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The mobile phone industry is rapidly gaining a foothold in increasing pockets of every country, whether economically rich or poor, and Madagascar is no exception. Investments in cell tower constructions surprise some when it appears that an area may be too rural, or remote to warrant an operation of that scale.
It makes a little more sense when you assess the long-term competition and how difficult it will be to provide superior network coverage in an area when a rival has land rights to the patch of land on the only tall hill in the region. Sometimes it makes sense to get in there early, despite the initial loss of revenue. In fact, it offers some countries an added advantage of being able to skip over expensive investments and maintenance of under or overground cables for telecommunications. As landlines slip closer to redundancy the pressure to install them dwindles and mobile communications pick up the slack (at the cost of less availability for other telecommunication services that rely on cabling such as high speed internet, etc.)
The priority of being available to contact and be contacted 24/7 is so high for the global population that it often surpasses sensible budgeting or means. Expensive handsets and call rates have filtered into every echelon of society and the demand is only continuing to grow. There are still those who will pay a neighbour for use of their phone or avail of an entrepreneur who stands in the cool shade of a building and allows use of their attached phone with an added cut for themselves.
Lack of electricity is no barrier to phone ownership when stalls are set up on street corners offering to charge and guard any phone for a price. And you will find all of this in Madagascar where local operators compete with French and Indian giants to become the messenger of choice for the millions of words and pictures shared around the red island each day.
Madagascar's international dialling code is +261.
As this guide is written entirely for tourists and visitors I won't even touch on securing a bill or contract—no mobile operator would entertain the idea anyway. Just go with prepay, which is topped up by using scratch cards or through a transaction with a stall operator who can transfer credit to a phone number. It varies from area to area but expect to be purchasing credit as scratch cards for whichever operator you choose. Should a stall owner ask for your number or need your phone for a moment, at least you now know it's also a legitimate method.
Roaming agreements are in place with some of the larger international operators but it's still a gamble unless you know in advance. My European Vodafone SIM card was recognised by Airtel on arrival but a travel companion's smaller, local operator had no agreements and was not able to roam. Few (if any?) international operators will have agreements with Malagasy operators that won't cost you a fortune to do just about anything on your phone so I recommend purchasing a local SIM card—this can be done in the airport on arrival.
My home operator's ability to roam did give peace of mind that I'd an extra means of communication on a second network in some emergencies (I wasn't using an Airtel SIM as my primary one). It also meant I could be contacted by my bank if their fraud department needed to contact me about international transactions on my card. Frustratingly, their pride at their new automated fraudulent activity system meant they could no longer flag that I would be in Madagascar for a period of time and waive concern over multiple transactions there. Instead, they gushed that they could simply phone me if they were seeking permission to unblock a card they had just blocked, despite my protests that I may not be able to receive any calls on the number they had for me during my time in Madagascar. Oh, progress...
Mobile coverage throughout Madagascar is predictable enough in that it's pretty good in cities and big towns, decreases the further out you get, and can be affected significantly by hilly or mountainous landscapes.
What's less predictable is coverage in villages just outside cities or busier national parks. You will encounter unexpected full 4G signals as well as a complete lack of signal due to unfortunate (in this context) positioning of a hill or forest. Residents may come to know a certain spot as the place to walk to to get signal and catch up with the day's news from further afield.
Operator choice becomes a more crucial factor in these more isolated, unpredictable spots where one provider may be the only one to offer a slight bit of coverage. If you'll be based primarily in one spot it may be worth checking who the favoured provider is in advance if you're in a position to make such an enquiry. Besides a better chance of getting signal, you'll find others in the area are with that provider and the bundle-effect comes in to play (see below).
I never experienced or heard of any operator offering an obvious and dominating coverage advantage over their competitors, just experiences of seeing one offering better signal in the context of small areas and this continued to vary. I think this is a familiar situation to any country but something that affects tourists more than residents when they need to make a quick choice and may be stuck with the consequences.
4G has to be certified to some degree but I've found that 4G speeds in one country are not the same as in another. At the same time, it may be faster than you think if you're in one of the main cities and, to be honest, I find it incredible that invisible internet on tiny colour-tv phones exists in the first place.
Outside of cities it's potluck and you could have hours of nothing or surprise bouts of good 4G in the middle of nowhere. There's certainly enough signal throughout the country to likely be able to find what you need on the road before reaching your destination.
Madagascar loves its phone bundles. All of the operators offer lower rates on calls, texts and internet data for a set period of time if you give up a certain amount of the credit you just purchased.
It can be tough to gauge if it's worth giving up x amount of credit on the chance you'll make enough calls or texts in one evening to make it worth your while. Fortunately, some offers are only valid for one day so you can enable them on the basis of actually needing them at that moment. Even better, if you're making even a single phone call that's usually enough to make the bundle cost effective after a minute or two.
The country's passion for phone bundles has led to a lot of companies and individuals listing multiple network numbers to contact them on as some are hesitant to ring a number they can't avail of a low network-to-network saving with.
If it's not obvious or you've never used prepaid bundles before, you're required to first purchase and add credit to your phone. Once that's activated,you choose a bundle plan or rate by dialling the number associated with it. The cost of the bundle is then deducted from the credit you have remaining and you use whatever benefits the bundle offers.
Telecom Madagascar is the country's national operator and, perhaps, its most prominent. They're a little vague on when they actually set themselves up, having been a national infrastructure project that both helped to establish their competition and compete against them. Telma can be traced back to the first phone line in Madagascar, in 1896, and through to the first international call being made in 1971. The company was privatised and became a fully fledged commercial operator of landlines in 2004, and mobiles in 2006.
Telma Mora is Telma's most popular range of bundles for calls, texts and data and is worth checking by tourists who won't necessarily be making calls every day. You can add a day long bundle on a need-to-use basis. A single phone call over a few minutes long is usually enough to make this cost effective.
I also recommend that those with smartphones pick up a 30 day Telma Net Bundle which allows you not to worry about time limits or allowances for messaging apps like WhatsApp for the duration of your stay. 500mb is only [MGA15000] and will cover average WhatsApp usage and occasional panic searches fine. Ever optimistic, Telma provide a 150gb option for those who think they'll have good enough signal and nothing to do for 30 days. They also feel that [MGA429000] is a good price for this experience, yeesh.
Telma M'Ora and Telma Net bundles can be combined without one interfering or resetting the other.
Orange, the French telecom operator, publicly launched in Madagascar as Antaris in 1998. It was re-branded Orange Madagascar in 2003.
Orange's most popular range of bundles, Orange Be, varies its rates from Telma's enough that consumer's actually have a decent choice of buying a bundle that suits their different habits rather than choosing between a lot of the same.
Airtel only took on the name in 2010 following an acquisition by Zain. It began in 1997 under the name Madacom and was rebranded to Celtel from 2006.