Africa’s operators say they cost their national backbone prices based on distance. The basis is that the further you want your traffic carried, the more it costs. However, this logic will soon be challenged by new, cheaper international bandwidth costs. If it costs more to send traffic from Johannesburg to Cape Town or from Lagos to Abuja than it does from any of these places to Europe, then national arbitrage will have well and truly arrived. Russell Southwood looks at what is likely to happen.
Currently SAT3 prices vary from US$1,300-8,200 per mbps per month. Volume prices in South Africa fit into the bottom end of this range. Prices have recently come down in Angola to the lower end of this range, leaving Cameroon and Gabon as the high price pirates on the route.
SEACOM and TEAMS are both saying that their cables will start operating in Kenya by Q2, 2009 and are offering prices that will probably translate into US$500-1,000 if operators pass along the savings made. On the west coast, Main One looks like being the first competitor cable to land in Q2, 2010 and will offer prices that will probably translate into prices for customers in the same range as on the east coast.
Customers are not fools
And this where the problem begins for operators. About half of Africa’s operators are offering the same bandwidth (usually up to 500 kms) for US$2,000 or more. Only a very few are below US$1,000 and some are as high as US$4,000. These prices do not take into account a series of add-ons like access charges that actually take the global prices higher. The intelligent customers might at this point be asking themselves: why are operators able to go half way round the globe for the same price they are charging me for going from the capital city to another city?
One telco in the southern African region with a monopoly gateway gets 65% of its revenues from international traffic. The impact of lower rates will rob even competitive incumbents of significant parts of their revenue. No wonder the Zambian Communications Minister (see Telecoms News below) is trying to retain Zamtel’s monopoly gateway status because the company is already loss-making with that financial advantage. But the bad news cannot be held at bay.
For the operators, pressure from customers on national backbone will become irresistible because on the basis of distance charging things will not make sense. So what can the forward-looking incumbent do?
* They need to invest in IP networks where according to Huawei and Nokia Siemens Network speakers at last week’s CRASA event (Migration Towards All-IP) IP core networks are 30-50% cheaper in CAPEX terms and 30% in OPEX terms. As vendors, they would say that, would they not? But these figures seem to accord with those of operators we have spoken to who have made all or part of this transition. Companies with all IP networks (like South Africa’s Neotel) or who have made a real beginning with this transition possess a potent advantage over those who will have to replace their core network over the next five years.
* Most incumbents are very over-staffed and the political pressure to avoid redundancies has been too great for them to avoid this core issue. Not only do they have too many staff but they have too few with the IP skills required in the future. None have any strategy for addressing this 'elephant in the room'. For many IP and analogue reside in separate departments and the former is small and not influential in corporate strategy.
One possible solution? Outsource the core network functions in the way that a small number of mobile carriers (for example Kasapa in Ghana) already have. You can insert focused management and higher levels of skills and control your cost levels. But for Government-owned incumbents this will require decisiveness and a clear understanding that your asset will slip through your hands if you do not. Bankrupt companies do not employ people for long.
For customers the prospects are more cheery. Infrastructure competition will in the medium term begin to deliver real savings if they are savvy and more demanding. There are two reasons:
* Vertically integrated mobile operators want to get into the business of providing core network. All of those we have spoken to – both those planning and those already doing it – agree that there are savings to be made in the 30-50% range. Countries as diverse as South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya and Ghana already have several core network (or infrastructure) providers. Some claim even higher savings as much depends on how protected the monopoly provider is. The challenge for customers is to point out the national arbitrage and demand better value.
* The second factor that favours customers is the arrival of alternative infrastructure providers. Power utilities already possess fibre over transmission pylons and adding more is considerably cheaper than trenching the same capacity. Over half a dozen power utilities have been either licensed directly to sell the capacity or given permission to tender to licence-holders. One of the more recent ones was Escom in Malawi which will in the not too distant future have fibre links to Mozambique. Where this has not happened, incumbents are trying to argue that this alternative capacity should be in their hands but they are probably fighting a losing battle.
In order to speed up competition in the core network at the national level, operators’ customers will have to ask two questions: what is your new international fibre costing you and how much of that saving are you passing on to me? And why is it cheaper to get my traffic to Europe than it is to transfer it around the country I live in? Best to start asking now as the excuses are bound to convoluted and lengthy.