IMPROVING COMMUNICATION WITH CRISIS-AFFECTED COMMUNITIES
Mobile telephone use is widespread and increasing rapidly.
Roughly one in four people in Niger own a mobile handset.
According to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), there were 3.8 million mobile subscribers in Niger in 2010.
That gave the country a mobile penetration rate of 24.5%.
The country has four mobile phone companies – Airtel, Sahelcom, Orange and Moov.
They provide good network coverage in the more densely populated south and west of Niger.
But in the sparsely populated desert north there is scarcely any mobile network coverage east of the main road from Zinder to Agadez, Arlit and the Algerian frontier.
Sahelcom, which boasts the largest mobile network, claimed on its website in 2012 that it covered 65% of the population of Niger and 45% of the country’s land area.
Mobile phone usage has exploded over the past decade, although it still lags behind neighbouring Nigeria, where the mobile penetration rate reached 55% in 2010.
Most people either own a phone or have access to one through a friend or family member.
Niger is one of the world’s poorest countries, so voice calls are kept short to minimise the cost.
Those who can read and write use text messages to cut the cost of communication still further.
Mobiles are widely used by families to stay in touch with relatives who have left home to find work in other countries.
Many of those who have left to seek better opportunities elsewhere send home remittances.
Airtel and Orange both offer mobile money transfer services. These allow credit to be sent instantly to a recipient’s phone. It can then be redeemed for cash at a local paying agent.
In 2010, the Irish aid agency Concern launched a pilot project to distribute cash to beneficiaries in Niger by mobile money transfer.
State-owned Sahelcom has the most extensive mobile network coverage, but its three private sector rivals are not far behind.
Airtel is the most popular network, with an estimated 800,000 to a million SIM cards sold by late 2011.
The landline network in Niger is very patchy and mainly restricted to the big cities. It is operated by the formerly state owned telephone company Sonitel.
It was privatised in 2001 and is now majority owned by Chinese and Libyan investors.
Government offices, large businesses and humanitarian agencies usually have landline phones, but most ordinary people do not.
According to the ITU there were only 83,592 fixed line telephone subscribers in Niger in 2010 – one for every 200 people.
The internet network in Niger is improving, but from a very low base.
According to the ITU only 0.83 per 100 inhabitants used the internet in 2010 – roughly 120,000 people.
Niger has one of the lowest internet usage rates in the world.
In neighbouring Nigeria, by way of contrast, 28.5% of the population used the internet in 2010, according to the ITU.
In Niger, internet usage is restricted to educated and relatively affluent people in the main cities.
It is virtually unheard of in rural communities.
Most people access the internet at work or from internet cafes.
The number of home subscriptions is very low. A home internet link costs upwards of $25,000 CFA francs (US$50) per month.
Sahelcom provides the fastest and most reliable internet connections, particularly in Niamey.
The state-owned company has a fibre optic cable to Benin which is linked to a submarine fibre optic cable that runs along the coast of West Africa.
It redistributes the internet to other service providers in Niger, including the other three mobile phone companies, by V-Sat.
Internet access is slower and less reliable outside the capital.
Mobile connections to the internet are available, but few people can afford them.
The mobile network appears quite robust. Most mobile towers have their own generator.
Sahelcom has, on occasion, broadcast SMS messages to its subscribers on behalf of aid agencies.
However, only 28% of the population can read and write. Illiteracy is much higher in the countryside than in the main towns, so the impact of such messages on the wider population may be limited.
A BBC World Service audience survey in 2008 found that 9% of adults listened to the radio on their mobile phones.
Equal Access has worked with Orange and Airtel to develop systems that allow radio listeners to send text messages and recorded voice messages to radio stations, so that their voices and concerns can be heard on interactive radio phone-in shows.
Mobile call charges are relatively expensive by African standards.
A pre-paid voice call to a subscriber on the same network typically costs 75 to 100 CFA francs (15 to 20 US cents) per minute.
Calls to subscribers on other networks cost 150 francs (30 US cents) per minute.
However, a variety of discount deals are available.
Moov, for example, offers calls to five favourite numbers at the reduced rate of 50 CFA francs (10 US cents) per minute.
SMS messages cost between 10 and 25 CFA francs (2 to 5 US cents) each.