|Issue:||Africa and the Middle East 2005|
|Topic:||User-friendly mobile Internet in Africa|
|Author:||Jean Marc Truong|
Jean-Marc Truong is a co-founder and co-CEO of Swapcom, in charge of the sales and business development departments. Prior to founding Swapcom, Jean-Marc worked with the CEGID software publisher group and with Ernst & Young. He travels extensively around the globe for business purposes and has visited most of the African continent. Mr Truong holds a Master’s degree in Accounting and Applied Computer Sciences.
Mobile subscribers account for 70 per cent of all telephone users in Africa – higher than anywhere in the world. There, the mobile phone culture and SMS encourages young subscribers to read and deal with digital information. Mobile business services and entertainment helps push Africa towards IT usage. Effective remote device management solutions reduce operator customer care costs and increase subscriber base data usage. Remote mobile device management facilitates service delivery including online software updates, problem correction and blacklisting of stolen devices.
With GSM coverage now extending to remote areas across Africa – otherwise deprived of reliable IT and telecoms services – mobile technology has gained popularity as rapidly as availability has spread. The sheer number of users on the street and the swift uptake of SMS as an essential element of youth culture, very much as the blue jean or filter cigarettes invaded the market as status symbols a few decades ago, is impressive. The percentage of telephone users in Africa that subscribe to mobile services is almost 70 per cent higher than anywhere in the world. In economic terms, cellular technology is an attractive option because it is cheaper for a carrier to deploy cellular antennas than to lay traditional phone lines to every house and business. Eighty per cent of Africa’s population lives in rural areas, where long range GSM antenna coverage deployed and optimised on European network infrastructure templates can compete favourably with the often ageing and unkempt landline networks. Then, too, although political hurdles have prevented investors from developing landline telephony, one notes little political opposition in GSM license attribution or in cellular operating regulations. However, the overwhelming popularity of mobile technology is largely due to the user-friendly attributes of the handset itself. Indeed, learning to use a mobile phone is not as daunting an experience as, say, using a computer. Family and peer prescription power have proven highly effective vectors in transmitting scrolling and keypad skills to otherwise tech-shy mobile phone beginners. If initial response to basic mobile data services such as SMS is anything to go by, mobile Internet could quickly become more appealing than its wired version. More sophisticated mobile multimedia is still in its early stages in the vast majority of sub-Saharan Africa. Most countries in Africa are only just now entering the second phase of GSM service management by cautiously rolling out a limited number of business-user or entertainment and data offers. Exceptions to this rule are South Africa, which has a relatively mature data market and has already acquired temporary 3G licenses, and Tunisia, whose Government has recently jumped on the 3G bandwagon by closing a deal with Alcatel to establish a UMTS pilot project. Algeria, Mali, Nigeria, Kenya, Gabon and the Ivory Coast are some examples of maturing mobile markets in African nations that could benefit from mobile data opportunities. Algeria for instance, witnessed a 250 per cent increase in the number of subscribers last year, making it the fastest growing region on the books. Partnerships between mobile operators, service providers, and software designers must address a number of technical and cultural issues facing service take-up and then make sure that customers enjoy easy and trouble-free usage of these services. Building on experience gained over the years through implementations on major mobile networks, mobile architects must adapt their software to meet challenges across Africa by automating diagnostics and embedding knowledge into operator servers, new people-shaped solutions are becoming realities. It is always interesting to witness how operators on the field go about attracting mobile data usage. For instance, in Burkina Faso, an SMS service launch was backed by a popular event-run communication drive with the Burkina rap group “Yeelen”. The carrier, Telmob, sponsored the group’s national tour and was present at each event to demonstrate its data services. The most widespread and consistent information programmes are run in Burkina via local radio awareness programmes in the major languages spoken in Burkina Faso: Dioula or Moore for example. A vocal server also caters to non-French speaking Burkina by providing a choice of languages. This is especially important as the network spreads towards the more remote villages in the east of the country. Here, following the successful take-up of low cost GSM mobile “community booths” in other regions, cellular carriers are working on the field promoting the arrival of mobile booths in areas where there is as yet neither wired nor wireless telephone coverage. In neighbouring Togo, the as yet poor understanding of technology and the low level of literacy are major drawbacks when promoting data applications. However, strong interest in the mobile phone culture