London — At the end of last month, three new ISPs launched in Senegal. Arc Informatique's Mohsen Chirara has waited over twenty years for this point and spoke to me about his long-term vision and current plans.
Mohsen Chirara's Arc Informatique has been around as a Senegalese ISP since 1996:"We started up with a dial-up service and then moved on to ADSL. Our licence didn't allow us to build infrastructure so we worked with existing telcos like Sonatel." In fact Arc Informatique ended up in the corporate niche and was Senegal's only surviving ISP.
In 2016, with a new President in power, Arc Informatique's luck changed. Regulator ARTP issued a call for 10-year broadband licences and it was selected along with two other operators, Africa Access and Waw. The license given is technology agnostic and allows Arc's newly created subsidiary Arc Telecoms, to do both LTE and fibre. In the first instance, it has deployed LTE-TDD in 2.3 GHz.
"This was the reward for waiting over twenty years to be a full ISP with the ability to build its own infrastructure and last mile transport. We were the only ISP left but we always believed that this moment would come. Our motivation is we're here to secure this vision and transform people's lives through technology. ICT is both a necessity and a commodity. It's extremely exciting to be part of the ecosystem now."
Initial announced monthly prices are as follows: 4 Mega (FCFA 18,900/US$35.41); 8 Mega (FCFA 28,900/US$54) and 12 Mega (FCFA 33,900/US$64.34). All offers are unlimited and each has a FCFA 35, 400 (US$66.14) set-up charge.
Arc telecoms will address both the enterprise and residential markets but Chirara told me:"We're not here to compete directly with the mobile operators." The licence is a national one but comes with geographic coverage obligations.
Arc Informatique will need to meet coverage targets in the regions of Louga, Saint-Louis, Fatick, Kaolack and Kaffrine, while Africa Access's footprint will cover areas in Ziguinchor, Sedhiou, Kolda and Matam, in addition to the Dakar region. Phase 1 of the roll-out is in Dakar which is already being implemented and the rest of the regions will follow in 2018. Depending on the density of customers, he's looking at somewhere between 40-50 base stations.
"We will be offering connectivity in rural areas as well as Dakar. The challenge is the transport to and from these areas. The idea is to use the infrastructure available to us via the teleco. It's the only way we can bring the prices down." In the future, there is talk of there being an infrastructure operator selling wholesale capacity only that will serve the ISPs and MNOs. The regulator is also driving a process of unbundling ADSL. A pilot will be carried out in June after which there will be a national roll-out:"This will also enable us to reach the regions."
But given the state of the market, doesn't this put your fate in the hands of Sonatel who are still very dominant in the market?:"For transport, we can use Sonatel but the other MNOs are also building their own infrastructure. It's not yet clear what the (wholesale) ADSL pricing will be. It needs to be a win-win situation."
He's expecting to be able to sell to tens of thousands of subscribers, given that it is a fixed rather than a mobile product:"We have to be realistic. There are 1.8 million households in Senegal and those who can afford the service are probably somewhere between 700,000-1 million people at most. There are 300,000 landlines, of which 100,000 are existing ADSL customers. So the fixed internet market is probably something like 100,000-150,000 households."
It will provide mobile connectivity by setting up Wi-Fi hotspots in the more popular areas:"We want to service customers through whatever medium is available to them." On the enterprise side, it will use premium services and seek to expand from its existing base, working with a systems integrator to go beyond just offering connectivity.
So who's the competition?:"MNOs like Sonatel, Tigo and Expresso. They've not waited for us to lower their prices. Sonatel has already lowered prices and is rolling out fibre in the key areas. It will be offering more 3G and 4G coverage and FTTH/FTTX. We are also doing that on a smaller scale in Dakar. There's also the two other ISPs who were selected alongside us."
However, Arc and the other two ISPs will not be head-to-head nationally as each has different target coverage areas. For example, Waw has to cover Thies, Diourbel, Tambacounda and Kedougou and says it will put up 200 LTE masts. All three ISPs are locally owned.
"For me, the ISP business is supported by my vision. You cannot do that if you have a mindset of making a massive investment and then need to get a return in 3 years. I've waited 20 years. I'm very much involved in the revision of the telecoms code in order to make our environment interesting and structured enough to have actors like us. The vision has to be beyond Arc. We're building something for Senegal and the region. We have a presence in Mali and a new partner in Togo, Teolis. You have to have a long-term vision."