Telecom firms draw battle lines as race for subscribers heats up again

The battle lines for subscribers have been drawn by local telecom services providers as the race for clients hits fever pitch. Innovation and offering cheap services seem to be part of the winning chip.
An MTN worker attends to a customer. Most rural people don’t have phones. The New Times / T. Kisambira
An MTN worker attends to a customer. Most rural people don’t have phones. The New Times / T. Kisambira

The battle lines for subscribers have been drawn by local telecom services providers as the race for clients hits fever pitch. Innovation and offering cheap services seem to be part of the winning chip.

According to Ebenezer Asante, the MTN Rwanda chief executive officer, deploying low cost infrastructure could help boost these figures, especially attracting the rural folks to own phones “as services will be cheaper since telecoms will incur low costs,” he said.

Asante, however, noted that though Rwanda has the lowest call rates in the region and Africa generally, the local telecom sector faces a big challenge in attracting the ‘small’ subscribers.

“We need creative solutions, innovative network deployment and different business models to be able to serve these customers (those in the lower bracket). It is important to understand that the same solutions that were used to serve the first two thirds may not be attractive to this group of customers,” he explained.

October statistics from Rwanda Utilities Regulatory Agency (RURA) show that the subscription rate is improving, with 63.7 per cent of the population having access to a mobile phone.

The figures, accounting for subscription recorded from January up to end of September, show that mobile telephone penetration increased from 5.9 million subscribers (55.1 per cent) in January to 6.7m or 63.7 per cent in September.

Pioneer telecom firm MTN still leads with 3,636,976 subscribers followed by Tigo at 2,099,807 subscribers, while Airtel had 973,000 subscribers.

But all the three telecom firms are upbeat that they will attract more subscribers. They argue that a new wave of applications and ‘mash-ups’ of services, driven by high-speed networks, social networking, online crowd sourcing and innovation, will help them achieve this target. Mobile phones are increasingly being used to carry out financial services, which has transformed the lives of the rural masses. They are also using different client-targeted promotions to entice subscribers.

Last week, both Airtel and MTN unveiled drives that are meant to reward customers. Airtel on Friday launched its Airtel SIM Pack offer dubbed “Simukadi y’Igitangaza”.

The pack, which is priced at Rwf500, comes with a wealth of free goodies, including a welcome bonus of airtime that can be used to call Airtel and other networks, surf the Internet and free text messages.

“We are pleased to announce this new offer gives new Airtel customers the opportunity to choose a pack and plans that best meet their needs,” said Marcellin Paluku, the Airtel Rwanda managing director.

MTN, on the other hand, launched its “MTN Zone Reloaded” promotion, where by clients will be calling for as low as Rwf1 per minute.

Tigo Rwanda’s public relations and events manager, Pierre Kayitana, said the firm has several talk time promotions that allow users pay for as low as Rwf1 per minute, but the usual on-net rate is Rwf25 per minute.

“Customers are availed with all these ‘vuga packs’ promotions so at the end of the day he or she chooses which one to go for,” he said.

“This is encouraging because it eases development process in terms of communication when doing business on phone and keeping in touch with peers,” said David Gatete, an electronics and telecommunications engineering student at Kigali Institute of Science and Technology.

Gatete said Rwanda should not look at mobile phones as a technology, but rather as a solution to social and economic challenges.

Sector experts believe that the growing competition brought about by these promotions are good for customers as they will opt for what best suits their lifestyle.

Promotion or no promotion, the battle for subscribers rages on as each telecom firm tries to dominate the sector.

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