News, views and commentary from the telecoms sector across emerging markets and developing countries worldwide

Friday, 18 December 2009

Something to Grin about for Malawi's mobile users?

Tay Grin - star of the African hip hop scene... and Malawi's mobile sector?

It is not with any pleasure that DevelopingTelecomsWatch sometimes observes a country's mobile market and concludes that one of more of its competing cellcos surely seems doomed to fall by the wayside. All such enterprises are doubtless founded in good faith and with the firm intention to reward investors and employees for providing services to customers who will want them. A somewhat recurrent theme of this blog, however, in its first year, has been to wonder aloud about likely market consolidations around the world, and to speculate a little about which actors might be shaken out in any such eventuality.

In March, DTW picked up comments on this topic from MTN CEO Phuthuma Nhleko, spotted in a Financial Times article. Nhleko was quoted as saying that he believes Africa will see a wave of telco sector consolidation in the next 1-2 years, and the article contended that this will result from both new entrants and more established competitors struggling to maintain healthy margins in increasingly crowded markets.

Shortly after this, DTW took a look at some examples of particularly congested competitive environments in Africa, starting with Benin, the continent's 31st largest country in terms of the size of its population. We noted that five mobile operators now compete in a country of just 8 million people.

In the same month, DTW articles asked about the potential for mobile market consolidation in Burundi and in Gabon. By June, the same questions was being asked of Tanzania. A related post the same month zeroed in on Malawi, which might be something of a different case.

In that piece, it was noted that this under-penetrated market (still only 17.47% mobile penetration as of end-December 2009, according to WCIS) may offer a decent opportunity for a new entrant. At present, a duopoly exists, with the country's mobile subscriber base split between Zain's Malawi operation and Telekom Networks Malawi, a cellco in which the country's incumbent fixed line operator Malawi Telecommunications owns a 44% stake. Market share now (as of end-Dec 2009) is as follows: Zain 71.34%; TNM 28.66% (estimated figures, again from WCIS).

The June article on Malawi noted that country's telecoms regulator felt that the services offered by these two operators were at a price point which did not offer a fair deal to consumers. Zain responded by blaming high tariffs on high taxes. The market-leading operator also claimed that as the overall mobile market grows in Malawi, it will be able to lower prices. Zain Malawi's Managing Director Fayaz King explained: "Imagine at Zain, we have mounted a network that could take up to 5 million users but we currently have only 1.5 million customers. We believe that if at least 3 million people started using the Zain network, we could start enjoying the benefits of economies of scale."

The regulatory agency apparently remains unmoved by this line of argument. Aiming to bring down prices and extend service availability to the wider population, the Malawi Communications Regulatory Authority felt that the best course of action was to open the market to a third entrant. As early as April this year, press reports were naming this third entrant - Globally Advanced Integrated Networks, the holder of the G-Mobile brand name.

Does Malawi, then, really offer a good prospect for this third entrant? As discussed back in June, there are reasons to suppose that while there are certainly numerous European countries with populations smaller than that of Malawi sustaining three or more mobile operators, the landlocked southeast African nation might nevertheless offer insufficiently attractive returns for prospective new entrants. While its high population density suggests that mobile coverage could be built out relatively cost-effectively, Malawi is, however, among the world's least developed countries, with a heavily agriculture-dependent economy and with GDP per capita of less than USD 320. Low life expectancy, high infant mortality and a high prevalence of HIV/AIDS all blight the country, with the latter draining the labour force and expected to impact further on GDP in the near future.

However, even in this context, mobile penetration is very low, as we have seen, even when compared with other underdeveloped African economies. So there could be room for one more MNO.

Is GAIN/G-Mobile, though, a likely candidate for success as a third entrant in this environment? Perhaps not.
Due to the economic factors mentioned above, DTW suggested back in June that Malawi might be the kind of market where only MNOs able to leverage the scale and best practices of large groups can prevail and prosper in the long term.

G-Mobile, seemingly not aligned to any such major international telecoms group, certainly does not fit that description.

Who, then, is behind this latecomer to the Malawian mobile scene? The only person connect with the business whom I have seen quoted in the press is one Limbani Kalilani, the company's Vice Chairman. Mr Kalilani appears to be something of a celebrity in Malawi - and is working to become more well known across and beyond Africa. Although he has some track record in the telecoms industry, having set up a wireless payphone company called Phone Yanu, it is in the music world that Kalilani has made his real impact. Better known to his fans as Tay Grin, Mr Kalilani has established himself as a hip hop artist. Here he is in action:

It would be truly admirable if Tay Grin can succeed as both an international music phenomenon and a domestic business success story - more admirable still if it is his indigenous Malawian company that manages to bring the benefits of mobile communications to a larger number of his compatriots than can currently afford the services offered by the two established cellcos. DTW would be instinctively in favour of this form of African empowerment.

Are there already signs, however, that the going will prove as tough as DTW fears? Perhaps.

