Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Ghana’s ‘new’ mobile industry; where those with muscles use them?

by Kwame Gyan

You know what they say, that competition, healthy competition that is, offers consumers the best in terms of choice, etc.

The telecom industry in Ghana has been pretty fascinating over the past 13 years. Within this period, we’ve had MOBITEL with those huge handsets that we used to call TIMBER and weapons? Then there was CELLTELL, an analogous network. Then SPACEFON came in along the line. ONETOUCH was born sometime within the period too.

Those were the times when SIM cards were sold for a million cedis and over; the days when a mobile phone was a mobile phone, regardless of how heavy, big, and if you are lucky, small it was. Most of the initial networks have grown over the years.

Acquisitions have resulted in name changes as well. CELLTELL is now KASAPA. SPACEFON first became SPACEFON-AREEBA, then AREEBA, now it is all mighty, all yellow, MTN!

MTN prides itself as the biggest telecommunications provider in Africa and the Middle East. That certainly is not in doubt. Whoever was in Ghana on the eve of August 1, 2007 could not have missed perhaps what has gone down in Ghanaian corporate industry history as the biggest outdooring ever of any brand, product or service.

Ghanaians woke to the morning of Saturday August 1, 2007 seeing Y’ello and MTN splashed all over the place. Overnight, everything Areeba (the brand name that Scancom Ghana Limited had used for its mobile network until MTN’s acquisition), had changed to MTN. Billboards, radio and TV ads, vehicles, signposts, you name it. MTN had wanted to buy every front-page of every major newspaper.

They succeeded with some, but sadly for them, the biggest selling and most influential newspaper in Ghana, Daily Graphic, resisted the mouth-watering deal offered them by MTN. Nonetheless they managed to make the frontpages of several newspapers. Simultaneous floats were also held across seven regional capitals throughout Ghana, with live concerts blasting from some prominent stations throughout the day.

The party continued with international dancehall stars Shaggy, Wayne Marshall and Marlon Asher coming down to Accra for two concerts; one, an invite-only concert at Ghana’s International Conference Centre. The other, MTN took advantage of JOY FM’s school’s reunion programme to re-outdoor MTN. (JOY FM’S schools re-union has been described as the single largest gathering of persons in the West African sub-region, and MTN paid handsomely to use JOY FM’s audience for the relaunch/concert). It did not quite end there. MTN’s logo, colours are now found everywhere, on every street corner, kiosk, just name it.

Customers naturally expected an improved service, competitive pricing and all the goodies one should expect with the entry of a big player and the pre-entry hype it had received as a result of the huge advertising and PR machinery it operates. This is not to be, at least not yet. What may perhaps be considered most embarrassing is the continual jamming of the network especially in the immediate aftermath of the outdooring. I have read it has to do with a phenomenon called system jamming.

This happens when there are not enough cell sites within a location where there are several hundreds of people trying to get through a network yes it makes sense and all, but I thought the hall mark of any major industry player was its ability to solve such problems out.

During the old schools reunion, several subscribers were simply unable to get through the network via neither calls nor text. Again, it has become uncommon now to hear the message, ‘You have dialled the wrong number, please dial again’ when you know very well you have dialled the correct number. The usual ‘The Areeba’ sorry, I meant ‘the MTN number you have dialled cannot be reached at the moment. The mobile device is either switched off or out of coverage area’. Even sending text messages has now become cumbersome. I have to send them twice before one gets sent, and if I get lucky, delivered.

So what the heck is all the noise about MTN when they really, do not have that much to offer, except pump money into advertising? The funny part is, it is sort of difficult to switch to other networks. Personally, I have two other SIM cards from Onetouch and Tigo, the other GSM providers in the country, yet, I haven’t quite been able to wean myself off MTN’s addiction. Me, like most others, find it cheaper (even though MTN’s rates are not the cheapest in the country), to reach the chunk of my contacts most of whom are on the MTN network. Others raise the subject of MTN being funky, but really, so are the others, even CDMA provider, Kasapa.

When giants with huge financial muscles like MTN hit the market, I think it is fair subscribers, the media, telecommunications policy makers and watch dogs pay particular attention to a number of issues. Paramount among them is the question; are they practising fair trade? Do we risk burying other competitors because of the monumental financial strength of the player?

How and why do subscribers not make their important voices heard? After all it is the 70 Pesewas right through to the 16 Ghana Cedis credits we buy to send a text or place a call which rakes in their money for them. Excuse me, but to hell with the sponsorship packages, I dare say; the Ghanaian deserves the best, does he not? The media seems tongue-tied when it comes to raising legitimate concerns about MTN? Why? Because the owners of the media will tell you MTN is their biggest corporate sponsor and they cannot and will not do anything which may embarrass them.

But of course, in a country where there seems to be no strong public or state broadcaster who will not be depending largely on corporate bodies to finance their programming, what else do you expect. Let’s take television. A lot of programmes on Metro TV are strongly backed by MTN; their sports programmes, reality TV shows, just name them. Same story goes for TV3. Their Music Music entertainment show flies on the wings of MTN, the many soaps they air, etc. And GTV too, the so-called Station of the Nation. If MTN is the life-blood of all of them, why won’t they keep mute. Same story can be told about radio stations. Those who do not benefit from MTN have such insignificant listenership base that MTN probably cares less what they say.

Why will I not come close to forgetting Ghana’s National Communications Authority, the mandatory institution set aside to referee the industry? We hear most often from them when issues of releasing frequencies arise. But clearly, after these, they sink into their comforting oblivion without giving a hoot to the airwaves above and about them. Perhaps if they got their act together we’d be fine and not worry too much about interconnectivity issues, non-competitive rates and a completely abysmal service delivery.

I love competition. It tends to sharpen a person and makes him better. Competition also offers whoever may be concerned an opportunity to choose the best on offer. But I believe and even love most, fair and healthy competition where the winner is the consumer and not the huge multinational with turnovers ten or more times bigger than the gross domestic product of many countries in Africa.

Kwame Gyan, BA. The writer is currently a Broadcast Journalist with the BBC’s number one radio station for West Africa, JOY 99.7 FM in Accra, Ghana. He had before then worked in a similar position at another Accra based station, CITI 97.3FM. He is awaiting his Master of Arts degree in Communication Studies from the University of Ghana. He obtained his Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Science and Psychology from the same University.


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