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South Sudan's mobile players scale back operations in face of civil unrest
Following a referendum, oil-rich South Sudan seceded from Sudan in 2011and became an independent nation. Having been deprived of investment for decades, it inherited one of the least developed telecommunications and internet markets in the world, while other infrastructure is also lamentably poor. Although this potentially can create investment opportunities for infrastructure and service providers, such developments largely depend on a negotiated end to the protracted civil war which erupted in December 2013, and which has caused considerable mayhem and bloodshed, particularly in the oil-producing areas. While the struggle continues, and many international workers have sought sanctuary in UN bases across the country, investors in all economic sectors have been discouraged.
There was once investment activity among mobile network operators who sought to expand their networks in some areas of the country, but by late 2016 both Zain South Sudan and MTN South Sudan had cut back their workforces in a bid to save on operating costs, while their falling subscriber bases have strained revenue, with Zain South Sudan in particular recording dire financial losses in 2015 and for the first half of 2016. Operators in the telecom sector, as in other markets, are placing themselves in survival mode and hoping for a political settlement and a return to some degree of social stability.
At only around 23% penetration, one of the lowest in Africa, South Sudan's mobile market has many years of strong growth ahead of it. The virtually untapped internet and broadband market will kick off once the country gains access to international fibre optic cables and a national backbone network is put in place. Sophisticated infrastructure solutions are needed to reach the 80% of the population that live outside of the main urban centres. With a negligible rate of bank account ownership, mobile payment and banking solutions are set to dominate the country's financial services sector as well.
The limits to growth are currently defined by widespread poverty and a low literacy rate, but the government recognises the positive feedback loop on development that access to information and communication technologies (ICT) can have and is providing a range of investment incentives. The international community has provided $4 billion in aid to strengthen governance and institutions in the young nation.
MTN South Sudan adjusts to deteriorating market conditions; Zain South Sudan reports significant losses into 2016, reduces workforce; South Sudan joins the One Network Area scheme, removing international roaming charges for calls between Uganda; construction of a $25 million fibre link between Kenya and South Sudan gets under way, with completion expected in early 2017; government revisits plan to build 1,600km fibre network to connect to submarine cables via Uganda and Tanzania; Kenyan telecom regulator helping South Sudan develop ICT regulation; Kenya and South Sudan begin work on new World Bank-funded terrestrial fibre cable; government forms national committee to speed up designing and building the national backbone, considers setting up the National Communications Authority (NCA) to oversee the telecoms sector; mobile banking solutions set to revolutionise the largely cash-based economy.
Market penetration rates in South Sudan's telecoms sector 2016 (e)
Penetration of telecoms services: | Penetration
Mobile SIM (population) | 23%
Companies mentioned in this report:
Zain, Vivacell (Network of the World; NOW); MTN; Gemtel Green Network (G Telecom; LAP Green); Sudatel; Sudani; Canar Telecom (Canartel, Etisalat); fastNet; RCS Communication; iBurst; Thuraya; Yahsat; O3b Networks; Fujairah Media Group (FMG); Equity Bank.
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