TeleGeography has recently reported that G-Mobile has admitted it will not be able to meet the 31st December 2009 deadline for the rollout of its network as stipulated by its licence. Instead the company plans to request an extension to the deadline from the regulator, and will make up for the delay by combining rollout phases outlined by the concession. Let's wait and see.

G-Mobile's rivals, meanwhile, are making progress of their own. TNM has launched its W-CDMA/HSDPA network, with Charles Kamoto, head of the cellco's Commercial Services division, saying that the service is initially only available to post-paid subscribers but that prepaid customers will soon have access 3G. Kamoto added: "Most less developed nations do not have this service on board for their customers but in Malawi we are very aggressive, we believe that our customers need quality, they need top-notch services and that is why we had to bring this 3.5G technology."

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

More musings on a latin t(r)ip

The most recent article here was both a round up of some recent news from Paraguay and a trip down memory lane. I reminisced fondly about an interesting tour of four South American countries which I enjoyed last year. In doing so, I mentioned in passing the two telecoms cooperatives I was able to visit in Bolivia.

COMTECO HQ, Cochabama Bolivia

As the Bolivia market report from telecoms industry watchers Buddecomm notes, the Andean country is one of South America's poorest and least developed. According to Buddecomm's figures, Bolivia has the continent's lowest mobile penetration and second lowest fixed line teledensity. With regard to the former measure, data from the the World Cellular Information Service supports this claim. WCIS indicates that the country's mobile penetration stood at just 60.08% as of the end of September this year. Most other countries in South America's less affluent northern region show much higher numbers, for example:
  • Venezuela - 105.98%
  • Ecuador - 91.35%
  • Colombia - 83.75%
In the more prosperous Conosur region, the numbers tend to be higher still, for example:
  • Uruguay - 117.10%
  • Argentina - 115.97%
  • Chile - 98.33%
Certainly, Bolivia seemed to be a visibly less affluent country than others I have been able to visit in the region. Although I did spend one night in the capital, La Paz, in order to make an early flight on to Caracas (via Lima), my meetings were elsewhere. The cities I visited were Santa Cruz and Cochabamba. The former city is Bolivia's most populous and is at the heart of the country's economic activity. The latter city is Bolivia's third largest settlement, set in an Andean valley, with a magnificent backdrop of mountain peaks.

As described in the most recent post here, the purpose of my tour around South America was to drum up support for the Americas Com conference and exhibition, the success of which it was one of my tasks to contribute towards until last year. In the other countries I visited, it was sufficient to spend time just in their capital cities, travelling between meetings by taxi. This would not have worked in Bolivia, where in the wireline space, at least, the telecommunications market is highly fragmented.

In Bolivia, a national incumbent fixed line operator - Entel - does exist. This was renationalised by the left wing administration of President Evo Morales just weeks after we visited the company's Santa Cruz office. My understanding, however, is that the majority of the country's PSTN subscriptions are with the numerous cooperatives. We felt it could be useful to visit some of these. In Santa Cruz, we were received at the offices of COTAS (Cooperativa de Telecomunicaciones Santa Cruz). In Cochabamba, we visited the headquarters of COMTECO (Cooperativa de Telecomunicaciones Cochabamba).

Entel offices, Santa Cruz, Bolivia

As with the visit to Paraguay's COPACO described in the most recent previous article here, conversations with the representatives of these cooperatives (about how they might contribute to our conference) were strikingly unlike those we had at the offices of private sector telcos elsewhere in South America. Again, the themes to which our contacts warmed most readily were around bridging the digital divide and extending the availability of affordable basic services to poorer and more remotely located users.

While none of these cooperatives have constructed mobile networks, COTAS is able to compete in the cellular space. Bolivia is a rare case of a South American country in which even one MVNOs is in existence - and that MVNO is the mobile offering of COTAS, hosted by Nuevatel (which operates under the Viva brand), an MNO once owned by John Stanton's Western Wireless.

Nuevatel HQ, Santa Cruz, Bolivia

That COTAS is able to operate as an MVNO is not due to any particular encouragement on the part of the Bolivian telecoms regulator. A 2006 report from Diamond Consultants asked whether conditions, at that time, were right for the emergence of MVNOs in India. I'll admit that I haven't yet read this report very carefully, but perhaps it's safe to guess the answer might have been 'no'. After all, as recently as March this year, DevelopingTelecomsWatch was reporting on continued regulatory wrangles which looked set to delay the market entry of MVNOs in India. As part of its discussion, the Diamond Consultants report makes remarks about the state of play for MVNOs in some other markets around the world. Bolivia is observed to be a market in which the regulator has discouraged MVNOs, with policies "primarily driven by the low penetration of mobile services and the low geographic reach of the network." It is further argued that "low ARPUs meant that the discount MVNO model was not viable" The regulator's stance is described as seeing "brand and data service-oriented MVNOs... encroaching on the already limited capacity" Rather than encourage MVNOs to emerge, the report observes, the Bolivian regulator "stepped in and provided incentives to mobile network operators to improve capacity and coverage". Despite this, COTAS Movil was launched in mid-2002 to complement the cooperative's existing portfolio of fixed voice, ADSL and cable TV services.

