Cheap Triple Play offers in Africa may be stifled by regulation that looks at the future through the rear-view mirror

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Triple Play (voice, Internet and TV) offers are a good way for those in Africa with fixed networks to add revenues. There’s an odd perception that because mobiles are so widespread that fixed networks somehow don’t matter any more. They also offer a way into creating a wholly IP-based network. But Triple Play (or indeed Quad Play) offers have not spread as fast as they might because of regulatory restrictions around VoIP that might (with television) be the bait for customers. Russell Southwood looks at how the latest one launched operates and the barriers preventing them.

Only this week Orange Tunisie was forced to delay sales of its Livebox product which is designed as a Triple Play device (see Internet News below). The reason? It wanted to be able to offer VoiP services on the data connection, providing much needed competition for the state-owned incumbent Tunisie Telecom.

The regulator INT has been presenting this as a delay in order to negotiate an agreement with the incumbent. However, this would be an interconnect agreement based on minutes. But that train has left the station and increasingly operators will be offering voice on the basis of an Internet (data) service: the customer is paying but through the bandwidth supplied. Orange Tunisia is also urging INT to fast-track the process to implement local loop unbundling at Tunisie Telecom.

Meanwhile in Zimbawe (also see Internet News below), regulator Potraz’s Deputy Director General Alfred Marisa was last week arguing that any voice service (even if carried over data networks) requires a (more expensive) voice licence.

"There is nothing for free in this world," said Marisa. "Some operators want to provide all possible ICT services using a data licence but that can't be allowed, they should simply get the appropriate licence… Our view is that data and internet are the growth areas especially given that provision of voice telephony is now very widespread." This King Canute logic will not hold back the waves of change that are coming. The regulator of Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania have all freed their operators from this stifling logic.

For as the number of people with a cheap and reliable broadband connection increases, so will the number of people who use Skype and its other variants, either for free or paying for call time. The continuing existence of high mobile international roaming rates, fixed international rates and a large Zimbabwean diaspora are a virtual guarantee of this happening. Furthermore, customers do not need to be come highly sophisticated to realise that a data connection will allow them free national calls through the data connection they are paying for.

The more progressive telcos understand this and are trying to manage the transition in revenue terms from voice to IP. In doing so, through things like Triple Play they need to ensure that they get some part of these new data revenues to replace declining voice revenues. They can’t simply act to police an unsustainably limiting future: you cannot ban use of Skype and its ilk so get on board the train and figure out how you will make money when it is a widely accepted fact of life. Mobile operators are not exempted from this as SIP clients on mobiles work remarkably well using Wi-Fi hot spots.

Therefore it is heartening to see a subsidiary of Madagascar’s incumbent Telma launching a full-blooded Triple Play offer. Blueline is also offering individual TV packages that may yet give Canal Plus some much needed competition. It is offering internet, phone and TV for Ar 79,000 a month (US$39.87) with up to 40 TV channels. Customers for the package can also make unlimited calls and send unlimited SMS’s to other Blueline customers. Its TV set-top box costs Ar 199,000 (US$100) and has PVR functionality via a USB stick and works with a traditional TV antenna. The service is currently only available in the capital Antananarivo.

The arguments around the restrictions on Triple Play in some countries go to the heart of the wider discussions of net neutrality. In commercial terms, the more bandwidth a customer wants, the more money operators stand to make. But there is a natural fear that they will end up simply as the sellers of a commodity, low-cost bandwidth. However, the alternative is a set of restrictions and closed gardens that allow telcos to charge for “value-added” services. Holland’s KPN introduced this approach and has forced the Government to bring in what is being described as a net neutrality law. Don’t say you haven’t been warned…

This week on Balancing Act’s You Tube Channel:

Ghana: Freddie Quainoo, Marketing Manager, Expresso on the rebranding from Kasapa to Expresso and its new data services

Ghana: Gregory Eid, Managing Director, TeledataICT on corporate customers increasing their bandwidth and the services they use with it

Damian Cook, CEO, e-Tourism Frontiers on: the growth of online transations in the African tourism market; the growing interest of international Online Travel Agents; and the use of social media and User Generated Content to market yourself. Did you know the gorillas of Uganda have Facebook pages?

To get breaking news, up-to-the-minute views and rumours circulating in the business, follow us on Twitter: BalancingActAfr