For years VoIP services in Africa were the grey market in voice calling, which was seen as rather grubby by the mainstream operators.
VoIP came of age with widespread use of consumer apps like Skype and Viber which have continued to increase in popularity, particularly among high-end consumers. Now a corporate version of this kind of VoIP calling is being adopted by companies in Africa. Russell Southwood spoke to Marc Israel, Microsoft Office Division Director and reflects on what this means for traditional mobile operators.
Skype has millions of users in Africa, although as elsewhere the number of paying customers is much smaller. In my own experience, I tend use Skype as my main means of international calling in the office in the UK unless I get the rather prim response that "using Skype is not company policy." However, difficult or detailed negotiations remain on the fixed line.
The number of countries in Africa where a good, solid call can be conducted has increased several fold. It's not always reliable but I prefer to pay for data than expensive minutes. Calling by Skype within Africa is much patchier and harder out of certain countries. I've used Google Hang Out (with Googlers) and the quality's also very good but I somehow just don't end up using it. Old habits die hard, which only goes to show that it's people's habits that need to change.
Skype's owner Microsoft is now integrating Skype into its bundle of communications tools for consumers and has done the same for corporate customers with Lync. According to Marc Israel:"Lync is federated with Skype but each set of users can call the other."
Microsoft has been launching Office 365 with its communications module Office Online. It has already launched in Kenya and Nigeria and will soon launch in Cote d'Ivoire, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Ghana, DRC, Zambia, Senegal, Ethiopia, Rwanda and Tanzania.
But what about issues of quality that have dogged VoIP? You might be happy as a consumer to have a slightly dodgy free service but corporates clearly need something better if they are paying:"Before launching in a country, we check the bandwidth and particularly the latency on that bandwidth. Anything beyond 250 milliseconds and you don't get a quality voice call. There's a set of CODECs in Lync that will degrade a call to old phone call quality if the bandwidth's not there but we don't want to go below that."