Sonatel and Gamtel heading towards "triple-play implementation"

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Faced with impending competition, both Senegal and Gambia’s incumbents are preparing the ground for “triple-play” (voice, Internet and “television”) services. Just back from a visit to both countries, Russell Southwood reports on the state-of-play so far.

At present Sonatel Multimedia is conducting a study to look at the best way of providing VoIP over broadband. VoIP looks almost certain to be legalised for the new post-monopoly entrant (see Letter from Senegal below). Samba Sene, the D-G of Sonatel Multimedia (the incumbent’s ISP subsidiary) told us that:”It’s necessary to have it in our portfolio.”

He feels that the dangers of cannibalising existing voice traffic are limited because Sonatel’s existing voice rates are low and that they might bring them down again:”It will open up new markets because the prices will be lower, volume will increase and it will bring in new users.” The service would be targeted at Sonatel’s existing 18,000 DSL customers. Its parent Sonatel wholesales VoIP minutes but the prices offered are still higher than those found in the grey market

How this will come together with TV delivery is much less clear as the IP-TV test is being carried out Sonatel Multimedia’s parent and will be offered directly in the first instance. The IP-TV pilot has been carried in partnership with French satellite content provider Canal Plus (the only player in the market) and offers all of its channels. It also has a video download service but this is currently only offering archive material including footage of Youssou N’Dour concerts. A customer requires a DSL modem and a set-top box to convert digital to analogue (for non-digital TVs).

The pilot has been running internally with Sonatel employees since September 2004 and went “external” in December 2005. One customer receiving it said he was very satisfied with the quality and the test we were shown was of a very high quality.

Sonatel’s Gady Ndaw, Directeur – Pôle Etudes et Planification des Réseaux IP, ADSL, Mobile, PSTN, says the intention is not for Sonatel to become a content provider but to be the signal carrier. In the first instance, this will be on a revenue sharing basis with Canal Plus and the revenue will be shared on the basis of the financial contribution of both parties. Therefore Sonatel stands to get the equivalent of the 15% agent's fee plus the charge for carrying the signal.

The intention is to launch the service some time in the first quarter of 2006. It will require more investment in DSLAMs as the service requires a 4 mb download capacity and the current DSL download maximum is 2 mb.

According to Gamtel’s ICT adviser, Yusupha Jallow “triple-play” is top of his list of new developments for the Gambian incumbent whose monopoly is likely to end some time this year with the passing of the Telecoms Bill. This same bill will also empower the regulator PURA to issue guidelines on the legalisation of VoIP.

The sceptics will wonder whether “triple-play” in Gambia is not simple some far-fetched strategic “pipe-dream”. But it has a stronger logic than might at first appear to be the case. Gambia is a long, thin country, running East-West and is at no point wider than about 50 miles: most of the population are on the south bank of the river that divides the country and Gamtel has a fibre running the length of this bank and overall its fibre network is under-utilised. As Jallow observes:”There are more television sets in the country than there are fixed line phones.” There are currently 35,000 fixed line subscribers.

Gamtel has just completed its first DSLAM installation and has just 24 customers. But it will be installing another 6 DSLAMs and believes that this will be just the beginning of broadband growth. It could end being 60% of the current dial up market which is somewhere between 10-11,000 customers and may even attract new customers. It plans to launch an IP-TV test once it has established its broadband customer base and start with “video-on-demand” using the archive of the state-run Gambia Radio and Television Service.

The incentive to offer VoIP, particularly at an international level are extremely clear. Gamtel’s 3 international VoIP carriers (including iBasis and Global Voice) offer them wholesale minutes at 2 cents per minute. The TDM-based operators are offering 6-10 cents per minute. BT offered a VoIP proposal but was unable to match the international VoIP carriers.

With such a cost disparity, why stick with TDM at all? According to Gamtel’s Ebou Ceesay, Director – Operations and Maintenance: ”It makes sense to move to IP…but we need to retain redundancy on TDM.” Indeed international minutes have risen considerably since it made these VoIP savings and the international VoIP carriers pay more regularly (fortnightly or monthly) than the TDM carriers.

And at around 70 cents a minute to Washington DC it will need to drop its prices considerably if it is to win back the 25% of traffic lost to the grey market. A broadband-based VoIP service would be a powerful tool. Whether something like this would be done directly by Gamtel and other ISPs or just by other ISPs appears fluid as the company considers how best to go into a competitive future.

Saving might also be made on national backbone carriage and at the local loop level. Gamtel’s mobile subsidiary is in the process of doubling its capacity from 200,000 to 400,000 and as reported previously its CDMA broadband offer is proving very popular.

But for “triple-play to go beyond the test phase, Gamtel will need to be able to do a deal with the continent’s near-monopoly private content provider, South Africa’s Multichoice. Currently Multichoice’s local agent Premium TV Network has 1000 subscribers and sees this going up to 1500 in two years time. It also offers a cheaper cable version via MMDS which has 1500 subscribers and might grow 4500 over two years.

In both instances, Multichoice controls the content provided and in some instances (like the Premier League and CNN News) it has exclusive contracts on elements of the most attractive content. But for “triple-play” to work in an Anglophone territory, it would have to decide that carriage was going to be cheaper (and perhaps more reliable) in some markets via IP-TV. And if a deal like this is to be attractive in Africa, it will be in one of Africa’s more geographically compact countries like Gambia.