The report puts Argentina in the same category as Bolivia - markets in which the entry of MVNOs is discouraged by regulatory agencies. Despite this, MVNO services have been launched there. As with Bolivia, this has been done by telecoms cooperatives.

Now, according to TeleGeography, a federation of telecoms coops, Fecosur, is planning to expand the reach of these mobile services, expecting to extend coverage to around 150 cities and municipalities across the country within four or five months. According to the federation’s president, Antonio Roncoroni, the service is already provided in 14 cities throughout the country under the 'Nuestro' banner. Fecosur and another body, Fecotel, jointly represent around 300 telecoms cooperatives across the country.

Having mused here more than once in the past about Latin America's cooperatives and about telcos renationalised by left-of-centre governments - and about how these organisations appear to operate a little differently from those for whom shareholder value is a key consideration - it will be interesting to observe whether this new mobile offering will have any very significant impact on the Argentinean market.

Others who finds the telecoms coops of Latin America at all interesting might like to look over a scholarly paper (dated 2005) from the The Journal of Community Informatics which I found recently and which rounds up the history of the Argentinean cooperatives quite nicely.

As the English winter draws in, thoughts of sunny days touring Latin America's telcos in the balmy days of April 2008 are quite attractive. Hence these musings today.

Friday, 11 December 2009

Memories of Paraguay

In April 2008, your humble scribe had the very great pleasure of visiting four South American countries on behalf of events and business information company Informa Telecoms & Media. The purpose of the trip was to drum up additional support for the Americas Com conference and exhibition, held annually, and usually attracting a few hundred telecoms sector execs from around the Western Hemisphere.

While exhibitors, sponsors, delegates and supporting industry associations seemed to be broadly happy, it was beyond dispute that assembling a crowd which really represented the majority of the countries to the south of the USA was a challenging task. Various venues had been tried over the years - and each time, the location had a significant bearing on the size and diversity of the crowd. Mexican venues made for a group of participants drawn largely from that country, from the Caribbean islands and from some Central American markets. To host the event in Buenos Aires was to ensure that the group would consist largely of Argentineans and others from the Conosur region, the most prosperous segment of the South American continent. In both of these scenarios, delegates from the less affluent Andean countries would be rather more thin on the ground.

South America's largest and most populous country by far is, of course, Brazil. Iterations of Americas Com held in that country's most amazingly attractive conference location, Rio de Janeiro, did very well in terms of delegate numbers. Brazilian delegates - who quite rarely seemed inclined to travel in good numbers to venues outside their home country - were so numerous in Rio that a particular difficulty arose, however.

It was perfectly possible to lure a decent contingent of influential delegates from Spanish speaking countries to a conference and exhibition in Rio. For exhibitors and sponsors, however, picking them out from among the massively larger group of Brazilians could be challenging. It was tough, then, to create the perception of having assembled a genuinely multinational delegate audience.

It was with this in mind, and with the 2008 version of Americas Com scheduled once again for Rio, that a two-man delegation set out in April that year for meetings with a varied group of telecoms operators around South America. The week-long tour took in Venezuela, Bolivia, Paraguay and Argentina. Only the last of these had ever really been a source of significant numbers of senior delegates prepared to travel to our event when it was held outside their own country.

For someone who whose previous trips to South America had all been to Brazil, I found this to be a fascinating opportunity. In many ways, it felt as if the only thing these four very different countries have in common is that the official language is Spanish. Walking the streets and having meetings in Buenos Aires struck me as being a very similar experience to what one might expect in a southern European country - Spain, Portugal or perhaps Italy. Venezuela and Bolivia were strikingly different places - the people, the climate, the infrastructure: a different world.

Paraguay was, to me at least, the really unknown quantity - a country of which I knew very little aside from recollecting the name of its erstwhile dictator, Alfredo Stroessner and a those of a couple of its notable footballers, Messrs. Santa Cruz and Chilavert.

My colleague (translator/interpreter/fixer) and I did the rounds of the mobile operator HQ buildings in Asuncion. These varied a bit in terms of how expensively they were decorated, but the offices were not vastly different in arrangement or atmosphere to ones you might visit almost anywhere in the world. We were, however, on the way to airport, to visit an HQ which looked and felt rather different.

Vox HQ, Asuncion, Paraguay

On our travels around the seemingly quite sleepy Paraguayan capital, it became clear that the local telecoms scene was a close-knit community. Having already been shown around town by a helpful local driver who seemed to know personally everyone with whom we had a scheduled meeting, we had a nice piece of luck on our visit to one of the MNOs. The gentleman with whom we met was able to open doors at one of the organisations where we did not have an appointment fixed up. This introduction, then, led to a meeting with the Gerente Comercial of COPACO (Corporación Paraguaya de Comunicaciones), the state-owned incumbent wireline operator.

