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Africa and LTE #1: Inbound Roamers (or tourists to you and me)

Africa is upgrading to next-generation mobile networks. Tourism is one of the reasons why.

Something amazing happened when I first went to Australia back in 1999. When the plane landed and I turned on my phone, I got a text message from Vodafone Australia welcoming me to the country and encouraging me to stay on the network. Of course now this is commonplace – but back then, it was almost magical.

Back in those days, the concept of preferring roaming partners was in its infancy. When you entered a new country, your phone would more often-than-not randomly connect to a local network. Even though I was a Vodafone UK subscriber, my phone might have randomly decided to connect to Telstra as well as several other networks as I moved in and out of coverage during my stay.

So Vodafone Australia was one of the first networks to monitor for roaming phones connecting to their network at the airport, identify Vodafone customers by looking at the phone’s MSISDN, and send them a special welcome message. (They did it in a crude, but effective way, basically nothing more than an ss7 trace running on specific base transceiver stations, or BTSs.)

What does all this have to do with Africa and LTE? The link is inbound roamers: business travelers and tourists.

Mauritius is a small island country east of Madagascar. It has a population of 1.2 million, and is one of the first few African countries to have already launched LTE—last summer. Why? Tourism. An astounding 1 million tourists are expected to visit in 2013, contributing about 10 percent of the country’s GDP.

The evolution to LTE here is not driven by locals’ need for speed, but by the opportunity to support roaming customers thereby bolstering an important source of revenue for the operator. A wealthy tourist makes a week’s worth of phone calls, and the total cost may add up to more than a year’s worth for a local resident. (Though hopefully US tourists don’t go expecting to use the LTE, as Mauritius LTE is only available on 1800 MHz, the same bands as the EU, it won’t work for US roamers unless they have a multi-band phone. See more about that here .)

The West never seems to think of Africa as being ‘next generation,’ but they’ve already done it with mobile payments. And now they’re doing it again with LTE.