CAMEROON - REGIONAL HUB AND GROWING MID-SCALE MARKET?
15 March 2002
Africa’s connectivity markets vary between the big (in continental terms) and the very small. There are two big markets - Egypt and South Africa- with perhaps Nigeria waiting in the wings. The middle-scale markets tend to be places that act as regional hubs for multinationals - whether private companies or NGOs: for example Kenya. But who will enter this league as the slightly larger markets separate from the very small? In this issue Emmanuel Kijem of Douala1.com argues the case for Cameroon.
Almost every African country likes to describe itself as a regional economic hub. Why can Cameroon claim this more credibly than most?
The regional economic and monetary organisation CEMAC offers an engine for economic growth. There is some competition at a political level between Cameroon and Gabon but Cameroon has a better claim. The stock exchange has 30 Cameroonian companies. There is even some evidence of companies shifting their operations from Abidjan to Douala.
So why in ICT terms do you think Cameroon is dynamic?
Well I’ll give you a point of comparison. Douala alone has 6-8 network wireless providers. Here in Abidjan there is only one.
How many dial-up subscribers are there?
I can only give you estimates. There’s no ISP Association to collect the figures and no formal co-operation between ISPs. This mistrust in business is cultural but "behind the scenes" many of the operators are friends at a social level. They should create properly documented figures through an Association.
Current dial-up subscriptions are around 10,000 but total users via cyber-cafes are probably in the hundreds of thousands and growing fastest. Even my Dad, who is very conservative has an e-mail address.
So how many cyber-cafes are there?
It’s impossible to estimate but lots. About 25-30% use 2 mb broadband wireless connections. The owners are mostly people who ran communications centres (teleboutiques) and when the internet came along it was a natural add-on.
Who are the Cameroonian internet users?
The internet is used heavily by the young, students and women. The use by women has been quite an issue. There are worries over prostitution and trafficking. For example, there are internet sites where women look for partners and some agree to marry over the internet. Some find love and it’s not all bad. But you have in the region criminal groups who deal in women and so there are dangers. The Government is trying to see how it can work with embassies worldwide to look at the problem.
You’re going to be relaunching your ISP as one offering dial-up subscriptions beyond the corporate market. What’s the ambition?
It’s a collaborative effort between ourselves as an ISP and the telco. Our ambitions are huge. One of the main objectives is to have universal internet access. To achieve this we need to put the infrastructure in place and keep prices low. There are two GSM providers in Cameroon and ultimately the whole country will be converted to GSM.
Two to three years ago getting a phone line could take anything from to months to never. Now pay-as-you-go has become a driving force. One of the cell phone providers Mobiliss (owned by France Telecom) has around a million users. GSM is perfect for Africa. It’s just right for us and be can be used for the internet. Most of these users will only want e-mail so the bandwidth issues are less of a problem.
How many POPs are there?
There 10-12 in Douala and 15 in Yaounde. Lots have disappeared. The main ones are:
1)ICCNET (http://www.iccnet2000.com) or (http://www.iccnet.cm )
2)WAGNE (http://www.wagnet.net )
3) CYBERKOKI (http://www.cyberkoki.net )
4) GCNET (http://www.gcnet.cm )
5) CAMNET (http://www.camnet.cm )
6) NEWTECH (http://www.newtech.cm )
7) ADSNET (http://www.adsnet.cm)
8) AFRIPA TELECOM
10) VOICESAT (http://www.voicesat.net )
You offered free internet when you last launched. What was demand like?
We had 2000 subscribers and could have had more but we had to control demand. When we started to charge, subscriptions halved. We want to offer unlimited dial-up access for 50,000 CFAs per month.
What are cyber-cafes charging?
Between 500-1000 CFAs per hour. The difference in price depends on the bandwidth available and the locality. There are some areas with fierce competition, mainly in Douala and Yaounde. One guy has a dedicated VSAT connection with 12 machines and the service is very good.
What are the main obstacles you face?
The major obstacle is the regulatory environment. There are a series of laws and these could not be described as "light-touch". The regulator, the Telecoms Regulatory Board, was created in 1998 and the transition to a regulated framework has not been easy.
There are difficulties on a number of fronts. Firstly, we don’t know how they calculate the licence fees. First there’s a "texte application" from the Minister and then there’s a decree that spells out the detail. However the decree has not yet been issued.
Secondly, they have given out quite a few licences and you have to be careful when dealing with frequencies.
Lastly, they have to regulate all your equipment. If you import equipment, you have to get a licence. Then you have to get a licence to install. If your’re going to do a network, the regulator has to see the design of the network. When you modify the network, they have to see the modified plans. It’s an awful lot of paper work.
Not everyone is following the law. It was written by the bureaucrats but there no longer any sacred cows like Camtel and the industry is open to everyone. To be fair to he regulators, they do listen and they do gather information.
How did Douala1.com start?
It’s a complicated story. In 1994 George Fon Tuma and Paolo Bosco started North South Technologies in New York that offered Callback to Africa. They created a local company - FPV Communications - offering this service to a mainly corporate base of customers. In August 1996 it became the first company to provide commercial internet access in Cameroon. The SITA connection it used proved to be inadequate and service problems escalated forcing FPV Communications to pull the plug on the service in early 1997. It continued to keep and attract new telephone customers and acquired its own VSAT dish.
In late 1998 it decided to use its existing infrastructure to launch Douala1.com. I joined it as COO in late 1999 to prepare the company for eventual commercialisation and separate incorporation. We’ve now installed a local wireless loop in Douala and will roll out in Yaounde shortly. The company was separated from FPV in June 2000 and I became Director General and George Fon Tuma is the Chairman. THe company is jointly owned by Cameroonians and Americans.
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