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Saturday, August 16, 2008

Quick thoughts on Tunisia mobile & Internet

I've just got back from a week in Tunisia (hence the lack of posts). While I make a point of avoiding "work" as much as possible when I'm on holiday, I do keep an eye out for anything interesting mobile-wise.

I've spent most of the time in the coastal town of Hammamet, which attracts a mix of local North African (Tunisian & Algerian) & European tourists. I also spent a couple of days in the capital Tunis and elsewhere. For those that haven't visited the country, it's sort of "mid-table" in terms of economy and wealth - roughly on a par with emerging parts of Europe like Macedonia or Albania, or Latin American states like Peru and Ecuador, and a bit higher than China's average (but without quite the same urban/rural polarity).

The first thing to note is that both my phones (one on O2 and the other on 3) failed to access data roaming at all. Ordinary GSM voice & SMS worked fine, but with both steered towards the Tunisiana network, I couldn't even get GPRS access or WAP to work. Maybe there was some fiddling-about I could have done with APNs on the phones, but frankly I really wasn't that bothered to make the effort. In any case, the networks are only 2G - although the shops are full of 3G phones, as people seem to like high-end devices for other reasons.

As in much of the developing world, the main business model seems to be separate purchase of unlocked phones and SIM cards / top-ups. Phones are sold in air-conditioned & modern retail outlets (I saw a full range from basic $40 devices up to $1000+ smartphones), but SIMs/topups are sold everywhere from tiny grocery shops to travel agencies.

Apparently I could have got a prepaid data SIM, but that seemed like too much enthusiasm (and a temptation to remain "connected" when I'm supposed to be relaxing). Instead I turned my phones off, except for about 10 mins a day to check any personal SMS's and voicemails, and also made a 10-minute trip to one of the Internet shops to check my email on a proper screen. If you never switch your phone off except for when you're flying, you should try it sometime for a couple of days - highly therapeutic!

Interestingly, I didn't see any evidence at all of local people using mobile data. No people obviously using handset browsers. Apart from the airport, I saw no BlackBerries. All the numerous mobile advertising hoardings I saw focused on voice and SMS promotions. The Internet shops had a fair number of locals (young and old), and I saw a lot of advertising for ADSL services. In Tunisia at least, the oft-repeated concept of "first usage of Internet on a mobile phone" seems to be clearly untrue at the moment.


Steve O said...

Hi Dean,

Interesting post but you have made a bit of an assumption here. In fact packet switched services are not only available in Tunisia to Tunisians but also to UK roamers - if your operator has bothered to launch. Unlike you I subscribe to T-Mobile who do have a data roaming agreement with Tunisiana (http://www.t-mobile.co.uk/services/going-abroad/details-by-country/tunisia/networks/) which meant my Blackberry did work when I was out there. In fact it looks like T-Mobile is the only UK operator with data roaming there - not suprising since from past experience they have more data roamign than any other UK network and tend to launch both mainstream and more "obscure" destination ahead of their competitors - one reason why I stick with them.

Dean Bubley said...

Hi Steve

Thanks for this. Yes, now you mention it, I think I saw a couple of BlackBerry users as I got off the plane in Tunis.

To be honest though, not having data roaming made me realise how much better holidays are when you switch off your phone.

I'm actually a bit annoyed that I even took the device with me at all - in the past, I've just left my phone in a drawer at home & gone to the airport. Takes 24hrs to get used to be disconnected, but then it's just fantastic.