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

Thursday, 26 February 2009

Bharti Airtel to go international in 2009? Could competitive pressures at home make it a must-do strategy?

Earlier this month, I was wondering where MENA region-headquartered groups such as Orascom Telecom, Etisalat, Zain etc. might next go shopping for extensions to their empires. I discussed the view that the current economic climate has created a nice opportunity for Gulf-based telcos. That view was echoed this week by my former Informa Telecoms & Media colleague Nick Jotischky, whom I last saw in Dubai last December at GSM>3G Middle East, the final Com World Series event in which I was involved before leaving the company.

My guess for a while has been that any telcos struggling in the current climate may be prepared to sell off assets at rather lower prices that they would consider in happier times, hence the opportunity for MENA region players. Moreoever, writing this week, Nick notes that traditonally strong and expansionist mobile players such as Orange/France Telecom and Telenor are now more reluctant to get involved in further acquisitions activity, which may make the prices of potential targets lower still for Gulf region telcos looking to expand further. In Nick's article, he wonders whether powerhouse cellcos from China and India might also have the appetite for global expansion. "Some say the global mobile telecoms industry could go the way of the steel sector, which is largely dominated by emerging market players," writes Nick.

Nick notes that Bharti Airtel and China Mobile are the leaders of the two fastest-growing mobile markets in terms of subscriptions, with India adding just over 100 million subscriptions in 2008 and China 89 million. Nick feels this means that these two giant cellcos are therefore focusing on their domestic markets, noting that China Mobile is also busy rolling out its TD-SCDMA network. Bharti Airtel, Nick asserts, "has intense - even brutal - competition to contend with while preparing to launch its 3G network."

One element of the tough competitive environment in India is the fact that state-owned operators BSNL and MTNL have beaten Bharti Airtel and other private sector MNOs to the punch in terms of going to market with 3G services. According to a article, BSNL has rolled out 3G services in an additional eleven cities following the launch of its first 3G service in Chennai earlier this month. MTNL, meanwhile, has launched 3G services in central New Delhi with the stated aim of attracting 200,000 to the service within two years.

The article notes that "if BSNL and MTNL were to have a substantial head start over 3G rivals, particularly if the spectrum auctions, as many industry commentators now believe, are unlikely to take place until the end of this year, the licences would surely look less attractive to investors weighing up India's 3G opportunity." If this has the effect of driving down the amount of money the Indian Government is able to raise through the long-delayed auctions, the article continues, this too could work to the advantage of BSNL and MTNL because the price they both have to pay for their 3G spectrum has to match the highest winning auction bids in each of the respective circles.

As the article also notes, BSNL also has a first-mover advantage when it comes to BWA spectrum because while the BWA auctions are scheduled to take place the same time as the 3G licence awards, "BSNL is already sitting on a chunk of pan-Indian 20MHz spectrum in the 2.5GHz band." Again, the article continues, BSNL does not have to pay for its BWA spectrum until the BWA auctions take place.

In the mobile space, Bharti Airtel, with 26.38% of subscriptions according to the World Cellular Information Service, leads a select group of larger Indian cellcos. Other major players include Vodafone Essar (18.77% market share), Reliance Communications (16.63%) and Idea Cellular (11.71%). Of the two state-owned 3G early movers, BSNL is another significant player, occupying fourth place in the market with 12.74% of subscriptions. MTNL, which is also active in wireline telephony and CDMA WLL, is a much smaller GSM mobile player, with only 1.20% of subscriptions.

Of the few further existing opertators with single-digit market share, one in particular has been in the news quite a lot of late. CDMA network operator Tata Teleservices (7.01% market share) has announced that it will be seting up 100 new cell sites in the state of Gujarat by August, according to a Business Standard story today. This seems to be the latest component of a drive to extend the geographical reach of the Tata network. In October, Global Mobile Daily reported the company's plans to expand its services into the Jammu and Kashmir operating circle by the end of November, thereby becoming the fourth operator in that market alongside BSNL, Bharti Airtel and Aircel. The war chest for this expansion will be boosted by the USD 822.67 million which Tata Teleservices raised by selling a 49% stake in its tower unit to Quippo Telecom Infrastructure, a deal which was announced in January.

The CDMA operator has certainly been deemed attractive by NTT DoCoMo of Japan, an existing shareholder which has had a move to add a further 20.25% stake in the business approved by India's cabinet, according to a Global Mobile Daily story of 24th February. This stake was up for grabs because its previous owner, the broadband player Tata Communications was strapped for cash and had pressured the Indian Government to allow the sale of a share in the CDMA mobile operator, according to an earlier Global Mobile Daily article, which reported that Tata Communications has been "particularly hard hit by the credit crunch and that the operator has told the Department of Telecommunications that it will be nearly impossible for it to carry out its business plans unless it receives new funding."

