Cameroon’s Matrix Telecom looks to VOIP as MTN set to provide nationwide internet service by November 2006

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The war over who provides what services to African users is hotting up. This week saw MTN Cameroon announce that by November 2006 it will offer a nationwide Internet service to its customers. Orange Cameroon has also entered the market with a wireless-based solution. But according to a report in Cameroon’s The Post, the newly-formed ISP Matrix Telecom is gearing itself up to fight fire with fire by offering a VoIP product in the near future.

Last week MTN’s Distribution Manager Alain Moffon briefed local journalists that its Internet service that can be accessed either by mobile handset or laptop will be available nationwide by November 2006. It has been trialling the service with its post-paid customers and will roll-out a “pay-for” service shortly. Pricing has not yet been announced. Sources tell us that MTN Cameroon will in due course be rolling out Wi-MAX enabled local delivery.

The service is based on a GPRS upgrade and this will be operational in all ten provincial capitals of the country by November. Channel partner Tchitos Business Company has opened offices in Fako, Ekondo Titi, Mundemba and parts of Meme in anticipation of the new service.

Moffon said rather optimistically that the new service would not require users to obtain new handsets “except for some of the old-generation phones, which do not have options for the Internet.” The spread of Internet-enabled mobile phones may not be as widespread as this comment implies.

Meanwhile Orange Cameroon has launched its own GPRS service and will compete head-on with MTN for the more affluent, post-paid mobile user of the Internet.

According to Le Quotidien Mutations, the newly-formed ISP Matrix Telecom is looking seriously at providing VoIP services. Formed out of a merger between lccnet, Creolink and Douala 1, the new company has access to the TD-CDMA technology pioneered by Doula 1. This wireless standard claims to be able to deliver fixed wireless immediately and to have mobile wireless voice in its sights before too long.

So what does this first all-out war between the mobile incumbents and the much smaller African ISP sector tell us? GPRS is not a very fast access technology and can probably only work in a market where local access is poor. It will and should force local ISPs to raise their game in terms of speed of access and price. However, those that seek to compete will need greater scale and access to capital. The technologies are there to compete but it will require investment.

In the long-run, the mobile operators are opening themselves up to a range of new competitors who will start with cheaper IP-based provision rather than working through GSM to achieve it. The rash of fixed wireless operators in Cameroon may yet turn into mobile operators. Remember what happened with Reliance in India.