Informa's Americas region event had only recently expanded its remit from a gathering purely of GSM mobile operators. Part of our task was to increase the diversity of the audience not only in terms of countries represented but also in terms of aiming for a much broader range of telecoms businesses attending the show - fixed/mobile; state sector/private sector; involving delegates from the cable sector.

So it was wonderful to have the opportunity to visit companies in these target segments and something of an eye-opener to have conversations with the leaders of public sector operators (we also visited CANTV in Venezuela) and telecoms cooperatives, of which we managed to visit two in Bolivia.

What was novel for us was discussing the proposed themes of presentations these companies might offer at our event and hearing of topics quite different from the ones we had heard discussed by private sector GSM operators in previous iterations of the conference.

COPACO HQ, Asuncion.

COPACO, which we managed to visit just ahead of our flight to the next stop on the tour, was no exception. Our host, who was exceptionally generous with him time, was most animated when talking about how his organisation was striving to extend the availability of services to under-connected settlements. During this conversation, I couldn't help being struck by how this gentleman's language varied from what I was used to hearing at such meetings and at conferences. I don't recall hearing the terms 'EBITDA', 'shareholder value', 'market share', 'ARPU' or their Spanish equivalents during our chat. Our surroundings, too, were different. COPACO HQ lacked expensively designed marketing materials and branding. We entered through a hall in which customers could make payments. The scene there, to me at least, was somewhat reminiscent of a local government office in the UK - but before our local authorities were made to organise their activities along more commercial lines.

With this memorable discussion in mind, then, it was interesting for me to learn this week, via TeleGeography, that Millicom Cellular International-owned Tigo Paraguay has been awarded a contract to deploy mobile services in four under-served departments of the country, helping CONATEL, the national telecoms regulatory agency, achieve its universal service targets. Under the deal, Tigo will roll out networks to 35 municipalities where cellular services are currently unavailable and the Government will provide funding of around USD1.04 million to support the network deployment. In total, according to the TeleGeography item, the project is expected to cost around USD1.6 million and benefit around 20,000 Paraguayans in remote areas. The private sector, then, has a role to play in meeting some of the challenges discussed by my host on our visit to COPACO HQ last year.

COPACO itself, meanwhile, continues to harbour ambitions of entering the mobile services market. At present, according to the World Cellular Information Service, that market (the mobile penetration rate of which is 85.45%) is split as follows:
According to a recent TeleGeography story, COPACO expects to join this list by mid-2010. With my visit to the company's HQ in mind, I'll be interested to see how their mobile offering fares in competition with the existing cellcos.

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Cambodia's mobile price war: peace in sight?

Beeline Cambodia: late entrant doing battle in a fierce tariffs war

DevelopingTelecomsWatch depends on the indispensable Phnom Penh Post for news of all things Cambodian, quoting that organ quite liberally, for example, when donning a flak jacket to report on the mobile price war which has been gripping the southeast Asian country for months.

It was also via that esteemed news outlet that DTW learned this week that the Cambodian Government has tired of waiting for the country's numerous cellcos to end to their damaging tariffs battle. A long-awaited edict setting minimum tariffs was signed by the Government last Friday, telecoms Minister So Khun is quoted as saying.

"We offered free-market principles, but operators kept having conflicts with one another, so the government needs to have a hand in it," So Khun said. The government will suspend the licence of any operators that violate the minimum tariff set by the edict, he added.

The Cambodian mobile market is currently contested by no less than nine MNOs. If there is another country with a population under 15 million whose cellular sector is split so many ways, it does not spring immediately to mind. Of that crowd of cellcos, one, so far, has reacted positively to the imposition of a minimum tariff regime. The Phnom Penh Post quotes Simon Perkins, CEO of Axiata-controlled Hello, who says he supports the initiative "to bring some structure to the telecom tariffs, in the absence of the usual competition guidelines and rules that exist in a lot of markets".

This decision, of course, comes too late for Millicom International Cellular, which announced in July that its three Asian operations (in Sri Lanka and Laos as well as in Cambodia) were to be reclassified as assets held for sale. The Luxembourg-headquartered mobile group cited problems around ongoing profitability in these Asian markets as a key reason for selling up and focusing its efforts on its African and Latin American properties. As DTW reported in the summer, Millicom CEO Mikael Grahne appeared to attribute much of the blame for deteriorating profits at Cellcard, the Cambodian cellco in which Millicom has a 58.4% stake, to the disruptive market-entry strategies of latecomers to the country's mobile arena. The same DTW piece, however, noted that another major shareholder in Cellcard does not agree with Millicom's assertion that this is negatively impacting profitability: "[There are] no concerns on profitability from our side," said Mark Hanna, CFO of Royal Group, which owns a 38.5% stake in the cellco, denying in July that margins had become tighter.

