Tuesday 21 July 2020

Central African Republic (CAR) to get more 3G, Open RAN and possibly some 4G

Persistent conflict has hampered telecommunication and media development in the Central African Republic. Potential  for growth is significant as the penetration rate remains low, (lowest penetration rate in Central Africa with 22%), and still affected by the country’s challenges such strong inflation and infrastructure deficiency due to the conflict.

Due to the fact that it is a landlocked country there is no scope investment in broadband networks and access to cross-border submarine cables. Mobile, however, is more optimistic with a reasonable level of competition, given the challenges.

There are four mobile operators in the country; MOOV, which launched in 2005 and is a subsidiary of Morocco Telecom; TELECEL, the oldest operator in the market, having launched in 1996, a subsidiary of South Africa-headquartered Econet:Wireless, AZUR, which launched in 2004 and is owned by a private Congolese group;and Orange, the latest market entrant, launched in 2007, a subsidiary of Orange France.

According to data collected directly from mobile operators and the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority, as of April 2019, the total number of active mobile telephone subscribers in the Central African Republic is 1,228,554 for an estimated population of 4.5 million. This represents a penetration rate of about 27 percent. According to this data, Telecel, which covers about 60 cities (the 50 percent of the market share), is the largest mobile network provider with 618,391 active subscribers, followed by Orange with 501,181 (in about 50 cities), Moov with 65,588 and Azur with 43,394.

Moov operates 2G GSM services over the 900 MHz band. Currently no 3G UMTS or 4G LTE services are available. The company began operations in 2005 then owned by Atlantic Telecom, only to be acquired by Etisalat shortly after. In 2014 Maroc Telecom took over Etisalat's West African operations comprising of its subsidiaries in Benin, Ivory Coast, Gabon, Niger, the Central African Republic and Togo.

Telecel Centrafrique is operating since 1996 and operates 2G GSM services over the 900 MHz band and 3G UMTS over B1 (2100 MHz). The company is the first and oldest mobile carrier in the country. Then owner Orascom (controlled by GTH/Vimpelcom), initiated a sale of Telecel to Niel Telecom in 2013 only for the deal to fall through due to inadequate financing. Orascom finalised the sale in October 2014 to Econet Wireless.

Azur RCA is a mobile carrier owned by Congolese businessman Jean Bruno Obambi (previously Bintel), operating in the Central African Republic (Centrafrique). Azur also present in Gabon, Congo, and Somaliland (under the NationLink brand). The company began operations in June 2004 operating under the NationLink Telecom name, and today has about 85,000 subscribers across 18 cities of the CAR. The company's Centrafrique headquarters is located in Bangui. The company operates 2G GSM services over the 900 MHz band, and 3G UMTS (HSPA+) over the B1 (2100 MHz) band. Due to the ongoing humanitarian crisis in the CAR, groups such as Emergency Telecommunications Cluster (ETC) have been assisting local carriers with maintenance and repair.

Orange Centrafrique is the second largest mobile carrier and the most recent company to join the market. The company operates 2G GSM services over the 900 and 1800 MHz bands, and launched 3G UMTS over the B1 (2100 MHz) band in 2013, with coverage mainly limited to urban areas. It has provided the four main cities of the country with mobile data services through its positioning in offers to companies, organizations and international military forces. In addition, Orange is the only operator to provide mobile payment services since it launched its Orange Money offer in 2016. Orange also provides WiMAX services in some regions.

According to Mobile World Live, Orange Centrafrique became the latest operator to throw weight behind Open RAN technology, inking a deal with vendor Parallel Wireless and infrastructure company i engineering group to deploy software-based networking equipment for its unit in the Central African Republic.

The agreement is part of Orange’s Include Digital in Every African Life (IDEAL) scheme, which aims to provide access to digital services to unconnected users across its African footprint.

A statement from Parallel Wireless suggested the small country of Central African Republic (its population is less than 5 million) will be the first of a number of open RAN deployments for Orange in Africa.

Orange MEA CTIO Herve Suquet said the use of virtualisation, open RAN and automation would help the company in its ambition to lead the Central African Republic market.

It plans to provide voice, data and mobile money services already available in urban parts of the country to rural areas.

A software-based approach to the network is partly intended to ease expansion and introduction of new services.

“Being able to run 2G and 3G on the same system today and, as our customers upgrade their devices to 4G in the future, seamlessly upgrade to 4G will help us not only extend our initial investment, but also bring new services much faster,” Suquet said.

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