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MTN unveils its first OTT service and roadmap for digital fortunes

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MTN has announced the acquisition of music streaming platform Simfy at AfricaCom and outlined the future of the telco, which doesn’t look very much like a telco anymore.

This is of course a slightly unfair statement, as the mission of connecting the unconnected millions across Africa will continue to be a top priority for the business, though CEO Rob Shuter highlighted the team have much bigger ambitions when it comes to maintaining relevance in the digital economy. The Simfy acquisition is just one step in the quest to morph MTN into a digital services business.

Speaking during the keynote sessions at AfricaCom, Shuter highlighted there are still major challenges when it comes to connectivity in Africa, though telcos need to look deeper into how these challenges can be solved. The most simple roadblock is a lack of connectivity across the continent, but when networks are being deployed, telcos need to understand how consumers are engaging with the connected world. A good place to look first and foremost is China.

“Our mission is not just about connecting people, but understanding what the users want to use the internet for, so we can build networks properly,” said Shuter. “When we look at China today, that will be Africa in the next two to three years.”

Looking at how consumers use connectivity in China starts to paint a picture. Media takes up 17% of time of devices, while communications and social media takes up 33%. Shopping and payments account for 16%, and gaming takes up 11%. For MTN to be relevant in the future, Shuter has ambitions to create a presence in each of these segments.

To capitalise on payments and shopping, the mobile money offering will be revamped and launched in South Africa during Q1 2019. Nigeria has also just changed its regulatory regime when it comes to mobile money, and Shuter said the team would be applying for a payments service license over the next month, with plans to launch a mobile money offering in Q2 2019. This is a big moment for MTN, as while the mobile money offering has been present for some time, this is the first venture into its two largest markets.

For Shuter, creating a digital services company has two components. Using connectivity as a platform, a comprehensive partnerships programme has been launched in four main verticals (communications, rich media services, mobile financial services and eCommerce) with the team working with various established players in the ecosystem, but MTN also have to push itself further up the value chain and offer its own competitive products. This is where Simfy fits in.

As a music subscription product, customers will be able to merge both connectivity and music payments onto the same bill, but Simfy will not be incorporated into the greater MTN business from an operational perspective. Simfy will continue to operate a separate entity, allowing it to maintain the OTT environment. Shuter highlighted he would not want the corporate and operational structure of a telco, completely unsuited to the OTT landscape, to impact Simfy’s operations.

On the financial services side, the team will make use of MTN’s scale to establish a more prominent footprint. With a user base of 24 million already, this number seems to be doubling every 18 months. The significantly larger mobile subscription base can be used to springboard the mobile money business north, as Shuter highlighted the distribution network is key. When customers come to top-up their airtime or data allowance, they can also deposit cash into digital wallets. It is convergence at its finest, though leaning on Orange’s ambitions to diversify out of the traditional telco playground.

There are still huge challenges from a connectivity perspective across the African continent, but MTN seems to recognise there is more to be excited about than simply collecting subscriptions. If the Simfy acquisition is to be taken as evidence of MTN’s future roadmap, this looks like it could be a case of convergence done right, not allowing the cumbersome, archaic telco machine to muddy the OTT waters.

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