Such was the confidence of the Royal Group in this assertion that the local Cambodian conglomerate agreed to acquire Millicom's stake in Cellcard. This confidence also seems to be shared now by the Royal Group's bankers. According to a Bloomberg article earlier this month, Royal Group has hired Standard Bank Group Ltd. and Australia & New Zealand Banking Group Ltd. to arrange an 18-month bridging loan to help with the purchase of Millicom's share of the MNO.

The appetite of the Cambodian authorities for intervention in the mobile market does not end with tariff control.

Again, we are indebted to the Phnom Penh Post, this time for coverage of a debate around mobile network sharing in Cambodia.

Last month, the newspaper carried news of Minister So Khun calling for the country's MNOs to share infrastructure. So Khun said the initiative would avoid duplication of infrastructure, thereby reducing costs across the sector, as well as moderating the effect that mobile base stations are having on their surroundings.

"We do not want to see too many antennas dotted along roads in the future," said the Minister. Perhaps it would be too sarcastic to respond by asking "So why did you license nine mobile operators in a country of that size?"

Given that some of these nine are well-established players feeling the effects of the later entry of certain rivals, it seems reasonable to suggest that the response to any mandatory network infrastructure sharing might be rather mixed. As the Phnom Penh Post points out, the operators with an established presence in the market have spent many millions of dollars on infrastructure as part of their efforts to gain competitive advantage.

The Government has shared a draft of a proposed telecoms law one of whose provisions would be to make infrastructure sharing obligatory. The private sector response has been to agree that while there do exist benefits around cost reduction and environmental impact, market forces in Cambodia have not been given sufficient time to work.

"Mandatory facilities sharing will reduce the incentive on operators to build such infrastructure," said these recommendations. "This may result in less than the optimal number of towers being constructed such that when the operators commence infilling their networks to improve coverage and provide better service, they are unable to do so as all tower capacity has been filled."

DevelopingTelecomsWatch finds the mobile market of this particular Asian country to be fascinating. We'll keep watching.

Friday, 27 November 2009

Telecoms operators in developing countries are always owned by telcos from richer nations and never the other way round... right?

Bouygues Telecom: eyed by Egypt's Orascom

While the focus DevelopingTelecomsWatch is generally on communications sector businesses in emerging markets and developing countries, a battle between incumbent mobile operators and a proposed new entrant in Canada has been covered here of late.

While events in the vast North American country are clearly beyond the usual remit of this blog, two factors go some way towards justifying the interest of DTW in this particular story.

The first of these is possibly a bit frivolous - simply the observation that despite Canada's G8 membership and status as one of the world's most affluent countries, its mobile communications industry lags behind that of many far less wealthy countries in terms of market penetration. The second factor which justifies spending some time on this story is the fact that the wannabe new cellco in Canada has its roots in Egypt and is affiliated with that country's first multinational corporation. That Egyptian company, Orascom Telecom, has built a global business across a number of developing countries, including Pakistan, Bangladesh, Algeria and Zimbabwe.

I remember sitting in the auditorium at the 3GSM World Congress in 2007 and smiling at the rather direct language used by Orascom Telecom supremo Naguib Sawiris. As Richard Wray of the Guardian also noted a the time, the opening speeches (including those from Orange's then-CEO Sanjiv Ajuha and Vodafone's then-CEO Arun Sarin) were somewhat in line with what conference veterans have come to expect - carefully prepared, lots of positive stuff about mobile communications enriching consumers' lives.

Sawiris eschewed this kind of talk altogether, preferring to announce that he was in the business for the money. While this element of the Egyptian tycoon's speech is what stood out for Richard Wray, it is another remark that interested me and which has informed my thinking about the telecoms sector. Sawiris smiled about three giant multinational mobile groups being represented on stage at the World Congress by two Indians and an Egyptian. The point, I think, was to illustrate the shift of this industry's centre of gravity southwards and eastwards from the developed economies of Europe and North America.

Having grown up with the comfortable notion of European and American countries building operations in developing countries and extracting profits therefrom, it has been interesting to watch Orascom Telecom working in the opposite direction. Weather Investments, an investment vehicle controlled by Sawiris, holds more than 50% of Orascom Telecom, and also owns Italy's Wind Telecomunicazioni and Wind Hellas of Greece.

The current attempt to shake up the telecoms sector of a highly developed economy like Canada is, then, not without precedent for Sawiris.

In Canada, however, as noted here before, however, there is fierce resistance to the arrival of Wind Mobile. For now, the prospect of a commercial launch has been stymied by a Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission ruling that the company in breach of rules on foreign ownership and control.

Today, in response to this setback, Wind Mobile has launched a campaign "geared at letting Canadians know that when it comes to wireless service, they deserve more." The goal of the campaign, runs the company's press release, "is to raise awareness about the current state of Canada's wireless industry compared to the rest of the world, and to highlight why more choice is essential."

