MTN re-asserted its commitment to expanding in Africa despite its recent setbacks, both on the continent and elsewhere. It has still to decide whether it will proceed with its action challenging the recent purchase of Celtel.

While there is a significant upside, challenges span from an uncertain political and regulatory landscape, the high cost of network deployment and the dearth of telecommunications and other enabling infrastructure, African research house BMI-TechKnowledge noted this week.

MTN's Ugandan operation, which currently boasts a 66% market share, will potentially face fierce competition when markets open up from July.

MTN says the deregulation of the telecommunications industry will help it explore new opportunities given that the overhaul "allows MTN to leverage existing assets."

In Rwanda, where the operator has been experiencing growth difficulties despite its monopoly status, the low figures should be seen as a "mere reflection" of the tiny country's economic landscape, chief marketing officer Emmanuel Hetegeka says.

Although the South African firm entered this market - with some eight million inhabitants - in 1998, it has so far failed to grow beyond the 200,000 subscriber base.

Uganda's chief operating officer Serame Taukobong says its target is to break above one million users by March 2006. The group's mobile subscriber base currently stands at 713,000, while its rival - Celtel International of the Netherlands - has 150,400 customers, an equivalent of 13.9% market share.

Taukobong concedes that MTN has a shortage of corporate clients but adds it has a strategy to woo them, deploying GPRS, focusing on the all-important small business sector and consolidating its Internet service provider offering.

GPRS is set for deployment in June - a month ahead of liberalisation. GPRS allows Internet connectivity via a mobile network enabling subscribers to surf the net by means of a handset.

In Nigeria, where the company enjoys a 43% market share, it hopes to accelerate its take-up rates. MTN's growth roadmap has seen it gain more than four million customers since 2001.

MTN currently has six GSM markets including South Africa, Cameroon and Swaziland, where it enjoys a monopoly with a mere 134,000 customers. Behind the scenes, the listed operator is finalising a deal in east Africa, details of which remain undisclosed.