Thursday 18 May 2023

Little Appetite for 5G in Burundi with 4G/LTE Continuing Gaining Ground

Burundi, a small landlocked country in East Africa, has a rapidly growing mobile market with several operators competing for customers. While the country faces some challenges in terms of infrastructure and regulatory issues, the state of mobile operators in Burundi is generally positive, with reliable coverage and a range of services available to customers. 

Burundi is among those countries in Africa which largely depend on mobile networks for voice and data services. There is little in the way of fixed-line infrastructure outside the main towns, and most investment has been earmarked to improve the quality of mobile services and the reach of LTE networks rather than on extending the reach of fixed-line telecoms. Investment in national fibre networks generally supports mobile backhaul rather than fixed broadband services.

Almost all mobile subscribers are prepaid: there were only about 7,250 contract subscribers in late 2021, accounting for 0.1% of the total.

The number of mobile subscribers increased sharply in 2021, year-on-year, reaching about 8.1 million. As with the increase in the number of subscribers, the various different communication requirements which have resulted from restrictions aimed at controlling the pandemic since 2020 has resulted in a significant increase in voice traffic. The average number of voice minutes increased 25% between the fourth quarter of 2020 and the third quarter of 2021, while the number of SMS sent increased 50%.

There are four main mobile operators in Burundi: Econet Leo, Onatel, Lumitel, and Smart Burundi. Each of these operators offers a range of services including voice, messaging, and mobile data. As of the first quarter of 2022, the Burundian telecom market had 7,798,885 subscribers shared among these four operators.

Econet Leo was the first mobile operator to launch in Burundi in 2003. The company is a subsidiary of Econet Wireless International, a telecommunications group based in South Africa. Econet Leo has been able to establish itself as one of the leading mobile operators in Burundi due to its extensive network coverage and affordable pricing.  The operator provides standard 2G GSM services over 900 and 1800 MHz, and launched 3G UMTS services in July 2011. In March 2017 Econet Leo switched on 4G LTE over the B3 (1800 MHz) band initially in the capital Bujumbura and was slowly rolling out across the nation.

Lumitel is a relatively new player in the Burundian mobile market, having launched in 2015. The company is owned by Viettel, a Vietnamese multinational telecommunications company. Despite being a new entrant, Lumitel launched the first 4G/LTE network simultaneously in six provinces of the country in 2016 covering the core central parts of Bujumbura, Gitega, Ngozi, Rumonge Makamba and Muyinga. They have been able to rapidly expand network coverage and had approximately 3 million subscribers as of 2021.

Onatel is another major player in the Burundian mobile market. The company was founded in 1978 and was initially a state-owned telecommunications provider. However, in 2006, Onatel was partially privatized, and Vivendi, a French multinational media conglomerate, acquired a 51% stake in the company. They offer mobile services under the brand name "Tempo" and provide a range of services including voice, messaging, and mobile data. The company has an extensive network coverage, with its services available in all provinces of Burundi. In addition to mobile services, Onatel also offers fixed-line and internet services to its customers.

Smart Burundi is the fourth mobile operator in Burundi, having launched in 2019. The company is a subsidiary of Smart Africa, a pan-African telecommunications company. Smart Burundi has been able to establish itself in the market by offering affordable pricing and a range of innovative services. 

However the Agency for Regulation and Control of Telecoms (Agence de Regulation et de Controle des Telecommunications, ARCT) in Burundi has reportedly shut down Smart Burundi over its failure to settle its tax arrears and the expiration of its operating licence on 27 July. The ARCT requested Smart to cease all operations on 18 August at which point it reputedly owed around USD3.2 million in arrears. Further, the regulator noted that whilst Smart had filed to have its licence renewed in March this year, its failure ‘to provide the certificate of non-accountability requested by the Burundian Revenue Office which must confirm that the telecom company owes nothing to the tax authorities’ meant that its concession subsequently lapsed.

Overall, the Burundian mobile market is competitive, with each of the four main operators offering a range of services at affordable prices. The government of Burundi has also taken steps to improve the country's telecommunications infrastructure, including investing in fiber-optic networks and promoting the deployment of 4G technology. With continued investment in infrastructure and the rollout of 5G technology, the Burundian mobile market is poised for further growth and innovation in the years ahead.

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