"The heart of the issue is that Canadians pay some of the highest rates for some of the most complained-about wireless service in the world," said Anthony Lacavera, Chairman of Wind Mobile. "This campaign is about focusing the conversation to the need for real wireless competition in Canada in order to lower prices, increase penetration and finally deliver the kind of customer service that has been sorely lacking for Canadians."

Others in Canada, however, have expressed the opinion that while Orascom Telecom has probably been treated unfairly, and while the country's rules on foreign investment urgently need changing, it would be a mistake to allow Wind Mobile to take part in the Canadian market because the other players in the market have to follow the current rules, so the Orascom Telecom-backed company should as well. This is the view outlined in an editorial piece in yesterday's Globe & Mail.

As stated the last time DTW visited this dispute, more twists and turns seem likely. We will continue to watch developments with interest.

In the meantime, Mr. Sawiris has expressed an interest in participating in the telecoms market of another developed economy. TeleGeography reports that the Orascom Telecom Chairman is eyeing France's Bouygues Telecom. A tie-up with the French operator would make sense the said an anonymous Orascom official, adding: "It would reinforce our presence in the Mediterranean, improve our roaming possibilities, there would be many synergies." Watch this space. Will Egypt's Sawiris continue to make inroads into Europe's highly developed and competitive telecoms markets?

Thursday, 26 November 2009

WiMAX set to drive broadband growth in Sri Lanka?

Sky Network: WiMAX offering set to shake up Sri Lanka's broadband market?

News items from Sri Lanka's mobile market have caught the eye of DevelopingTelecomsWatch a few times of late. Most recently, DTW asked whether the arrival of the UAE's Etisalat as a player on the island nation's cellular scene would cause price competition to become even fiercer. It was noted that a sustained price war has been eroding tariffs and weakening cellcos' profitability over the last four years. Since then, further worrying figures from the country's telecoms sector have been released.

On November 11th, for example, Reuters reported that market leading MNO Dialog Telkom posted a fifth straight quarterly net loss for Q3 2009, disappointing analysts who had predicted the company would break even. Reuters reports that the telco, a unit of Malaysia's Axiata lost 438.9 million Sri Lankan rupees (USD 3.83 million) in the quarter which ended on September 30th. As well as margins being squeezed by fierce competition, the Reuters piece traces a link between between this loss and profit remaining elusive at Dialog Telekom's broadband and direct-to-home satellite TV operations.

That's the latest from the Sri Lankan mobile market. What, though, of the country's incumbent wireline operator, Sri Lanka Telecom (SLT)?

SLT, which was part-privatised in 1997, hit the headlines this week for its efforts to improve the availability of its services in the country's Northern and Eastern provinces, the areas affected by the on-and-off conflict between government forces and the Tamil Tigers, which ended earlier this year after twenty-six long years.

Harshini Perera of Sri Lanka's Daily News writes that SLT has addressed the need to improve its services in these areas by expanding its copper and fibre access networks, installing new exchanges and the CDMA base stations.

With a view to improving its broadband offering across the whole island, Sky Network, a subsidiary of SLT, will, according to Sri Lanka's Daily Mirror, be providing the WiMAX services to parts of the country where ADSL services are not offered. The Daily Mirror reports that the venture will commence operations in March 2010 and will initially provide services to Colombo, Gampaha and Kalutara Districts.

It will be interesting to watch for the impact this WiMAX offering has once launched. Australian telecoms research company BuddeComm's Sri Lanka Internet Market report indicates that Internet access and other forms of data services have lately been starting to take off in the country, but that coverage and accessibility remain limited, with user penetration estimated by the ITU to be at around 6% by the end of 2008. Buddecomm's report contends that early moves to offer broadband Internet in Sri Lanka have met with only limited success, albeit with some promising signs of growth in 2008-09. The report notes that early activity in the wireless broadband segment of the market has not yet translated into significant subscriber numbers.

2010 looks to the year during which it will become apparent whether wireless access technologies will contribute significantly to the growth of broadband services in Sri Lanka.


Wednesday, 25 November 2009

South Africa's Telkom: a fighting chance?

Telkom Direct stores: a vital channel to market as the company faces challenging times?

DevelopingTelecomsWatch is picking up lots of chatter today about Telkom, the incumbent wireline operator of South Africa. This started when this morning's daily roundup from TeleGeography included the news that the company is planning to re-enter the mobile space in 2010 after only a brief period with no cellular presence.

Until almost exactly one year ago, Telkom and Vodafone had each owned 50% of Vodacom, the pan-African mobile operator with 35 million customers in South Africa, Tanzania, Lesotho, Mozambique and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Earlier this year, the UK-headquartered mobile giant secured a controlling interest in Vodacom with the purchase of an additional 15% stake from Telkom. The remaining 35% owned by the South African incumbent was listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange and unbundled to the company's shareholders.

