Bharti Airtel’s Kenyan Unit to Start 3G by End-March

Bharti Airtel Ltd.’s Kenyan unit said it will start offering third-generation telecommunication services by the end of March and plans to invest 25 billion shillings ($309.6 million) in the East Africa nation this year.

“By the end of this quarter, 3G from Airtel will be available,” Airtel Kenya Ltd. Chief Executive Officer Rene Meza told reporters today in Nairobi, the capital. Most of the money that will be invested in Kenya will be spent on data services, including its so-called 3G network, he said.

Airtel Kenya, rebranded from Zain Kenya after Bharti’s $9 billion acquisition of most of Zain’s African assets in June, competes in Kenya with companies including Safaricom Ltd., the nation’s biggest mobile-phone company, and Telkom Kenya Ltd., a unit of France Telecom SA. Safaricom already operates a third-generation network, while Telkom Kenya has a license for one.

Mobile operators in Kenya are becoming more reliant on data for revenue after the industry regulator in August halved the rates that operators charge each other to connect voice calls across networks to 2.21 shillings. That triggered a round of cuts in call costs by companies to less than 2 shillings per minute and in some cases free calls during off-peak hours.

Over the past six months, Airtel added 2 million customers, bringing the total to 6 million, as minute usage tripled, Meza said. The company today cut call rates to 1 shilling per minute from 3 shillings per minute, Meza said.

“For now, our focus is not profitability, but growth in the market,” he said.

Bharti, based in New Delhi, has operations in 16 African countries with about 459 million people and a mobile customer base of 185 million people, according to Bharti’s website. Airtel had 40 million customers in those markets at the end of the second quarter, it said.