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Strong signals for mobile phones

Article - November 29, 2011
Tough competition and improving infrastructure suggest a bright future for   mobile communications in The Gambia
Mobile communications is one of the fastest-growing industries in The Gambia, where four GSM mobile operators – Gamcel, Africell, Comium and QCell – battle it out for market share.

Gamcel is owned by Gamtel, the state telecommunications operator which is the sole provider of fixed-line services, also providing internet access. However, in terms of mobile services, Africell is now the market leader by far, with two in every three mobile users, and claims to have been the first brand name in The Gambia.

Comium offers mobile, fixed-line and mobile internet services and is second in market share behind Africell, with arguably the widest coverage and the best quality network in the country. QCell joined the market in 2009 and until recently offered the only 3G network in The Gambia.

The communications regulator – Public Utilities Regulatory Authority (PURA) – has managed to reduce calling costs both for fixed lines and mobiles. It has forced operators to work together and change the previous situation whereby it was prohibitively expensive for mobile users to call people on other networks. In June, the laying of a new international submarine cable between South Africa and France was announced. The cable will pass through The Gambia, and should bring down the cost of internet access from The Gambia. According to Gamtel, it is expected to be operational as of 2012. The Gambia has a relatively well-developed national backbone network, but fixed-line penetration has remained low at around 3 per cent, which in turn has hindered internet usage.
The introduction of wireless systems is beginning to accelerate developments in both of these market sectors. The arrival of alternative submarine fibre-optic cable systems in the West African region in 2008/09 dramatically improved the cost of international bandwidth. The recent signing of the construction and maintenance agreement of the Africa Coast to Europe (ACE) with Gamtel is also a welcome development which will further enhance the company’s reputation.

 The ACE project, which is expected to be completed in July 2012, aims to increase the country’s international bandwidth and improve broadband connectivity, using highly advanced technology which includes the most sophisticated submarine cable available.
Jamal Miknas, managing director of Gamtel, explains in more detail why The Gambia was chosen for this project.

“The Gambia is very lucky because it is not landlocked, and ACE looked at countries that are very stable and tried to put them together to form part of a consortium. The Gambia is contributing $25 million, and the more countries contribute, the more bandwidth we get.”

 Meanwhile PURA’s former acting general director, Maleh Saine, explains the regulator’s role. “We have multiple operators and one fixed network, so the market is really saturated. In a population of 1.7 million, taking the overall GDP, you find out that telecommunications, electricity and water all mean purchasing power, which is then added to the GDP and income per capita. Now the operators have to really beat their competitors in order to get more subscribers coming to their networks. They are really fighting hard to maintain their original customers.”

Despite the toughness of this competition, senior manager public and international affairs Alex Da Costa is confident the business is viable.

“If you look at the pattern of behaviour in Africa, as opposed to many other countries, and certainly in The Gambia, people love to talk on the phone. People spend money, so therefore these companies must be making money. Otherwise they would not be here.”