When plans for this transaction were first announced late last year, Lloyd Gedye of South Africa's Mail & Guardian
reported the stated rationale for Telkom's sale of its stake in Vodacom and noted that many analysts "had expressed skepticism at Telkom's ability to make a success of going it alone in the mobile space and have questioned how Telkom will survive without the Vodacom cash cow."

Back in November 2008, then, Gedye wrote that Telkom CEO Reuben
September was arguing that the deal would unlock significant value for the company's shareholders because its fixed-line business had "been undervalued while it clung on to its 50% stake in Vodacom".

How much validity is there in that notion of Telkom's wireline property being undervalued? The notion is, at the very least, open to question according to An Ovum note issued this week in response to Telkom's announced plans to roll out its own mobile services. Ovum examine the background to this strategy and observe that fixed-line penetration (currently under 9%) is continuing to fall in South Africa so "mobile is clearly the communication mode of choice, and this is where [Telkom] needs to be for its customers."

However, the note continues, establishing a new mobile operation in South Africa won't be easy, as mobile penetration is already above the 100% mark and because Telkom will be competing with two large, well-established players in Vodacom and

A third mobile operator, Cell C, has achieved a 15.57% share (according to WCIS) of the country's mobile market since its commercial launch in late 2001. For other mobile service providers, South Africa has offered a very challenging competitive environment. Back in March, in an article on the prospects for MVNOs in both Africa and India, DevelopingTelecomsWatch noted that Virgin Mobile South Africa had failed to capture even 1% of the country's mobile subscriptions by the end of 2008. The significance of the recently-launched CDMA mobile offering from Neotel, Telkom's principal challenger in the fixed-line arena, remains to be seen.

While Ovum's note politely points out the level of challenge facing Telkom's proposed new mobile offering, others have responded with far less restrained language. An article by Tiisetso Motsoeneng of Reuters today quotes one analyst who certainly pulls no punches.

"To be targeting the retail market in that industry, I think it will be suicide for Telkom," Jan Meintjes, an analyst at Gryphon Asset Management said. "I fail to see how a converged strategy of fixed and mobile is going to be earning significant margins," Meintjes said. "Unless they can show to the market that there's a specific niche that they're targeting and how they can exploit that in terms of earning margins on that business that will give them an accepted ROE on their capital expenditure, I don't see how that can be value enhancing."

The Ovum note, however, reminds us that in South Africa, Telkom claims not to be starting a mobile network operation from scratch. The note points out that the group already has fixed core network assets, which are used by both Vodacom and MTN for backhaul, and an established channel to market through over 134 Telkom Direct shops. Ovum contend that Telkom can choose to "develop a new brand and associated lifestyle concept to target some of the high-spending customers". Also, the Ovum note continues, Telkom could potentially have greater appeal to enterprise customers due to an ability to bundle services across fixed and mobile networks.

Lloyd Gedye's article late last year indicated that another use of the Telkom's Vodacom windfall might be to acquire a number of new mobile licences in numerous African countries. These would be in addition to the company's existing interest in Nigeria. According to Candice Jones of ITWeb, however, Multi-Links, the Nigerian telco in which Telkom has had a controlling interest since 2006, "is in dire straits, knocking Telkom's annual results set with a R1.7 billion net loss."

Let's see if this difficult experience discourages Telkom from further international expansion. My sense all this year is that African mobile markets are more likely to consolidate than they are to offer rich opportunities for new entrants.

While mobility in South Africa offers a new source of revenue for Telkom, Ovum argue that any new revenue streams from mobile - or from enhanced ICT services currently being developed - "are unlikely to significantly bolster its financials in the near term." Of more immediate concern, Ovum contend, is Telkom's rising cost base. Ovum's note expresses the belief that by implementing best-practice approaches in its own transformation, Telkom is giving itself a fighting chance in the challenging times ahead of it.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Unsurprising news of the week

India's Communications & IT Minister: summoned to explain falling revenues at BSNL

To my mind, the least surprising news item so far this week comes from Mansi Taneja of India's Business Standard, who reports that state-owned Indian state-owned telco BSNL is likely to exit a consortium that has been aiming to acquire a 46% in pan-MEA mobile group Zain. According to Taneja, MTNL, the other public sector operator party to the consortium, is also likely to exit since it had agreed to follow BSNL’s lead in the deal.

DevelopingTelecomsWatch has no axe to grind with regard to these two telecoms enterprises, but it won't have escaped the notice of regular readers that this blog has observed some pretty strong criticisms of their performance in their domestic market, most notably in an article written in August.

It was partly with these criticisms in mind that DTW was unsurprised when Etisalat rather than BSNL prevailed in the scramble to acquire the Sri Lankan mobile operator previously owned by Millicom International Cellular. It would, then, cause raised eyebrows at DTW HQ were MTNL to win what looks to be a hotly contested scramble to buy a controlling interested in Zambia's soon-to-be-privatised incumbent fixed line operator, Zamtel. As a recent Cellular News item points out, the list of other interested parties contains some formidable names including Orascom Telecom, Telkom of South Africa and Russia's pan-CIS cellco Vimpelcom, which has recently expanded its footprint into Southeast Asia.

