phone, for instance, will retail at US$650 dollars making it the cheapest satellite handheld phone in the region. While Thuraya charges US$0.60 for a call made within the same network and US$1.90 depending on the destination and US$1.49 for any calls made anywhere in the world, Inmarsat will charge a flat tariff of US$0.75 with worldwide connectivity. "The service is due for launch. There are some billing issues being worked on before it goes public," said Gacheru. The timing coincides with consumer murmurs over the latest Thuraya handsets released in the market. The smaller SO2510 offers more features than the bigger Hughes 7101 model it replaced, but has a lower battery longevity period. "We have heard complaints that the new model does not offer a battery standby support of up to 24 hours unlike the previous one. This is a critical factor for our clients who work in areas with no access to electricity," said Mr Gacheru. He said the weakness in the Thuraya battery had arisen from a technical fault, which has since been rectified. "The phone could continue consuming the battery even when switched off," he said. Besides Indigo, it is estimated that other nine satellite services providers offer their services within the region, including the Democratic Republic of Congo, Southern Sudan, Somali and parts of North Eastern Kenya. On top of these providers, there are other brief case operators who buy satellite phones from the United Arab Emirates and sell them cheaply into the market, without paying duty. Satellite service providers like Indigo enter into deals with the operators to manage simcards, which basically offer billing services, loading the airtime and other technical issues that the handsets might have.