Arab Spring could improve competition in North African markets

With tumultuous political upheaval in the wider Middle East and North African region, telecom forecasts have of course been affected, according to BMI.

Tunisia's government is being summarily replaced, while unrest in Libya has escalated into outright revolution, which is likely to develop into a protracted civil war. Algeria, too, has the potential to become caught up in this infectious desire for regime change, though the situation there was less volatile at the time of writing. Morocco, by contrast, continues to be largely unaffected.

The installation of more open and progressive governments in Tunisia and Libya would be welcomed as it would hopefully open up these markets to more competition and attract a great deal of much-needed investment from foreign companies with the technological and marketing experience needed to make broadband services more widely available.

The new regimes will hopefully see the value in accelerating tentative plans already in place to private state utilities, such as fixed network operators and key mobile network operators. Foreign investment would certainly go a long way towards assisting their economic development, but there can be no certainties just now. The new regimes leveraged the power of the mobile phone and the internet to drive their revolutions; they will just as likely crack down on those resources while they consolidate their hold on power.

The disruptions – along with the protracted renationalisation of Algerian mobile operator Djezzy and the rather swifter sequestration of the former Tunisian government's 51% stake in newcomer Orange Tunisia – mean that key data for Q410 had not been published at the time of writing. Therefore, some of the analysis is more than usually reliant on estimates and is subject to change.

What is clear is that Morocco's mobile and broadband markets grew much faster in Q410 than expected, a result of intensifying price competition and product bundling. As a result, forecasts for the mobile market have been more positive, with 35.1m subscribers expected by 2015. Broadband growth is not as strong, with adoption being driven by 3G mobile broadband uptake. The country's fixed line market continues to demonstrate fluctuating consumer interest in more traditional connections.

France Télécom recently entered the Moroccan market through the purchase of a 40% stake in mobile operator Meditel. This follows on from its launch as a 3G operator in Tunisia and, once Orascom Telecom sells its stake in Djezzy to the Algerian government, it could look to consolidate its North African footprint by making a strategic investment in the business. However, the Algerian government has proven itself to be somewhat hostile to foreign investors (viz. its persecution of Orascom over alleged unpaid taxes, amongst other things), so moving into Algeria could be a risky strategy for the French operator.

The privatisation of state-owned incumbent Tunisie Télécom will likely begin later this year, and there is still a chance that its Algerian peer, Algérie Télécom, will follow suit at some point. Along with the auctioning of 3G/4G services in Algeria, these represent the key investment opportunities in the region now that the modernisation of the Libyan telecommunications network and the listing of Libya's two existing mobile network operators seem unlikely to occur until long after the battle for control of the country is decided one way or the other.

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