Tonderai Rutsito Techspot
DURING the past few weeks I have been focusing on providing tips on what to look out for when choosing an Internet Service Provider. Some of the issues I have identified include the size of your Internet needs, the speed offered, network’s reliability and the cost. In my quest to help you
choose the best possible ISP provider, I had an interview with a TelOne official two weeks ago and my focus this week is on Africom, one of Zimbabwe’s Internet Service Providers, offering a converged network service.
I caught up with Africom’s public relations executive, Mrs Rukudzo Mapondera, and sales manager Mr Martin Shoko to get an insight into the company’s services and products.
Tonderai Rutsito (TR): What is Africom?
Martin Shoko (MS): Africom is an Internet Access Provider in Zimbabwe, which has been in existence for well over 15 years and is also a converged telecoms provider.
TR: When you say converged, what do you mean?
MS: We are offering telephony, Internet, messaging, media and enterprise wide collaboration, were we make sure that people are reachable through a single device be it a fixed or a mobile device and that has been in existence for 15 years now.
TR: I was under the impression that Africom only came on to the scene in 2001. So what has been happening during the past 15 years?
MS: We started off as Kingcomms and during that period we were not yet an Internet Access Provider. We were only offering other ICT service. We became an Internet Access Provider in 2001 and at the same time changed our name to Africom.
TR: Are you an Internet Service Provider or Internet Access Provider?
Rukudzo Mapondera (RM): Well, we are both. We do wholesale Internet as an IAP but also function as an ISP because we do break bulk our services but down the chain we do have a lot of ISPs that we sell our bandwidth to.
TR: So what exactly are you offering the users out there or in other words what can they expect from you?
MS: We have what we call wholesale were we sell bandwidth to other ISP who later distribute it whichever way they want. We also have the broadband or 3G, which we sell Internet dongle and offer mobile services. Then we have the fixed communication services for corporates. We offer what we term the critical mission to banks, Government, hospitals, etc.
TR: Looks like you are covering all modes of communication. Are you on wired or wireless backbone, how are you delivering these services?
MS: Yes, we got the fibre optic line, we have got the Wimax and we also have the fixed Wimax16d and mobile WiMax 16e, but fibre is now the chief Internet gateway in Zimbabwe.
RM: Remember we are the first company in Zimbabwe to run a VSAT hub satellite, this we use to reach people in remote areas where cable or Wimax cannot reach. We have got the CDMA technology now, which is working on our mobile broadband, the 3G and the dongles.
TR: What are the specific services that you are offering and what is your target market?
MS: We work from a solution map, we offer enterprise voice, thus Voice over IP and Voice over Broadband, enterprise data for private data network, VPN the WAN and LANS and the Internet access.
RM: We also offer cloud computing facility mainly for data recovery purposes and we do host the back-up files on our site where we either manage for the clients or they do their own managing.
TR: Most people today relate the dongle with you, is it still popular? What makes it special?
MS: Yes, it has been popular, that’s from our consumer market, we launched it in September 2010 when we started mobile broadband, remember it came when the broadband Internet supply was still dry in Zimbabwe.
TR: Are there any other products that you have on offer?
MS: Yes. For the past two years we have introduced another gadget which is getting very popular, our mobile landline phone, it can work as your Internet dongle as well. It receives and sends messages. It receives FM radio, has an alarm and a very good battery.
RM: We also have an Instant Multimedia System which one can use to make local and internal calls. Its a much smarter VoIP structure with the capability of making even video calls, port them from your landline even when you are not in Zimbabwe so long as you are online you can call anyone at these cheap rates. So long as you have our IMS number international calls are borderless.
TR: Can most Zimbabweans afford it?
MS: Currently, we have this on promotion, at only US$39, if you have your landline. Our prices are also very low, local calls are costing six cents within Africom network per minute and outside our network its 12 cents per minute. This then means we are offering the cheapest voice calls compared to other voice players.
TR: You are currently making waves in the market with the US$10 that you are charging per month for unlimited calls. Can you shed more light on this?
