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WiMAX is lever to France Telecom plans for expansion

Many of the Western European operators appear inward-looking, almost unwilling to look into overseas markets even when the latter make up the real areas of growth in the context of current global telecoms. One exception is France Telecom, currently seeking to deploy WiMAX in no fewer than 20 African countries.

WiMAX is increasingly being visualized as a means for operators from developed markets to enter emerging markets. The reasons are varied and obviously reflect the individual plans of individual companies but WiMAX can offer a foothold in developing markets without all the complexities and uncertainties of say 3G.

One highly energetic player is France Telecom's Orange in Africa, where the company is actively starting to deploy systems. For 2008, eight deployments are on the cards - and no less than 20 countries are in Orange's sights for such deployments.

The Central African Republic marks Orange's opening WIMAX system. Sub-Saharan Africa is clearly the region that Orange has chosen. As GSM is not widespread in the region it will be unrolled in tandem with WiMAX. Ultimately GSM will facilitate the arrival of 3G, sometimes to high-income subscribers before it is available as an everyday service.

Orange's next WiMAX targets are believed to be Botswana, Cameroon and Madagascar. France Telecom as a whole has been investing in several local operators in Africa under the Orange brand: operators in Botswana, Cameroon, Côte d'Ivoire, Kenya, Madagascar and Kenya are majority-held by France Telecom while 40% holdings apply in Mali, Mauritius (Cellplus is the brand here) and Senegal.

Of course, while Africa is a key area for investors in the emerging markets, the short trip from Western to Eastern Europe can bear dividends. Orange has been in recent negotiations with Synterra, an aggressively expanding Russian wholesale carrier concentrating on WiMAX. Orange's ambition is to construct and administer services in more than 1,000 locations in Russia.

Key to any co-operation between Synterra and Orange is the Virtual Network Operator (VNO) concept. This latter is regarded as a safe way to acquire steady revenue. Under the partnership with Orange, Synterra will start in Moscow, constructing small-scale WiMAX networks before transferring the networks to Orange. Orange will then rebrand the services under its Russian brand Ekvant, specialising even further as it has small and medium businesses as special targets for its expansion.

At present, negotiations continue but the aim is Orange's Ekvant branding over a Synterra backbone, with Synterra free at all times to use a guaranteed minimum of 10% of the network. Synterra has set March as the time for deal finalization.

A comment from Dmitry Ivannikov, CEO of Ekvant, reflects his company's strategy: "In the past year we have built 600 kilometers of last-mile fibre-optic. Building terrestrial wireless access networks, we focus on the use of WiMAX technology. In a number of cities, Orange has its own frequencies and we will build our own wireless networks, and in regions where frequencies do not exist, such as in the Moscow region, we will use partners."