Friday, April 11, 2008

The Cellphone Wars: Part 3

It was the middle of the dry season. The sun was hot, life was slow, and thrilling rumors were circulating in the Gambia about a new cellphone company. These rumors were made up of hushed, fragmentary words whispered in back rooms all over the country - words like: "brothers", and "blood feud", and "fight to the death". As the weeks progressed, the rumors started to get a little less amorphous, and even began to resemble certain facts in the real world: a certain building, made largely of glass, on Kairaba Avenue (situated about two minutes down from the Africell building); large truck-fuls of boxed equipment delivered to this building in broad daylight; page after page of job ads in the papers. The job ads gave a name to the company: Comium. The rumors gave a backstory: the founder of Africell - the rumors ran - had a brother with whom he had originally begun the venture. Once, they had been friends. Then they had fallen out, becoming involved in a bitter feud, and the second brother had split off from the first to form his own cellphone company. And, as he had left his brother, he had vowed to follow him into every country he went, forming a rival cellphone company and stealing the market from him. The rumors - as rumors tend to go - were not very clear about the reason for the feud. The company itself was remarkably tight-lipped about everything - except for the job ads there was no further communication from them to the general public.

Finally they launched - a glitzy media event attended by the President himself, and quite a number of other important persons. As usual, new features were promised, the network was lauded as the best ever in the country, customers were told they would be more satisfied than they ever had been. Within a month of opening, Comium had introduced free late night calls, running from 12am to 6am every day, between Comium subscribers. This was almost as big an event for teenagers* as the Gamcell free SMS had been - they bought comium lines in hordes, having three- and four-way chats that lasted all night. "What's your Comium?" suddenly became the hip teenage phrase. Whilst it certainly made Comium's SIM cards get bought, on closer examination it wasn't as big a coup as Gamcell's free SMS had been - most of these teenagers did not use their Comium lines as primary phone lines, only putting them in at night for the free calls, and removing them again the next morning to go back to their Gamcell and Africell lines, which were the lines they actually spent money on. Every night, Comium's network and resources were used by thousands of yakking teenagers, who did not buy credit**, or give anything back to Comium in exchange. Comium had not really been involved in as extensive a marketing campaign as Africell, at the start. But now it found itself having to compete for attention just as much as the other networks, in order to get paying customers.

And so the cellphone wars began in earnest. Both Gamcell and Africell started offering late-night phone calls for their customers. Gamcell offered a "friends list", which allowed you to call your friends for less, or even free. Comium started an MMS service, allowing you to send pictures and other media files to phones***. Africell put up even more billboards, and started a radio program where you could get a new SIM card simply by calling up and saying something cheesy about them. Gamcell took people on pilgrimages to Mecca and Rome, and gave out food during the Ramadan. Africell gave away a car. Comium started radio and TV programs, and gave away money and cars. Africell got a young, local singer to do all their jingles for them. Gamcell got a young, local singer to do all their jingles for them ("Nancy Nanz")****. Africell hired even more young models for their (incresingly-sophisticated) ads. Gamcell started hiring young models for their ads*****. Africell offered cars as prizes. Gamcell offered cars as prizes. Africell offered free international phone calls for a day******. Comium offered cars as prizes. Comium offered a million dalasis. After thinking about it for a bit, Africell offered ten million dalasis.

This is the current state of the cellphone market. In the end, one starts to feel that all this money spent on marketing could perhaps have been spent on, e.g., making the cellphone networks better, and more inter-operable******* and charging less for calls. This would not bring immediate returns on investment, like the endless marketing does - Gambians, like everyone else, like their shiny things and their instant gratification - but in the long run it would have far more of a positive impact on communications in the Gambia.

The other problem is that the country's cellphone market is simply too small to fully support three different cellphone networks. Not too be too melodramatic about it, but one will have to die, eventually. Which of the three that one will be is still entirely undecided, and will depend greatly on the decisions they make now, and how much of the market they capture.

* most adults won't stay up that late, given the responsibilities of the adult world, even for free phone calls

** Funnily enough, this was made possible by another Comium feature - you could own a line forever and not have to buy credit.

*** SMS only allowed you to send black and white pictures and text. MMS allowed full color - even snapshots taken on your phone a moment before. It - perhaps due to the lesser market penetration of Comium, and the fact that the majority of phones in the country are not MMS-capable - has not caught on as much as SMS has.

