London — According to a report in Le Potentiel Online, Minister of Posts, Telephones, New Information and Communication Technologies (PT-NTIC), Amy Ambatob announced at the end of February that 4G licences would be published within days. This has turned out to be a bit optimistic but changes are already under way in the market. Russell Southwood looks at how those changes are affecting the market.
At a meeting with operators at the end of February Minister of Posts, Telephones, New Information and Communication Technologies (PT-NTIC), Amy Ambatobe asked both Congolese consumers and operators to be patient. He said that licences would be issued within a few days and be based on objective criteria.
The catch?:" "As for the 4G mobile phone license whose frequencies must be freed at the end of the DTT migration process, we envisage its sale according to objective criteria ..." There is little sign of DRC completing the digital transition in broadcasting very quickly so the better frequencies may take some time to come through.
On a related matter of some importance, the state and extent of the country's fibre backbone, Amy Ambatobe announced the Government's determination to contribute to the "reliability of what exists and the continuation of the implementation of this infrastructure throughout the national territory".
But as Shalini Moodley, CEO of local digital agency Metro Group told us:"The pipe's not stable. It comes from a mixture of fibre and satellite and the latter have dropped their prices. We have the highest data prices in the world but it's cheaper than it was 3 years ago."
The Minister also promised that the .cd domain would be repatriated, the Government was going to computerize its services, the launch of a Universal Telecommunications and Post Service Fund, a DRC satellite project and a digital transition in broadcasting.
Regulator ARCEP has a good data report that shows that there are now 4.79 million mobile subscribers. There are two key players - MTN (which has 50% of the market) and Airtel. But although the ARCEP report has voice and SMS stats in great detail, there is nothing covering Internet users or data, a real omission in light of the changes described below.
None of the promised improvements mean that DRC is about to enter a state of digital nirvana but changes are definitely under way. Consumers are beginning to use online services at a volume that would not have been thought possible 3-5 years ago. Shalini Moodley, CEO, Metro Group caught the wave:" :"We started when 3G started and the market was getting access to the Internet but there was no local Internet content."
Its entertainment website now attracts 200,000 uniques a week and is supported by leading brands like Samsung, Vodacom, Shoprite and Ecobank. 85% of those uniques come from mobile phones (largely smartphones) and 60-70% are from the youth segment.
In order to grow the website, the team had to acquire skills in using social media and buying online advertising on Facebook and Google. The brands who advertised on the website noticed they had these skills and started to ask them to do things.
"The first thing we did was a CSR project for Samsung, a campaign to promote awareness about ebola in social networks. We built a Facebook app for them so people could participate, using viral content." This led on to more digital campaigns for other clients including Ecobank (for its Cash Express card), RAN Bank and Shoprite.
People have got used to the idea that places like Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa are now large online markets. But perhaps it comes as more of a surprise that DRC is now becoming another of these larger African online markets. Moodley says that there are 2.7 million Facebook users and that Instagram is becoming very popular with an estimated 100,000 users, though not all are active. LinkedIn and Twitter have much smaller numbers:"the most used apps are Facebook, Instagram. You Tube and Twitter."
Moodley sees several signs of changes in behavior in the key youth segment:"They are much more engaged and watch TV series and music. A lot of youths register for online design courses and some of our designers have come to us from that route. Access has grown exceptionally. They have access to the outside world. When I worked on the telecoms side, I could see the data side was growing. They were hungry for data."
But there are still no online services like Jumia and Uber, which are found in the other developing African online markets:"It may be that we're not getting enough online traffic and there are so many logistics obstacle. Mobile money is not well used yet and the market still needs to be educated."
DRC is a huge country and most of what I've written about above is happening largely in Kinshasa. The country has almost no roads but the number of Internet users is steadily increasing in other large cities like Goma and Lubumbashi. One day DRC will join the list of large African online markets.