A new breed of wireless VOIP providers– mobile operators’ nightmare may be just around the corner

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Last week saw South Africa’s Sentech signal its intention to use its T-CDMA network for voice. Initially it will take on incumbent Telkom with fixed wireless but it is looking forward to the moment when it will use the standard’s mobility to take on the mobile operators at their own currently very profitable game, writes Russell Southwood. And as we reported two weeks ago, T-CDMA was the standard used by Cameroonian ISP, Douala1 for its wireless broadband roll-out and it has similar voice plans long-term.

Sentech may be the first to put its head above the parapet using T-CDMA but there are at least two other technology standard contenders: Flarion Technology’s FLASH-OFDM and WiMAX. In the scramble to provide a mobile voice and data wireless standard, T-CDMA seems to have a fractional edge in terms of operating deployments.

T-Mobile has deployed the product in the Czech Republic. Germany’s Airdata is selling a mobile voice service using handsets from UTStarcomm. New Zealand’s Whoosh Wire Wireless is offering a fixed-wireless voice option to compete with that country’s incumbent.

By contrast, although WiMAX is more widely deployed - both in Africa and elsewhere – it is not being used by many operators to directly deliver a fixed voice service. DRC’s Microcom is operating VoIP payphones using satellite connectivity.

And the mobile VoIP element of the WiMAX standard is not due to be delivered before 2008/2009. And the impetus behind the WiMAX standard will not really begin to take off until Intel starts manufacturing WiMAX enabled chips for laptops in the first quarter of 2007.

Meanwhile Flarion Technology’s FLASH-OFDM is far less widely distributed. However the company has been bought by Qualcomm that currently offers CDMA, the main rival to the GSM standard most widely found in Africa. However an increasing number of operators are purchasing CDMA “plug-ins” to offer either fixed wireless or data over mobile and if Qualcomm puts its weight behind this standard, things might change quite quickly.

However, as ever, having a “killer technology” is really only half of the answer to whether success awaits you just around the corner. First, Sentech has to get a licence for voice and in an article in the Financial Mail last week, it seems to be predicting that this will happen by the end of March 2005.

Sentech is talking about offering “unmetered voice products” although like anything unlimited in the South African market is does not mean the same as in the developed world. It will limit the length of phone calls much as South African broadband operators all offer “capped” services.

But there are three more significant obstacles ahead: the cost of handsets, the extent of Sentech’s network coverage and interconnection prices. Fixed wireless handsets are relatively cheap but mobile handsets are significantly more expensive. And they will remain so until the market expands and operators can buy in bulk.

Sentech’s coverage is not really ready yet for a mobile voice offer. The coverage map is limited and there is not enough contiguous coverage of the kind needed to offer mobile voice. But if it wants to do it, rolling out base stations is not exactly a difficult job.

The real business killer could be the morass that is the interconnection regime in South Africa (see Telecom News below). Regulation clearly signals that major operators have to provide interconnection and Telkom in its last annual report clearly said that this was the case. Simple? Not likely. In the first instance, all incumbent operators (both fixed and mobile) will simply play for time, stringing out the appeals procedure. For the bloody-minded, there are always plenty of quality-of-service issues to raise.

Once through that, there are arguments of theological density about the exact cost of interconnecting. The incumbents – both fixed and mobile – will point to the need to protect their network investment and argue that interconnect costs should remain high. With some justice, Sentech will argue that this approach stifles innovation because the point of its network is that it will deliver voice at a much lower operating cost than its fixed and GSM incumbent equivalents.

Therefore in the first instance it will only offer calling between what will probably remain the rather small number of Sentech consumers. The rest will wait for the “break-out” moment when the hugely profitable incumbents actually agree interconnect prices as they will have to do so. And what will be lost in the sound and fury of this dispute is that for the first time there may be some serious competition on the cost of local and national calls.

So what’s so frightening for fixed and mobile incumbents? There are a number of things that should make their blood run cold. Any regulator that is determined to bring high mobile prices down can threaten to introduce just such a contender. The trend towards unified licensing almost begs them to do so. Levels of price competition in Africa’s mobile markets are almost non-existent. Ask about this and operators respond that they make regular price reductions through marketing offers but this obscures rather than makes transparent the actual underlying cost to users.

Once the interconnect is sorted – however much the mobile incumbents tilt the price table in their own favour – this new breed of fixed and mobile IP operators still have a number potentially significant advantages. The capital cost of building a network is comparatively small compared with investment in GSM base stations. They will not be paying high GSM software licensing fees that are set at a minimum 100,000 subscriber baseline. The smaller the CAPEX, the faster the payback. And because return on investment is not calibrated so high, they will be able to achieve profitability with significantly smaller numbers of subscribers.

Cheap satellite bandwidth and wireless trunking will allow these new operators to both go down a lower level in the market and reach out to areas previously uncovered. Despite the considerable success of the mobile incumbents, most African countries have between 20-40% of their populations uncovered by GSM networks. Not much of this will be “good business” but there’s enough to add to the significant niche position they might carve out in Africa’s urban areas. Lower prices bring new users and we are nowhere near the bottom of the pricing curve on mobile charges to consumers.