IN a push to stimulate an increase in voice revenues for local operators, in early January Morocco moved to limit access to select voice-over-internet-protocol (VoIP) services such as Viber, Skype, WhatsApp and Facebook.
The new ban, which the authorities hope will prompt a resurgence in average revenue per user rates for industry players, is part of a broader collaborative effort between the regulator and private sector to improve growth prospects, and sees Morocco follow in the footsteps of other countries in the region, including Egypt, Oman and the UAE, where such over-the-top (OTT) platforms have already been curtailed.
Over the long term, the regulator aims to encourage Moroccan operators to invest in expanding internet infrastructure to keep pace with growing demand for data services.
The ban, which applies to Morocco’s three main mobile operators – Maroc Télécom, which is majority owned by the UAE’s Etisalat; Méditel, a local affiliate of France’s Orange; and Inwi, which is owned by local company Wana – was met with protest from customers.
However, the National Agency for Telecommunications Regulations (Agence National de Réglementation des Télécommunications, ANRT) noted that the blocked VoIP services were unlicensed and failed to ‘respond to the required legal gateway’.
The push to encourage usage of domestic services – as opposed to OTT and VoIP platforms – is understandable, given the headwinds Morocco’s telcos have faced in recent years, with call volumes and revenues impacted by the surge in popularity of social media platforms and mobile apps. High-margin international calls, in particular, have suffered as Moroccan customers increasing turned to the internet for free voice and video calling.
In a report released in June, the ANRT estimated that 92.8 percent of Moroccans had Facebook accounts, while 56.7 percent had WhatsApp, 44.1 percent used Google+ and 25.1 percent were on Twitter. Some 42.1 percent of those surveyed used the internet to make phone calls and more than half used online instant messaging services.
‘The long-term challenge for the telecoms sector is the increasing competition from international actors that do not fall under the umbrella of a national regulator,’ Azdine El Mountassir Billah, CEO of the ANRT, told the Oxford Business Group (OBG).
The slowdown in revenues in Morocco has been replicated to a wide degree in emerging markets throughout the region, prompting some innovative – and collaborative – thinking by both operators and the regulator to spark renewed growth.
According to Arab Advisors Group, a Jordan-based industry research and consultancy firm, while Morocco’s pre-paid rates for services are considered to be mid-range among Arab countries, its post-paid rates rank as the lowest in the region.
In many ways, Morocco’s telecoms sector is in robust health, with overall demand rising steadily. Last year, for example, the country saw a nearly 15 percent increase in post-paid mobile subscribers. The 2009 to 2014 period also saw a marked rise in the use of mobile services, with mobile voice usage rising from 10bn to 47bn minutes between 2009 and 2014.
However, in spite of the jump in users, average revenue per minute eased by 16 percent year-on-year (y-o-y) to Dh0.27 (€0.02), continuing a downward trend. According to the ANRT, prices – particularly in the mobile voice segment – fell by nearly 75 percent between 2009 and 2014, marking a significantly steeper decline than the expected 40 percent. This has had an impact on sector-wide revenues, which slid by approximately Dh4bn (€367.1m) over the period to Dh33bn (€3bn).
As the industry regulator, the ANRT has traditionally overseen the expansion of infrastructure to facilitate nationwide coverage. However, with OTT competition on the rise, the agency has shifted its focus to helping established players adapt their business model to the changing operating environment.
Among its suggestions, the government is encouraging operators to co-invest in and share telecoms infrastructure, especially in less densely populated areas.
‘Telecoms is going through important changes worldwide,’ El Mountassir Billah told OBG. ‘In Morocco, we are particularly concerned about shrinking revenues for national operators due to a lack of new sources of data revenue. Nonetheless, there are still opportunities to be tapped in terms of expanding the internet infrastructure.’
According to El Mountassir Billah, the focus must now be on attracting new sources of revenues to help operators compensate for shrinking margins.
With a focus on monetising data services and infrastructure sharing, the industry is on track to reverse the decline seen in recent years to reach sector-wide revenues of around Dh34bn (€3.1bn) by 2018, the ANRT forecasts.
Key to achieving this is the regulator’s target of providing all citizens with broadband access, at a minimum speed of 2 Mbps, by 2022.
As of the end of 2015, there were 14.5m internet subscribers in the kingdom for a penetration rate of 42.8 percent. Internet access grew by 45.2 percent y-o-y, more than doubling the 5.77m subscribers recorded in 2013. The vast majority of subscriptions were for mobile internet, with ADSL subscribers accounting for just 7.8 percent of the total.