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.