Government approval was needed because the state holds a 26.12% stake in Tata Communications, formerly known as VSNL, and was therefore able to veto the sale of the company's stake in Tata Teleservices, in which DoCoMo already owned a 26% share. According to yet another GMD story in January, Tata Communications is also planning a USD 51 million bond issue to help finance its bid for WiMAX spectrum.

Tata Teleservices is aiming to grow further by addressing the relatively untapped rural market, having done a deal with Impetus Infotech India to launch services for value-added services aimed at farmers and related communities, providing updated information on current prices of commodities across the country. According to the Business Standard article, Tata Teleservices expects around 60-70% of new additions to its subscriber base to come from rural areas.

Tata Teleservices may also ratchet up the competitive pressure in India's mobile market by enabling Virgin Mobile India, in which the CDMA MNO owns a 50% stake, to enter the GSM space. Prior to reading an Economic Times article earlier this week, I had not realised that Tata would be following Reliance Communications in migrating from CDMA to GSM family technology. This mobile standards migration seems to me quite reminiscent of what has happened in Brazil, where the operator Vivo, which had been the lone CDMA player, chose to make the move to GSM in order to compete more effectively with its rivals.

At present, Virgin Mobile is positioned as India’s first youth-centric mobile service, according to this week's Economic Times piece, and its services are offered on the Tata Teleservices CDMA network via a brand franchisee arrangement.

"Our agreement with TTSL is technology neutral. At present, our services are restricted to CDMA. Once TTSL unveils its GSM network, we will extend the Virgin services into GSM as well," says Virgin Mobile India CEO M.A. Madhusudan. The article states that Virgin Mobile is now gearing up to launch its GSM service as soon as Tata Teleservices does. "Nearly 73% of the Indian mobile market is controlled by GSM operators. An entry into GSM will help us to expand our addressable market and also increase our average revenue per user. Currently, our ARPU is nearly 30% higher than the industry average," said Mr Madhusudan. The article continues: "In a bid to expand its portfolio, Virgin is also keen to enter the business phone segment", qouting Mr Madhusudan: "We are in talks with multiple handset vendors, including Research in Motion... there are also plans to launch data cards."

CDMA operators migrating to GSM. Virgin Mobile beefing up its MVNO play. State-owned operators stealing a march in the 3G space and in the WiMAX services arena. I imagine this is what Nick Jotischky meant by 'brutal' domestic competion for Bharti Airtel. I can therefore understand speculation about India's mobile market leader looking beyond the borders of its home country for growth opportunities. As Nick noted this week, the Indian cellco has shown its hand before, having failed in a previous bid to acquire South Africa's MTN. Nick feels that "as an operator with proven experience of coping with the lowest tariffs in the world while sustaining growth, Bharti would have an innovative approach to the challenges presented by African markets" and argues that "at the root of this innovation in India is Bharti's use of outsourcing, in not only its network and IT functions but also its call-center and customer-relationship services." Nick feels that this kind approach would be an alternative to the one taken thus far by African operators and says that "it will be worth watching how new entrant Econet Wireless Kenya fares, having pledged to use outsourcing as a key strategy."

Nick feels that China Mobile, meanwhile, may be encouraged by recent success in Pakistan and go on to expand elsewhere in Asia. China Mobile's Pakistan outpost, CM Pak (branded Zong), has, in Nick's view, built its success on cheap tariffs and an aggressive network rollout plan. Nick notes that "a sign of that success is the fact that in 3Q08, CM Pak added more subscriptions than any of its rivals."

Nick conludes his article by predicting that "we can expect China Mobile to stretch its Asian coverage and Bharti [Airtel] to return to Africa," but feels it would probably be premature for either company to reach out any farther. I have thought about the China Mobile case a lot less, but having considered the many competitive pressures endured by Bharti Airtel at home, my guess is that the Indian cellco must be thinking very seriously about where it might extend its footprint.


Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Infrastructure sharing to have a major impact in emerging markets in 2009?

More details are emerging about the long-expected infrasructure sharing deal between Indian cellcos Reliance Communications and Swan Telecom, the operator in which Etisalat took a 45% stake in September for USD 900 million. According to an Economic Times (India) article last week, the two companies are now expected to finalise a fifteen year deal.