Lest anyone feel that this blog returning quite regularly to the troubles of India's two major state-owned telecoms enterprises is somehow unwarranted, it is worth noting that concern about their prospects has been expressed in the highest circles in the south Asian country. Monday's Economic Times, for example, reported that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is likely to meet the BSNL's management along with Communications and IT Minister A. Raja to look into the causes of the company's falling revenues and to find ways to improve its performance.

According to the Economic Times, BSNL says the loss in net profit and revenue is due to huge wage costs and customers deciding to terminate their fixed line subscriptions. The article states that the company has been struggling with the problem of landlines being surrendered for years now, due to a combination of the increasing popularity of mobile phone and its own service levels falling below customer expectations. In the past three years, the article reports, 6.3 million landline connections have been terminated.

This blog has also documented the company's struggles to capitalise on first-mover advantage in the 3G mobile services space or to take make much of a similar head start with WiMAX broadband services.

In light of all this, DTW remains wary of any claims that BSNL makes about ambitions to grow its business into unfamiliar overseas territories.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Orascom Telecom: continued resistance to Canadian market entry and changes at the top

Shaw Communications: joining the opposition to Orascom's Canadian market entry

A recent DevelopingTelecomsWatch article reported on the challenges faced by Orascom Telecom-backed nascent Canadian cellco Globalive Wireless as it seeks to intrude upon what its CEO has described as the "oligopoly" of incumbent players Rogers Wireless, Bell Mobility and Telus. We noted that the Wind-branded operator has fallen foul of foreign ownership despite Orascom Telecom supremo Naguib Sawiris having been, in the words of Terence Corcoran of the National Post, "led... into bidding for spectrum and a major role in the Canadian wireless market" only to have the carpet pulled out from under his company.

As debate rages about how poorly consumers might be served by keeping Globalive out of the country's wireless market, Telus, which is estimated by WCIS to account for around 29% of Canadian mobile subs, is urging Industry Minister Tony Clement not to overturn the CRTC ruling which has stymied the prospective new entrant's plans.

According to Steven Chase, writing today for the Globe and Mail, Telus is arguing that a relaxation of the foreign ownership rules would be unfair "because other companies stayed within existing ownership rules when bidding for frequencies in the 2008 wireless spectrum auction." Telus, which also offers wireline telephony, broadband and TV services, has joined forces with another telco headquartered in Western Canada, Shaw Communications, to publish an open appeal to Mr. Clement in the press.

Chase writes that the two operators are asking the Minister to ignore calls to reverse the October 29th decision by the CRTC. It would send "a very bad message to companies that complied with the Canadian ownership laws as they were required to do in the auction and spent over $4-billion bidding - that the rules can be changed at any time in the game," Michael Hennessy, Telus's SVP of Regulatory and Government Affairs, said in an interview.

The CEO of Rogers Communications, meanwhile, has made it clear how the wireless arm of his business would respond if the Orascom Telecom-backed startup is indeed unable to launch. The market-leading mobile operation would look to acquire the unused spectrum.

"Spectrum is a very valuable asset," Nadir Mohamed said last Friday after a speech to the Toronto Board of Trade. "It's the real estate of our business, so Rogers would be for sure interested in picking it up. I'm sure others would be."

I sense a few more twists in this tale before it becomes clear what is to become of Orascom Telecom's planned foray into North America. Meanwhile, the overall expansion strategy - of which entry into Canada's surprisingly under-penetrated mobile market was meant to be a part - will continue to be guided by Naguib Sawiris. Orascom Telecom recently announced changes to the management structure which will see Group COO Khaled Bichara promoted to the CEO role and Sawiris taking on the position of Executive Chairman.

"The telecommunication business is continuing to grow and evolve at a rapid pace, and we're reshaping OTH to be a leader in this transformation. Our strategy leverages our core strengths and capitalizes on vastly emerging trends to drive growth and profitability. Khaled is dynamic, energetic and will be able to draw on his... experience... to gear the Group into a more aggressive period of growth and transform OTH into a more innovative, integrated and agile global company," Sawiris said. "I will also remain involved in the businesses with more focus on steering the Group’s strategic growth while guiding and supporting the activities of the senior management team. I believe that the telecom market will see massive consolidation during the coming years, and with the new structure I will be able to devote more time and effort in this direction," he added.

With Sawiris now free to focus more sharply on growth opportunities, it will be interesting to see if the group will continue the taste for adventurous enterprises suggested by its decision to invest in North Korea. Koryolink is a W-CDMA operator in which Orascom Telecom holds a 75% stake. Having launched services in December last year, the company now has around 70,000 subscribers according to Cellular News.

For a glimpse inside the secretive and isolated country, this clip about the launch of the Orascom-backed MNO makes interesting viewing, even if the commentary is impenetrable to non-Koreans: