ISPs WANT TO GET OUT AND SELL VoIP

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Botswana has 22 licensed ISPs and 11 data service providers. But there are more like 10 operational ISPs with 2-3 main players (Botsnet, Gabs Wireless). Bytes Technologies is owned by Altech which also owns Econet which owns a significant shareholding and runs local mobile operator Mascom.

There is an estimated 44,000 internet users and inn the region of 5,000 subscribers. There are low levels of internet use and access costs are high for end users. The use of the internet against GDP shows that Botswana is well below the trend line, perhaps by as much as 50%. Overall there are low levels of ICT and internet literacy and as a result there are fewer internet cafes than in other African countries.

As in many other African countries, BTC is in the anomalous position of being both retailer and wholesaler. It operates its own ISP and sells bandwidth to other ISPs. It has access to the market data of all ISPs and seems be using this for its own business planning purposes. As John Foley of Bytes Technologies said at the event:”My taxpayer’s money is going into funding my competitor.”

BTC is currently extremely slow at providing leased lines. It can take up to three months to get an order fulfilled. There are a number of strange anomalies in its pricing, what Foley described as “an incoherent pricing structure.” This has helped the growth of wireless providers who both can provision much more quickly and sell more cheaply on occasions. A similar (but smaller) billing fiasco is happening with leased lines. There has been a recent system changeover resulting in very high bills for many customers. It appears that the larger customers are simply not paying them.

The ISP’s main criticism is that BTC is unresponsive and will not make deals. CEO Seretse offered a meeting to the ISPs to look at these issues and this was eagerly taken up by those present. Time and time again we were told stories of how commercially unresponsive BTC is and that it does not answer e-mails. And indeed changes its e-mail addresses are changed on occasions to avoid having to do so.

BTC has announced broadband but sources inside the company made it clear that the equipment has not yet been ordered and this is therefore unlikely to happen any time soon.

BTC has increased international bandwidth from 10 mb to 40 mb and halved the price. BTC’s consultant Noel Herrity told the VoIP and ISPs workshop that this was an investment and he hoped that ISPs would use it to go out and grow the size of the user base. However the halving of price is less impressive when taken together with the recent (inevitable) steep increases in the cost of leased lines.

Not all the ISPs problems are of BTC’s making as Foley acknowledged in his presentation to the event. In particular he identified the lack of a local internet exchange point. And one of the positive outcomes of the VoIP and ISPs workshop held at the event was that the ISPs (all of whom were present) agreed to set up an ISP association and look at the best way of setting up an IXP.

As in many African countries, the incumbent (BTC) controls the domain name. It is not possible to order domain names online and the only communication is via fax. On one occasion, someone forgot to pay the fax bill and it was cut off.

All ISPs and data carriers are interested in starting VoIP services and not surprisingly there was strong support at the workshop for making VoIP legal as it is in South Africa.