Swan Telecom plans to launch mobile services in the second quarter of this year and has licences to offer mobile services in 13 of the total 22 'circles' (markets) in India.

The article also states that Reliance Telecom Infrastructure Limited (RTIL), which is the spun off tower business of the Anil Ambani-owned MNO, is also discussing similar passive infrastructure sharing arrangements with other new players such as Datacom, Sistema Shyam Teleservices and Loop Telecom.

The Reliance-Swan deal is not the only infrastructure sharing arrangement recently worked out in India. Another of the greenfield MNO's, Telenor-backed Unitech Wireless was reported by Global Mobile Daily in late January to be finalising an agreement with the Tata Teleservices tower arm Wireless-TT Info-Services Limited.

Globally, we might expect more deals of this kind. Back in March last year, the ITU expressed the view that telecoms regulators are increasingly agreeing on the need for infrastructure sharing. This was apparently a major topic of discussion at the annual Global Symposium for Regulators (GSR-08) in Pattaya, Thailand. "Pro-competitive and open access strategies are needed to cut the cost of deploying ICT networks - and thus take a big step towards achieving the targets set by the World Summit on the Information Society as well as the United Nations Millennium Development Goals," commented ITU Secretary General Dr. Hamadoun Toure at the time.

Led by Sethaporn Cusripituck of Thailand's National Telecommunications Commission, the Global Symposium delegates reached a consensus on a set of best-practice guidelines aimed at offering affordable broadband access through innovative infrastructure sharing and open-access strategies relating to spectrum. According to a Global Mobile Daily report on the Symposium, "one of the more-radical ideas... was that to encourage universal access to communications services and address the 'digital divide' separating urban areas with telecoms coverage from rural areas without, regulators should consider offering incentives for operators to share infrastructure, including financial subsidies on a competitive basis."

Presumably the two recently asgreed deals in India have met with the approvel of Nirpendra Misra, Chairman of the Telecommunication Regulatory Authority of India, who said at the Symposium that "sharing is key to promoting ICT access at affordable prices in rural areas" and recommended that sharing of both passive and active mobile and backhaul infrastructure be encouraged. "Operators will automatically receive subsidies for the deployment and management of towers, funded by the Universal Service Obligation Fund, as long as operators share the towers with three other operators or service providers," said the TRAI Chairman.

This is in line with recommendations outlined in the ICT Regulation Toolkit, a joint production of infoDev and the ITU, which state that "because of the cost savings, infrastructure sharing may be a pre-requisite for receiving Universal Access and Service Fund (UASF) support into new areas."

Infrastructure sharing involving mobile operators, especially in emering markets, might not only be to the advantage of the cellcos themselves. In the same section of the ICT Regulation Toolkit, the argument is put forward that where mobile operators are dominant service providers, "at least one mobile operator may have a near-ubiquitous national transmission network that has potential usefulness beyond the narrow needs of mobile service provision. This network could include the provision of digital backbone facilities from widely dispersed POPs for ISPs. Even if the existing capacity is limited for broadband, an upgrade to provide broadband may be significantly more economic than a completely new network."

India is not the only South Asian market in which mobile infrastructure sharing has been embraced. In September 2008, Global Mobile Daily reported that the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission had unveiled passive infrastructure sharing guidelines aimed at reducing network duplication. The guidlines read: "Operators shall jointly develop, build, maintain and operate new passive infrastructure for providing telecommunication services to the subscribers... However, an individual operator may build passive infrastructures with the permission of the Commission." Tariffs and charges for infrastructure sharing should be mutually agreed among operators, according to the BTRC.
"In case of any dispute regarding the tariff and charges the decision of the Commission shall be final and binding upon the parties," say the guidelines.

At least two of the country's six mobile operators already had network sharing plans in place. In June Warid Telecom's Bangladesh operation and CDMA operator Citycell signed a network infrastructure sharing agreement which sees the two operators sharing the passive elements of around 350 of their combined base stations. Warid Telecom also gained access to a fiber network operated by Citycell for backhaul and bandwidth purposes.

Meanwhile, in the Western Hemisphere, I know of one market where all four mobile operators competing there are set to share infrastructure. In Panama, as reported by BNAmericas in November, the local subsidiaries of América Móvil/Claro, of Digicel, of Telefónica/Movistar and of Cable & Wireless have worked out deals. The article indicates that Claro and Digicel have reportedly already agreed to sharing their infrastructure and that newer entrants Movistar and C&W, which entered the market last year, having been awarded the country's third and fourth mobile operating licenses in May, will also be involved.

