France Telecom and Baidu to provide mobile web access on low-end smartphones in African markets

An interesting one this. Like Britain, Italy, Germany, Belgium and Portugal and Spain, France was once a major colonial power in parts of Africa and French influence remains strong in several countries around the continent.

Indeed, with its 'Orange' mobile services subsidiary , France's incumbent national operator, France Telecom (FT), is the third-biggest mobile operator in Africa and already has has more than 80 million subscribers.

The new Baidu-engineered web browser app will come pre-loaded on Android-based handsets sold in-country by FT's Orange operators. For those consumers not on Orange networks or without links or affiliations to France Telecom, the self-same web-browser app will be available as an Android download.

FT's rationale is that the low data transfer speeds that pertain on many African mobile networks make it very difficult to support the sort of web access now becoming routinely available in the more developed parts of the world, hence the partnership with Baidu to provide consumers with access to a sub-set of part of the Internet.

The system works by significantly compressing the amount of data that is currently needed when gaining access to and browsing popular social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter and thus takes a load off already stretched network infrastructure. Basically it is a form of direct bookmark access to a given site via a "one touch" screen icon.

The agreement with Baidu covers 19 countries and, currently, is exclusive for a single year but could be extended if it proves successful - and there's no apparent reason why it shouldn't. After all, Baidu is massively successful and popular back home in China and the company is very keen to parlay its Android expertise into market incursions in other parts of the world. Thus it acknowledges that the partnership with FT will be "one of our biggest strategic moves to date outside our home market."

This fits neatly with FT's avowed ambition to be the operator in Africa that will be the first to provide its customers with their first experience of mobile data and the mobile Internet. FT's intent is to double it's 'emerging markets' revenues to €7 billion by 2015 and so is focusing much of its immediate efforts on increasing its penetration in Francophone markets in West African countries including Burkina Faso, Gabon, Mauritania, Senegal and Togo. In the longer term, FT wants to up the ante in Algeria, Ethiopia, Libya and Algeria.

However, the new web app will be available first in Egypt.

Commenting on the strategic agreement with Biadu, Xavier Perret, head of partnerships at Orange said, "It is our intent to make the mobile internet [in Africa] as ubiquitous as possible as fast as possible. We have partnered with Baidu because it has helped mobile networks in in its home market of China to cope there with the switch from basic mobiles to low-end smartphones". That same shift is now well-underway in Africa.

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