**** Nancy Nanz, unlike the Africell jingle-girl, went on to launch her own pop career, releasing an album and becoming a local celebrity.

***** Comium, right from the beginning, used foreign-looking models with too much make-up on their faces for their billboards, making it hard to identify with a Comium ad ("hmmm...there's something wrong with her face - I wonder what it is") as compared to, e.g., an Africell one ("hai! It's Musa Balajo d! Didn't know he did Africell ads") (the bracketed being the thoughts of someone looking first at a Comium ad, then an Africell one). This has started to change recently.

****** you had to go to Africell HQ, and stand in a long line with other people, grumbling about how the person currently hogging the line was rude and selfish to not give other people a chance

******* There is currently a Government body, PURA (the Public Utilities Regulation Authority) which forces the cellphone companies to play nice. Nice here meaning the thing you do when you passionately hate your little cousin, and get the greatest pleasure from hitting his pasty snot-face, but your Mum and Uncle are sitting there, so you smile (more a grimace really), and gently pat him on the back, all the while thinking what you'd like to do to him. It's still prohibitively expensive to make inter-network calls, and SMSes sent between networks are not even guaranteed to get there until like 24 hours later.


  1. "The other problem is that the country's cellphone market is simply too small to fully support three different cellphone networks."

    I don't know about that, eventually, the companies will focus on not only getting as many customers as they can, but finding creative ways of having these customers pay for different services.

    Network A might have waaay more customers than network B, but if network B finds a way to get 90% of all their customers breaking bread consistently, I dont think they'll be calling it quits because the market is small.

    The more competing companies you have, the better it is for the people. Hmmm... maybe there needs to be one more cell phone company :-)

  2. Hmmm... thinking of opening one? :-)Services don't work as well as you'd think - even the ones that're being provided free right now are not getting that many takers - so when it comes right down to it people only do calls and SMS, for which they have to buy credits, which is what the companies at this point are directly competing for. Given that there is only a finite amount of money to be used for buying credits, one company's loss is another one's gain, and so the bigger one company's subscriber base (and number of people buying credits) grows the smaller the others' do, until they are so small
    they are no longer profitable. So you might want to hold out on opening up a new one just yet, until we see where this is going.

  3. You are right. Most companies do not plan for the future.. too busy tackling today's problems not thinking of tomorrow. "typical Gambian way of thinking". Each and every one of them wants to have the highest number of users but most of the users are only getting the sims for "the cars and 10 million dalasis" after that they might probably never see the sim cards again. Or maybe SPs are willing to continue with such incentives. well Gamcell will be coming up with a 20 million dalasis draw for buying a 20 dalasis scratch card. :).
    The future is "better network". Comium VPN facility is really cool maybe all they need to do is expand on that and they will get all corporations. We use it at my work place. It is cheaper using a VPN. Fix monthly rate when calling members of the VPN group.

  4. I hear you Amran, but if calls and sms are the only services the people are willing to use, thats a failure on the part of the companies to provide services that people actually want to use. I'm sure there was a time when someone would have said "The people dont need sms service, they will be only using the phones to talk". The MMS is a smart move because its anticipating the future (Camera phones, smart phones, etc).

    The companies also need to start thinking about creative ways (Well I'm sure they already are lol) of getting businesses (especially the small ones) to leverage their networks.

    The cell phone industry is still young in the country and I'm pretty optimistic that the people will eventually start using other services more (its simply up to the companies to provide these services)

  5. Hey Asem - I didn't know about the VPN thing - got any more info about it? Is it actual secure, encrypted voice communications, or is this some other type of VPN?

    sjobe - definitely agree with you. Like the Internet/Computer industry, the cellphone one is just starting up, and I'm sure there's loads of good things ahead. Just as soon as the present companies get out of the marketing rut they are in at the moment (or at least come up with more productive marketing than just giving away increasingly large amounts of cash).

  6. I am not sure how secure it is but this is how the VPN works.. Let's say me you and sjobe are within the same group and we decided to join the vpn, instead of dialing those long 7 integers we just be dialing 3 integers and no matter how long we talk over the phone we will stay pay the same amount.

    Anyway i will find out more about it. the security issues and all that crap!!