Not all operators agree that infrastructure sharing will always offer them substantial cost savings. In a BNAmericas interview in December, Digicel's Luis La Rocca, said that the process is not without difficulties. Speaking about Panama, he said "not many towers were built in the past to accommodate two carriers, so structures will have to be put in place to make this sharing possible." La Rocca was asked if infrastructure sharing helps to reduce initial deployment costs for a greenfield operator, with the interviewer noting that the deployment cost for Digicel in Honduras was USD 450 million versus UDS 350 million in Panama. La Rocca replied that investment had been higher for Honduras because geographically it is a much larger country with a larger population. He indicated that infrastructure sharing had "not substantially" saved Digicel money in Panama.

Another concern could be maintaining quality of service. In August 2008, according to Global Mobile Daily, the local units of Zain and MTN in Zambia declined to share network infrastructure, with both operators claiming it would be difficult to maintain quality assurance. The GMD article indicated that the country's telecoms regulator the Communications Authority of Zambia had urged the sharing of infrastructure as a way of boosting the expansion of services in rural regions.

With varying degrees of enthusiam for network sharing across emering markets worldwide, I wonder how far developments in the largest market of the lot, China, will influence regulators which have yet to rule on this issue. Nicole McCormick of Informa Telecoms & Media wrote in October that the Chinese Government had issued a policy statement requiring mobile operators to share passive network infrastructure, expressing the view that the move could lead to a reduction of about 15% in the 3G capex of China's three operators China Mobile, China Unicom and China Telecom. McCormick noted that a possible downside would be that this could add to the delays in the process of rolling out 3G networks, "since operators will have to spend time hashing out the terms and practicalities of sharing networks."

In the same month, another Informa commentator, Kriz Szaniawski, noted that at a recent conference he had attended, someone suggested that network sharing is a bit like healthy eating in the UK: Everyone talks about it obsessively and watches endless TV shows about the subject, but nobody actually does anything about it." Szaniawski feels that there have been "suprisingly few examples of successful deals worldwide, with a few in Australia, Spain and Sweden. Most others are still at too early a stage to fully assess, and some have clearly struggled." However, Szaniawski feels that an extended economic downturn could well drive network sharing deals worldwide.

With the governments of major markets such as China and India backing network sharing, 2009 may be the year that deals of this kind have a major impact on operators' bottom line and on the extended availability of services in emerging markets.

Sunday, 22 February 2009

Nokia: Low TCO is key in emerging markets - but how to achieve it?

I recently made reference to an emerging markets-focused publication which I consider to be an excellent source of information and insights: Expanding Horizons magazine, which is offered to ICT decision-makers in the private and public sectors by Nokia and Nokia Siemens Networks. The latest issue is a special edition packed with interesting articles from the last 2-3 years. Expanding Horizons aims to explore the socio-economic benefits that mobile technologies offer as well as best practices from around the world in order to encourage affordable mobile communications and bring the Internet to the next billion consumers. Its editors also aim to demonstrate how to create favourable environments for market growth in developing countries.

One of the most recent articles opens with a challenging question: Why is TCO (Total Cost of Ownership) of USD 5 per month possible in India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh but not in 76 other emerging markets covered in a study conducted by Nokia in 2007. For the purposes of the study, TCO was defined as a combination of the service fee, taxes and mobile device price. The study found that the average TCO for subscribers in these developing countries was USD 13 per month and its authors asserted that bringing this figure down to less than USD 5 would enable a majority of low-income prospective subscribers to use mobile services. Surely, then, all four South Asian countries with outstandingly low average TCO should have very high mobile penetration rates when compared to the broader selection of emerging markets. Let's look at mobile penetration in these four countries as of December 2008, according to the World Cellular Information Service.
  • India: 28.31&
  • Pakistan: 51.68%
  • Sri Lanka: 49.48%
  • Bangladesh: 28.95%
Of the 76 countries found to have higher average TCO, quite a large number have outperformed these South Asian markets in terms of mobile penetration. Let’s pick out some examples, choosing only countries with lower per capita GDP and/or ranking lower on the Human Development Index than India. Again, the figures are from the Informa Telecoms & Media World Cellular Information Service:
  • Vietnam: 79.37%
  • Yemen: 28.53%
  • Kyrgyzstan: 65.83%
  • Cameroon: 31.01%
  • Nigeria: 44.50%
I wish I had time now for a detailed discussion about why some of the above countries, all of which have higher average mobile services TCO than the South Asian markets, have done better in terms of getting mobile devices into the hands of larger slices of their populations. In lieu of that discussion, for which I hope to find time another day, it does, at least seem fair to assert that while low average TCO is highly desirable, it is clearly not the single most important factor for mobile services to be taken up by the less affluent population segments in developing countries.

