The Mauritius telecoms authority began last Monday to hear applications from telecom service providers interested in entering the domestic telecommunication market, the chairman of the authority said. "Earlier this year, we began issuing licenses for ISP’s (Internet service providers), V-sats and facsimiles," Ashok Radhakissoon, chairman of the Information Technology Communication Authority (ICTA) told Reuters.

"Today, we are addressing other applications which involve bigger, more costlier operations that will have a national impact such as international telephony, mobile operators as well as a second network operator for basic services."

Over the next week, 16 companies will appear before an ICTA panel in the hope of convincing the authority that they should be awarded a slice of the Indian Ocean Island’s telecoms pie.

Partly state-owned Mauritius Telecom has held the monopoly for providing telecommunication services, but in December 2002 the government announced full liberalisation of the sector. The licences on offer include providing Internet, cellular and international telephone services.

The majority of the applications are for an international telecommunication service licence with 14 companies willing to pay the five million rupee ($170,400) licence fee. "There is a lot of cash coming from international services - if you look at the figures of Mauritius telecom, 20 percent of its profit comes from the local basic service, whereas 80 percent of its profit stems from its international services," says Radhakissoon.

"So there is more interest for the ILD (international long distance) licences as this is the most thriving sector of telecoms and considered the cash cow of the industry," he said. India’s state-run telecoms giant Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Ltd (MTNL) is among the companies competing and has submitted applications to provide fixed, cellular and ILD services, officials said. CityCall Ltd, a subsidiary of France’s Outremer, also wants to provide ILD services as well as payphone services.

With a population of 1.2 million, Mauritius is considered small, but Radhakissoon said it was an attractive market. "It’s a question of not only looking at the local market, but also at the fact that we have some 600,000 tourists who come here annually, and who have international service needs," says Radhakissoon.

Radhakissoon said the market probably only has room for two more licences for mobile services. There are currently 330,000 mobile subscribers in Mauritius. The ICTA is expected to announce its decision and issue the licences before the end of August.