Etisalat unit Canartel expects Sudan mobile licence

Company aims to be Sudan's second operator after setting up fixed-line network.

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By  Alastair Sharp Published  October 15, 2008

Sudan's second fixed-line telecom operator said on Wednesday it was confident of securing a mobile operating licence by the end of the year, and was looking to expand its fixed-line operations into Darfur and southern Sudan.

The mobile licence will cost "in the hundreds of millions [of dollars]", Mohammed Bouhelal, chief corporate affairs officer for Canartel, told newswire Reuters on the sidelines of a telecoms conference. "[The decision] is now at a very high level. It should be announced by Etisalat soon," Bouhelal said.

Canartel, majority-owned by Etisalat of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), entered the Sudanese market in 2006 as the first direct competition to Sudatel , in which the Sudanese government retains a 26 percent stake.

Bouhelal said Canartel has about 250,000 subscribers and capacity for 1 million.

The UAE is the second-largest investor in Sudan, after China, and this has given Canartel a strong bargaining position for the mobile licence.

Bouhelal said the company would quickly catch up to the established mobile operators in Sudan by taking advantage of its position under the Etisalat umbrella to offer roaming deals to Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

"When the Sudanese uses our service, he will be able to take his phone to Haj in Mecca, to go shopping in Dubai and to take his vacation in Egypt," he said.

Mobile penetration in Sudan is estimated to be 30 percent, and Bouhelal expects that to grow to at least 60 percent in the next two years. Independent estimates have targeted 8 million users in the medium term.

The company's existing fixed-line operations are also set to grow, with the firm looking to invest at least $50 million creating infrastructure and establishing a presence in the Darfur region of western Sudan and the semi-autonomous south.

"By the end of the year, we hope to be in El Fasher and Nyala, as well as El Geneina and Zalingei," Bouhelal said, noting that peacekeepers there have a need for better communication.

The four towns are in Darfur, where the United Nations and African Union have deployed troops in an attempt to keep peace between the government and Darfuri rebels.

"We are in the south, in Rumbek, and will be moving to Wau and then Juba before the end of the year," he said.

"The future is going to be there. There is good business in the south, but it is a question of time," he said, noting the large natural resources, including oil, and an expected influx of $2.5 billion in aid.

Revenue from wholesale and international services make up 70 percent of Canartel's profits, which have grown by 27 percent this year, Bouhelal said, without giving figures.

Bouhelal said he was confident Sudan's political troubles would not hinder the firm's expansion west and south, and that in fact his product could help to promote harmony.

"I think there has been a communication problem in Sudan," Bouhelal said.

"First of all people should come to a table to discuss things, but communications will also help people to do business together and create mutual interest."

Etisalat took control of Canartel in 2008 by almost doubling its stake in the company to 82 percent. (Reuters)

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