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5 - 11 October 2000
Issue No. 502
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Food, shelter, mobile

By Tarek Atia

Once the exclusive domain of the wealthy, Egyptians of all economic classes are now purchasing mobile phones. The two mobile phone companies, Mobinil and Click, are currently in the throes of a massive drive to get as many people to join their networks as they can, offering lines at incredibly reduced prices. Most of the sales this week have been taking place at two widely -- and wildly -- publicised parallel exhibitions at the Exhibition Fair Grounds in Nasr City and the Opera House Grounds in Gezira.

The exhibition in Nasr City is called Mobile Fair, the one at the Opera House grounds Mobile Festival. The distinction is of the utmost importance, and has been at the crux of an advertising war, which both companies say has gone "below the belt" at times.

A full-page ad with an eye-catching bright-red background that ran in the papers on Sunday, has been one of the main sources of the controversy. The ad, placed by Mobinil, proclaimed, in bold text, that "We are sorry to announce that the mobile festival at the Opera House has been cancelled and moved to the Exhibition Fair Grounds in Nasr City."

Advertising mogul Tarek Nour, representing Mobinil, told Al-Ahram Weekly that the war first began when the competition went in and reserved the Opera House grounds, where his Mobile Fair has been held for the past two years, thus pushing Mobinil to look for another venue. He says he placed the controversial ad in "self-defence" after Click placed an ad saying their fair was running for the third straight year.

For his part, Amr Afifi, head of the agency organising the Opera House Mobile Festival, said that around the world there are fairs promoting the same product going on at the same time, but that people do not resort to nasty tricks and balbala (misleading information). Afifi placed a subsequent ad two days later calling the controversial ad an example of "illegal competition," and informing readers that the fair at the Opera House was indeed going on.

MobilesClick spokesman Bahaa El-Koussy said the ad was unprecedented. "It's over the limit. You cannot place ads in the national newspapers telling people that the competitive fair is canceled."

In any case, both exhibitions have the look and feel of a cattle pen. "This is a souq, a mulid," one man said to his friend at one of the exhibitions as the line slinked towards the entrance.

It is telling that those buying the phones seem to have been brainwashed completely by the language the ads used to advertise the phones. "It's no longer a luxury," says Sabri Dayf, 20, a law student coming out of the Opera House "festival" with a phone and a line. "I work in a company that doesn't have a phone line, so it helps my family stay in contact with me."

People's reasons for choosing to go with one company or another or one fair or another range from the prizes being given away, to the number of pre-paid calling schemes, to assumptions and rumours on who has the better service and coverage.

Most people are buying the pre-paid lines, which don't tie them down to monthly bills, and let them choose how much they want to phone, albeit at higher per-minute rates.

The question now is whether the companies can handle the vast increase in subscriber numbers. Click's El-Koussy told the Weekly that "we never launch any promotion before we make sure we're ready for the boost. Our technical policy is based on projections of the customer base six months ahead." Click currently has 700,000 subscribers, divided roughly into 550,000 pre-paid and 150,000 monthly payments.

Mobinil's Press Coordinator Nelly Abdel-Hamid declined to comment on the issue of how the company plans to handle the increase in subscribers, but indicated that Mobinil now has "surpassed one million subscribers." She said the exact figures would be released later this week in the company's second quarter results. Abdel-Hamid estimates that some 250,000 people visited the Mobinil fair.

Neither company would comment on future projections for the number of subscribers. However, market analysts estimate that if prices continue to go down at current rates, five million people will have mobile phones by 2002, when the field is opened up to a third player, widely rumoured to be the partly-government owned TelecomEgypt.

The question is, will there be anyone left to join up then? If, like in the West, they start giving the phones away free with boxes of cereal and at the checkout lines at supermarkets, there just might be.

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