Battle for 4G subscribers in Cote d’Ivoire set to hot up as mobile operators get ready to roll-out – YooMee wants to be reference point for quality and speed

The battle for 4G subscribers in Cote d’Ivoire looks like it will hot up soon as the “big gorilla” operators enter the market. There’s currently a blockage but the Government and regulator think they have a plan to overcome it. Russell Southwood spoke to Yann Le Guen, Managing Director of Cote d’Ivoire’s only independent 4G provider YooMee.

Launched in 2011, YooMee in Cote d’Ivoire offers LTE in Abidjan and operates in 2300 Mhz spectrum as there is no 800 Mhz spectrum available, more of which later.

The LTE coverage in the capital city Abidjan covers roughly 80% of the population of somewhere between 5-6 million, so something like 4 million people. It is primarily a high-end consumer product but at the beginning this year it launched a B2B service offering leased line solutions on its network. This operates on its own microwave network and covers all of Abidjan.

When I ask Managing Director Yann le Guen, when it will offer LTE outside Abidjan he laughs before saying:”When we have enough money. We need more revenues in Abidjan.” It is obviously more expensive to deliver Internet outside the capital and also harder to manage things at a distance.

It offers bandwidth on a capacity basis ranging from 15GB at CFA 5,000 (US$8.37) to 100 GB at CFA60,000 (US$100.49). It used to sell USB sticks to access the service but has now gone over solely to mi-fi and a box unit. The dongle was twice as expensive as its 3G equivalent and the two other devices are somewhat closer to their 3G equivalents.

It currently has 4,000 subscribers but believes that the total market (excluding 3G subscribers) is around 160,000 customers.

Orange started by testing 4G on the route from the airport to its office and has now rolled it out in several major cities. Its difficulty is that it is not yet allowed to sell the service. MTN is also actively looking at an LTE roll-out.

Cote d’Ivoire has a very particular problem in terms of its mobile operators. It has three main players – Orange, MTN and Moov (now owned by Etisalat’s Maroc Telecom) – and three very, very small also-rans: Café Mobile (a local operator), Comium and LapGreen. Right now, Orange and MTN have a 45% market share each. The rest goes to Moov and YooMee. 

The regulator thinks that sorting 4G spectrum for all six operators would be a problem. So the Government has warned the three smallest operators that they should merge into a single operator or lose their licences. However, the ownership and investors of all three entities are so very different that this seems unlikely.

But once this issue has been solved to the satisfaction of Government and regulator, it will proceed to issue 4G licences. Orange’s roll-out seems to be a way of applying some pressure to make it happen more quickly.

So what will happen to YooMee when the “big gorillas” enter the fray?:”Orange and MTN will take a large share of the market while Moov and YooMee will be the large-scale challengers.

There is one other ISP but it is quite small. If we want to become the alternative, high quality operator we need to get 20-30% of the market.”

“The differentiation is not on technology. We are an Internet player and they are not. Our techies are only working on Internet and our customers getting the best experience from it. The other operators have 90% of all their staff focused on voice. We want to be the reference point for Internet in Cote d’Ivoire in terms of speed and quality of service.”

Earlier he had excluded 3G users from his market calculation, so I asked him how many 3G users might migrate to 4G?:”That depends on the Internet experience they get and the price. Ivorians in general have had a bad experience with the Internet. It’s been expensive and too slow so they’ve not done things like Skype and You Tube streaming. It’s been difficult for YooMee to educate the market.”

Current main uses of the Internet are traditional browsing, news and Facebook. But with 4G this starts the transition to things like streaming and video downloads. Viber and What’s App are very popular with a significant group of people:”One guy sent me a picture with What’s App. It’s more and more common.”

As elsewhere, there is already a vigorous market in pirate films circulated on USB sticks. YooMee is looking at how to do VoD, music and more general local Internet content. And again, there is the same complaint as elsewhere that with 4G your capacity runs out more quickly.

On pricing, Le Guen says there is an issue with international wholesale fibre prices which are 50% higher than in its immediate neighbour Ghana. There is a duopoly with Orange running SAT3 and MTN running WACS. The Government and regulator are supposed to be addressing the issue:”I have to pass that additional cost on to the customer.”

He also says that the cost of 4G devices is coming down rapidly as global roll-outs increase and that there will be “more and more 4G devices.”

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