RM: That’s another very interesting promotion that we are running, so long as one buys the US$10 airtime, you can even sleep on the phone if you want with no extra charges within our Africom network. However, if you want to call other numbers you can still do that at the rate of 12 cents per minute.
TR: What is your current subscriber base in the areas you are covering?
RM: We are slightly above 50 000 and we cover most cities and towns around Zimbabwe
TR: 50 000 is a lot, is this emanating from the data or its voice?
RM: We can’t separate that since we are converged but for about eight months since we launched the voice it’s been growing tremendously and, of course, the voice is the main mover at above 50 percent.
TR: What happened to your US$18 package? It remained constant for over a year and we were happy and then suddenly you increased it to US$25.
MS: We did explain when we launched it that it was promotion but I guess it went on for too long until it no longer looked like a promotion, but as a service validation we had to increase the charge to improve our service and meet costs.
TR: What are your minimum and maximum connectivity speeds like and are they area bound?
MS: CDMA minimum is 64 kilobytes per second and the maximum is 3.1 megabytes per second and in a certain areas like the Central Business District we can guarantee between 64 and 92 kbps, Wimax maximum is 1mbps and we can guarantee any speed below 1mbps.
TR: But the dongle speed has deteriorated yet the price has gone up and it seems to be the norm with every ISP in Zimbabwe?
MS: Our speeds go up to 3.1mbps. Initially the network had little activity to keep speeds above expectations. Expansion has begun for the affected areas to keep committed information rate above 128kbps and we also have other bureaucratic processes hampering development.
TR: Let us talk of the bureaucracy and policymakers, recently the Postal and Tele-communications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe indicated that it would compel players in the sector to share infrastructure. What does this mean to Africom and maybe explain to our readers what exactly needs to be shared here and how can the end user benefit?
MS: We were already sharing infrastructure before the enforcement started. The sharing of infrastructure is in different facets and depends on a number of factors, it could mean sharing the backbone, which is your last mile or sharing maybe just the towers. Definitely this is good news for the users and national penetration rates, we will all move faster. The resources that are being spent on duplication are reduced on the part of the service pro-vider.
TR: Will this not only promote laziness and benefit new players since some might want to wait and only come into areas where other players have already invested hence cutting down their own costs?
RM: Well, that is a genuine concern and some players may take advantage of that but in business we do have different areas of interest so at times you might end up going it alone in some areas and others where some follow your lead.
MS: There are also circumstances where we decide to go into a certain area collectively and we pool our resources to achieve this, which is very encouraging too.
TR: So does this mean that there will be an increase in coverage in the country soon and the end of monopolies by service providers in certain areas?
MS: The rollout plans, strategies will differ, total coverage is attainable but equal coverage definitely not, it depends upon other resources and focus differs. For instance, we are not primarily voice providers and our movement in that areas will thus be slower than that of our voice competitors.
TR: You have a strong inclination towards voice products, are you going to be a mobile cellphone operator in the near future?
MS: We are a converged network that is our strength we have no ambitions of being a mobile cellphone operator, not now or in the future.
TR: You do not usually market your products, some are hidden, low-end handsets could dramatically change your presence in the market because these will transform the way people communicate but your handsets are either expensive or not available?
MS: We fully acknowledge that we need to improve on our marketing but we do have smartphones for low-end users.
TR: Recently there were reports of boardroom squabbles within your organisation. How has this affected your operations?
MS: (laughs) Those are rumours, pure rumours we have not had boardroom squabbles.
TR: Speaking of rumours, word doing the rounds is that Africom is a proxy of Econet and in some circles it is a proxy of Government. What is your comment?
MS: Some of these rumours I’m hearing them now. Of course, we may share infrastructure here and there like I said. However, in terms of the fibre optic we ran our own mile to the undersea cable and have direct access via our own satellite hub.
The writer is a computing specialist with Technomag, More on http://tech.co.zw, Facebook http://facebook.com/technomagzw , twitter @technomagzw. Email email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org.