France Telecom hopes a new deal with Chinese web giant Baidu will spur the take-up of mobile internet services in Africa and the Middle East.
The two companies have announced a partnership through which France Telecom (Paris, France) will pre-install a Baidu (Beijing, China) browser on Android devices used by customers across the Africa and Middle East regions, where it serves about 80 million customers altogether.
Facing a slowdown in the growth of revenues from voice and messaging services, the operator is looking to mobile-internet usage to help it realize a target of generating €7 billion ($9.3 billion) in emerging-market revenues in 2015 – up from just €3.4 billion in 2009.
Persuading consumers on low incomes to invest in smartphones will be a challenge, but operators in Africa believe the widespread unavailability of fixed-line connectivity has created a pent-up demand for mobile-internet access.
The Baidu browser is specifically designed for internet novices, featuring app-like icons for websites and allowing customers to view pages in text-only format and consume less data.
Under a one-year deal, the companies will first introduce an Arabic- and English-language version of the service at Mobinil (Cairo, Egypt), France Telecom’s Egyptian subsidiary, and follow up with launches in other markets over the course of 2013.
Besides introducing the Baidu browser across its existing footprint, France Telecom appears keen to build up its presence on the continent.
According to a report in the UK’s Financial Times newspaper, the operator is interested in acquiring companies in Togo, Mauritania, Burkina Faso and Gabon, has longer-term ambitions in Algeria and Ethiopia and is competing against others over a contract to manage a state-owned group in Libya.
The deal with Baidu also shows France Telecom’s willingness to collaborate with so-called ‘over-the-top’ companies whose instant-messaging and internet-telephony services have put the squeeze on operators’ traditional revenue streams.