is encouraging young subscribers to read and decipher digital information. Cellular carrier Togocel plays a leading role in cultivating the local SMS (Short Message Service) culture and defining trends in value-added SMS services in French-speaking Togo. Their communication campaigns still clearly have a didactic role. In Togo, as elsewhere, media campaigns aim first and foremost at familiarising customers with handset capabilities and showing them how messaging services work. Indeed, the first SMS services must be as visually explicit as possible if they are to achieve popular status. Television is therefore the ideal vector. What clever mobile service providers are actually doing is taking the fear of technology away by making it fun to use. On the Ivory Coast, SMS voting is a feature of television programmes. Elected by TV viewers, casting votes using their mobile phones, the latest winner of the popular programme “Du Coq à l’Ane” has become a star around the country at the grand age of 97! The mobile phone has become a great way for people of the Ivory Coast, and indeed in all African countries, to get to grips with new technologies. They learn how to follow a logical sequence of commands by following instructions displayed on the TV screen. By selecting the keys one, two or three and scrolling to vote, they gain confidence in their ability to use modern IT tools. Although mobile entertainment is a step towards modernising daily life, and generally pushing the African economy towards IT usage, most carriers offer community or business services too. The Orange Ivory Coast subsidiary is now plugging more useful daily services over the mobile. SMS feedback to a request about dispensing pharmacy opening hours in Abidjan for instance is one way of providing fast, relevant and up-to-date information. The keys to the success of mobile data are, therefore, ensuring that Africans can get started on mobile Internet effortlessly and helping customers avoid technical hurdles. Effective remote device management solutions have become essential now that the number of mobiles in use has grown to proportions that reach beyond simple replacement management. It is now time to look ahead and seek solutions that can reduce customer care costs for mobile operators and, at the same time, increase data usage among the entire subscriber base. One example that springs to mind is the device management lead in the relatively mature Algerian market. According to the Algerian Information and Communication Technologies Ministry, the number of mobile phone users in Algeria, with a total population of 32 million, will soar to eight million by 2005. The third GSM licence was awarded to the local Wataniya subsidiary at the end of 2003, confirming Algeria as one of the most competitive markets in the Arab World to operate in. To meet the data delivery challenges looming ahead, Wataniya Télécom Algérie promptly opted for automatic device detection and configuration on its network. As soon as an un-configured mobile device is attached to the network, the system platform triggers WAP, MMS or GPRS service settings, according to the type of mobile and customer profile. Automatic recognition of mobile phones when they connect to the network enables total control over the device inventory. Device statistics are fed into network infrastructure elements in order to provide management tools for profiling and rules-based batch management. Leveraging the acquired knowledge from the operator’s server enables carriers to deliver the most relevant and timely services to each subscriber, such as tailored handset replacement or specially targeted service promotion marketing campaigns. The device knowledge database can be employed for updating all value-added service platforms with device compatibility files. Remote updating of customer devices allows for efficient customer care of a heterogeneous base and makes sure that the phones being used stay in line with the services on offer. Customer care costs can be slashed by allowing for remote database driven maintenance. Once a phone bug is identified, customer-care agents can seamlessly correct defects, such as the all-too frequent menu-freezes, on all the affected devices present in the customer base. Another potential use of a remote device management database is the blacklisting of stolen devices. Each GSM terminal is identified by a unique International Mobile Equipment Identity (IMEI) number. Using location register data on end-user devices as they move from point to point on the network, device management software is able to map IMEI information and simplify the effective management of stolen devices. No time is wasted in blacklisting a device reported stolen, even if the IMEI number has not been provided by the customer. In a nutshell, the accumulation of mobile device knowledge is becoming essential in Africa. No feedback from customers is required for updating either entry-level or old cell phones to enabled new services, phone problems can often be fixed without a visit to the retail outlet or the operator’s customer care centre and illicit cell phone traffic can be nipped in the bud. Unlike fixed line Internet, mobile applications need to be able to reach the vast array of different terminal types on the market. In the same way that the Internet relies on high-performance database rules, the same sort of invisible software allies can make mobile multimedia as user-friendly a service as possible for users.