France's Orange SA expects rapid customer and revenue growth in Iraq, where it holds a 20 percent stake in mobile operator Korek, as it gears up for a 3G license expected early next year, a senior official said.
Mobile telephone penetration is relatively high at around 78 percent of Iraq's population of 33 million, but only about 2 percent has access to broadband, analysts say.
Most rely on 2G mobile services, giving them access to only basic web connectivity on handsets, while fixed-line Internet is costly and unreliable.
"We have just reached five million customers two weeks ago (in Iraq), so business is booming and we are now working on the next step that will be the 3G licence," Marc Rennard, Orange's executive vice president for Africa, the Middle East and Asia told Reuters.
"It depends on the government and regulatory authorities but we hope it will be beginning of 2014," he said on the sidelines of an African telecoms conference in Cape Town.
"To send an email, to send a photo or be connected to Facebook, to Google, to all the applications, you need at least 3G," said Rennard.
"We don't want to publish our objectives for next year or the year after, but there is still room for huge growth in Iraq in terms of number of customers and also in terms of revenues," he said.
Orange has units in about 20 countries in the Middle East and Africa and said in January it aimed to double its annual revenue in emerging markets to 7 billion euros by 2015.
The company, which bought the Korek stake two years ago, already had a presence in the north of Iraq in the Kurdistan region, but the acquisition allowed it to make inroads in and around the capital Baghdad and the northern city of Mosul.
It competes against Zain Iraq, a unit of Kuwait's Zain and Qatar Telecom subsidiary Asiacell.
"In Iraq two years ago it was less than 2 million customers, so we got this dramatic increase from the south and part of it from the north," Rennard said.
He also struck an optimistic tone about developments in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where Orange has acquired local operator CCT and rolled out 3G infrastructure.
"In the future, if you project 10 years it will be probably one of the most important countries in the Orange group. It will be close to Egypt," Rennard said. The company has around 32 million customers in Egypt.