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Sudan telco network still up despite escalating conflict

Reuters/Thomas Mukoya
Most Zain customer care shops remain open despite the fighting
  • Zain Sudan has given customers 100 free minutes of call time
  • Most shops continue to sell physical recharge cards and SIMs
  • Conflict has disrupted banking sector which impacts Zain’s online sales

Despite electricity outages and fuel shortages in heavily contested parts of Sudan, the telecom network of the country’s top mobile operator remains functional in most areas, a spokesman for the company’s parent firm told AGBI.

Zain Sudan, which is wholly owned by Kuwait’s Zain group, had 16.4 million subscribers and a 48 percent market share as of December 31.

The subsidiary was second only to Zain’s domestic unit in terms of earnings last year and the former Kuwaiti monopoly has major expansion plans for Sudan.

Fighting erupted between two rival blocs of Sudan’s military in mid-April following disagreements over a potential transition to civilian rule.

General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, Sudan’s de facto leader, commands one army faction, while the other – the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) – is headed by general Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo.

More than 500 civilians have been killed and nearly 440,000 people displaced, the BBC reported.

“Connectivity remains functional in most parts of Sudan at this point, and we shall do everything in our power to ensure this remains the case,” said a Zain spokesman, noting Zain Sudan has given customers 100 minutes of call time and 100 megabytes of data free of charge.

“Most of our shops are operating, except for in extremely sensitive areas. This enables the selling of physical recharge cards and SIMs.”

Sudan has been under military rule since a coup in October 2021. That ended Sudan’s transitional government, which had been in power following the fall of longstanding dictator Omar al-Bashir in 2019.

The warring factions have agreed to a seven-day ceasefire starting on May 4, although previous attempts at enforcing a truce have failed to quell the fighting.

Civilians are also having to cope with cuts to power and water supplies and food shortages.

Sudan ZainReuters/Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah
People gather to get bread during clashes between the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces and the army in Sudan

“As soon as there is a permanent ceasefire announcement, the entire network will become operational without much delay and regular operations are expected to continue,” the Zain spokesman said.

“There is no communications ban on voice or internet. All services are currently in place.”

There have been no reports of “any serious damage” to its Sudanese network, he said.

Yet electricity outages and fuel shortages have led “a number” of Zain telecom towers, mostly in Khartoum, to suffer “downtime”, the spokesman said.

The conflict has disrupted Sudan’s banking sector, which has impacted Zain Sudan’s online sales; 98 percent of its customers are on pay-as-you-go contracts.

“Airtime top-up is challenging given the problems with access to the internet, the banking system and distribution of top-up credits,” said the spokesman.

Zain has received regulatory approval to land a submarine cable at Sudan’s coast. A marine survey is now complete and the cable will likely be operational in 2024, the spokesman said.

“The turmoil might affect the cable progress as parts of the cable trunk, plus the branch, are in the Sudanese waters which will require permits from the Sudanese authorities,” he said.

“These permits will not be possible or might have excessive delays due to the situation in Sudan.”

Zain’s sale and leaseback of its Sudan telecom towers following similar deals for its infrastructure in Saudi Arabia and Iraq is on hold “until the conflict is over”, the spokesman said.

They added that Zain Sudan’s supply chain has not been disrupted, although the conflict may delay its network expansion and modernisation plans.

The company has pledged to invest $800 million over the coming five years in Sudan and expects to launch 5G services in 2025 or 2026.

Zain Sudan received a fintech licence in May 2022 and aimed to launch fintech services this year once it also obtains a digital banking licence.

“Given the challenge of providing many forms of banking services in such a conflict, we are waiting for the situation to calm down before moving forward on this matter,” the spokesman said.

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