Tech antitrust news: disrupting M-Pesa mobile payment monopoly? cashless NFC mandatory? Dominance of 3 tech cos

Disruption & entry — mandatory cashlessness — and collective dominance

Perhaps they don’t realise it themselves, but the journalists at ITWeb Africa have written antitrust/competition law strories in three of their recent reports, covering the rapidly growing and lucrative tech world in Africa: their stories range (in antitrust terms) from collective dominance in Africa’s tech sphere, to a challenger’s new entry in mobile payments, to a mandatory government-backed mobile NFC system for Kenyan transit commuters that allegedly causes more consumer harm than benefit by going cashless and giving the spoils all to one monopolist.

We take each in turn.

Disruption to M-Pesa’s mobile payment crown?

It looks as though the M-Pesa crown of dominance may be taken through the competitive process (and without active intervention by the competition authority) after all:

Equity Bank is about to join Airtel’s challenge to the dominant position of Safaricom Limited’s M-Pesa service (on which AAT has written extensively before).  The magazine reports that an ultra-thin SIM card technology and the Kenyan bank have reached a pact that will allow them to compete with M-Pesa’s service, on top of existing user SIM cards.

Equity Bank is “determined to challenge” Safaricom’s M-Pesa mobile money service withe help of Taiwanese headquartered Taisys, which claims that the Communications Authority of Kenya “last month tentatively gave Equity Bank the go-ahead to use thin SIMs for one year.”  Equity is reported to be the “largest bank in East Africa with almost 9 million bank accounts.”

The new technology of a “stick-on” slim-SIM card allows the user “to execute mobile banking transactions, releasing the bank from the limitations of a telco-issued banking SIM.”  Safaricom had previously complained to the authority, arguing that PIN theft and denial of service are real risks that counsel against use of new SIMs.

In other related news, second M-Pesa challenger Airtel has secured a contract with the Kenyan Revenue Service that allows Kenyan citizens to pay their taxes using Airtel’s mobile money service.
The cashless economy: is the imminent Kenyan My1963 NFC payment system anti-competitive?

In this story about Nairobi’s public transport system’s much-derided effort to go entirely cashless – dubbed “My1963” -, the magazine reports that the Consumer Federation of Kenya (Cofek) claims that the digital payment system benefits “all except the consumer”.  In Cofek’s statement (“7 reasons why Cofek will fight to stop the #My1963 PSV’s cashless payment fraud“), the federation makes seven distinct arguments against the legality of the scheme.  Two relevant criticisms from the competition-law perspective are the following:

  1. no competitive bidding process: the body alleges that, due to politicians’ ties to banking and other interests, the correct process for entertaining competitive bids was not followed in accordance with proper public procurement rules.
  2. supra-competitive (monopolistic) pricing: an “exorbitant” 3% commission is being charged by the service provider of the system, as agreed between the Kenyan National Transport Safety Authority and the banks.

Cofek also urges the Competition Authority of Kenya (CAK) to “investigate the #My1963 and entire cashless payment system with a view to finding it uncompetitive, predatory and anti-consumer and market interest” [sic].

Viber, WhatsApp, YouTube: dominant in Africa?

In its report on alleged dominance by three tech companies, the paper begins by pointing out the (some more and some less) startling statistics:

WhatsApp is the leading third-party messaging application, Viber has overtaken Skype as the leading VoIP service on several networks and YouTube is the top video streaming app. … on Africa’s mobile networks WhatsApp accounts for 7% of total traffic, while Viber has overtaken Skype as a VoIP service. Streaming video accounts for just over 6% of downstream traffic – significantly lower than North America and Europe where it accounts for more than 30%.

WAP Browsing has seen a significant decline in traffic share thanks to increased adoption of smartphones throughout the region [–Ed.: on the latter point, the journal also has an interesting separate piece, discussing the new era of WiFi connectivity in Africa].

Being called “dominant” may be a badge of honor to the sales staff, but it is a dangerous moniker when viewed by the competition-law enforcers through their monopolisation lens.  WhatsApp, Viber and YouTube (whose parent is, of course, the already dominant Google) may therefore have to begin thinking about treading more lightly in terms of their dealings with competitors on the African continent, lest they wish to prompt governmental scrutiny from the likes of the South African Competition Commission, the Kenyan Competition Authority, or COMESA’s CCC.

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