Cameroon’s Douala1.com launches T-CDMA wireless broadband service

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Cameroonian ISP Doula1.com has launched a wireless broadband product called Kikao using T-CDMA and it looks set to shake up the local market. This is probably the first T-CDMA wireless broadband service on the continent outside of South Africa. It plans to have 5,000 subscribers and to offer the service in all five of Cameroon’s major cities by the end of 2006.

The technology used is IPWireless, the brand name of the UK developer and manufacturer and whilst currently a proprietary technology IPW is part of the TDD alliance that is seeking to achieve a standardisation for 3G UMTS TD-CDMA similar that found with GSM. The system is claimed to be very spectrum efficient and ideally suited to metro areas where frequency use is already high and often uncontrolled. It is a cell based like GSM and requires careful planning and execution which is not usually found with non-GSM wireless deployments in Africa and elsewhere.

According to Douala1.com’s Technical Director John Earley:”The platform we are deploying is still in its infancy and we are yet to experience the planned product versions which will deliver a much wider range of services and with improved performance but even with the initial versions of hardware and software the user experience is incredible. For example the traditional Internet delivery method is to install a tall mast, several boxes of equipment, UPS in case of power outage, etc. This takes time to install and requires many resources but most importantly it lacks mobility”.

The service is marketed under the Kikao brand which means "attitude" in Swahili. It is based on a modem the size of a cigarette packet and it comes with a built-in battery. Its advantage for the customer is that it takes only 5 minutes to install and get online. When Cameroonian users first see the "box" they find it difficult to believe that the service can be provided from such a small device.

This speed of installation is a strong incentive for some customers as Earley notes:” We also have the advantage of speed to installation. As most of our peers (and in fact our own other services based on traditional wireless) require 2-10 days to install we can capture snap-decision makers and have them connected in ten minutes. Currently we offer to install every modem even though it is not strictly required because this is gaining us valuable data on the user experience during installation allowing us to refine our user documentation and support”.

Once the installation is completed the user can browse and collect and send email just like any other service. However Douala1.com has had to manage expectations. As Earley told us:” Like when GSM first comes to a town everyone is excited and happy about the new service, but only a few days pass before they complain about not being able to use their phone here or there. In fact we have the same issues with KIKAO as it has full mobility. But we are not able to build sites fast enough to cope with the coverage or capacity demand. This does not normally lead to dissatisfaction but we need to manage customer expectations during this initial roll-out phase”.

However because the number of customers who would pay for full mobility is small, it has to price it like any other Internet service. There is tiered pricing with different offers aimed at SOHO and SME customers. At present it is selling the modem to the customer but future hardware changes will make it possible to give it away to the customer as part of a monthly account bundle.

As this is a cellular technology Douala1.com is deploying base stations on a cell pattern to ensure the correct depth and breadth of coverage. Unlike more traditional methods of delivery Internet by wireless it needs to gain penetration inside buildings and with a good and uniform signal level so the customer can set up anywhere in their house or office. Thus far it has concentrated on residential areas of “haut standing” and SMEs.

In terms of coverage, this translates into eight sites (three operational as of Jan 1st 2006) in Douala on a cell spacing of approximately 4kms. There are large areas of Douala, and many cities for that matter, that do not yet contain significant potential users so it will only provide basic coverage there meaning the user will have to move his modem around to find the signal. For Yaounde, which is a more compact city than Douala, it plan six sites, of which two are operational now. Ideally it likes to locate the base stations in buildings that are 30-40 metres above the surrounding terrain. This enables coverage over a wide area but is low enough to get good penetration into buildings through the windows. It plans to be in all of Cameroon’s major cities in 18 months and have a presence within each of them by the end of 2006.

So what’s the impact of the offer been on the local market. According to Douala1.com’s Emmanuel Kijem:” The impact so far is already amazing and yet we are not actively marketing the product. We are concerned about becoming a victim of our own success so we have decided to leave the marketing effort to "word of mouth" until we have sufficient coverage and capacity to deal with demand”. It believes that the potential market will be as big as 200,000, with 75% of that found in Douala and Yaounde. As Kijem sees it:”There is clearly a huge pent-up demand that is not currently be satisfied by any other provider or technology”. It expects 5,000 customers by the end of 2006. Currently it has sold 500 modems and has 200 subscribers active at any one time.

The attractions of the technology over dial-up are considerable. As Earley says:” An important point here is that it is a demand-based service. Many users demand connection 24x7 but the modem acts like the old style dial-up modems and can connect when you need the access the Internet. Connection time is almost zero so the user gets the same experience as if he left it permanently connected but we can offer session based billing, something almost impossible with any other technology currently available”.

This presages another major shift in the way it will sell the service with the introduction of pre-paid cards:”We are currently upgrading our billing platform to support this service and plan to introduce it 2006Q3. This will mark a major shift in the way Internet services are sold in Cameroon and open true broadband to a much wider market. Many people are prepared to make the initial investment such as when they buy a GSM handset but cannot afford or justify the month-on-month subscription. Pre-paid becomes pay-as-you-go allowing users to buy service that suits them when it suits them”.

Further out, there is also the possibility of mobile voice, video downloading and information streaming. It can already deliver 3G to Wi-Fi but needs an external Wi-Fi router. In future, this capability will come in a single box, giving true mobility: in other words it will be possible to be connected while on the move.