This is not to say, of course, that it is not worth trying to understand how TCO can be minimised. Nokia were interested enough to commission a follow-up study, executed by LIRNEasia, a regional ICT policy and regulation capacity-building organization active across the Asia Pacific.

So what explanations were found for the USD 5 TCO in the four South Asian countries? The Expanding Horizons article states that "surprisingly, the data led to the exclusion of such factors as per capita GDP, mobile penetration and growth rates, population size and density, and governance." In each instance, the article continues, other countries surveyed with more favourable values for any one of these characteristics also had monthly TCO levels substantially exceeding the crucial USD 5 per month. Instead, "our study told us that the two factors most common among the four countries that had the lowest TCO levels was superior market access and business model innovation," said Mr. Rohan Samarajiva, executive director of LIRNEasia. "In addition to the availability of low-cost handsets and modern wireless infrastructure equipment, a market requires a ‘disruptive competitor’... one who does not play by the established rules."

To summarise, the strategies of these 'disruptive competitors' have, according to the article, involved shifting the operator’s focus to lower income consumers and increasing network utilization. The article continues that this kind of strategy is built on the principle of widening the user base significantly, handling a greater volume of smaller transactions very efficiently, driving down customer acquisition costs and creating an efficient network architecture. All of this is done, continues the article, with the goal of allocating the network’s fixed cost structure over a broader user base while significantly raising more marginal revenue through higher numbers of previously under-served, low-income consumers.

In the case of Bangladesh, my guess is that the first-mover in terms of being a 'disruptive competitor' would have been Grameenphone, famous for its association with the Village Phone microfinance initiative, now replicated in African and other Asian markets, which puts mobile devices in the hands of low-income subscribers in rural areas and enables them to build sustainable businesses. In the case of the other three markets, the identities of the 'disruptive competitors' does not immediately spring to my mind. Perhaps some helpful reader has a view.


Saturday, 21 February 2009

Views from MWC: WiMAX to gain traction in emerging markets?

I recently discussed here the relative merits of and prospects for 3.5G mobile and WiMAX networks in India. A number of news items emanating from this week's Mobile World Congress prompt me to widen the discussion out to the question of how much traction WiMAX backers can expect the technology to gain in emerging markets worldwide.

The first of these items comes courtesy of the, whose correspondent caught up with Wei Yuan, Senior Director of Global Marketing for ZTE in Barcelona. "We anticipate a boom in WiMAX take-up for fixed applications in emerging markets this year," says Wei Yuan, who believes that Russia, the CIS, the Middle East and Africa hold out the best prospects for WiMAX growth for the Chinese telecommunications equipment and network solutions firm.

In terms of serving mobile operators, Wei Yuan believes the '4G' market share will be 80/20 in LTE's favour, but feels that the WiMAX opportunity is still a sizeable one, especially in light of recent announcements by Alcatel-Lucent and troubled Nortel that they are no longer focusing on WiMAX mobility. The article adds weight to this last point, noting that ZTE's WiMAX momentum is highlighted by In-Stat, a market research firm whose recent report states that out of the 94 new WiMAX 16e commercial networks deployed last year, ZTE had 15 of them or 16% of all the networks established worldwide. This apparently sets the Chinese company among the top two WiMAX equipment vendors in 2008. According to the article, the report goes on to say that with ZTE's industry-proven WiMAX terminal solutions and a significant number of commercial WiMAX networks the company is planning to install in the years to come, "there is a high probability that the company can assume the number one spot as WiMAX equipment vendor worldwide."

Just before the Congress, Sean Maloney, Chief Sales and Marketing Officer of Intel provided an update on recent WiMAX developments, a summary of which you can read at "WiMAX is a global story," said Maloney. "The technology is real, here today and has a 2-3 year advantage over other competing technologies."

What stood out for me was Maloney insisting that big deployments in the most highly developed markets are only part of the WiMAX picture. "Too much focus has been placed on developments in the US and Clearwire," said Maloney. "This is a global story; to understand how it is doing you must take a global perspective. From the very beginning, we wanted to have a global, ultra-fast, low-cost wireless internet solution that would help bridge the digital divide and last mile."

Maloney flagged up some of the more notable deployments, including Scartel and Comstar launching services in Russia with up to 10Mbs performance. For Intel, Moscow and St. Petersburg have leapfrogged 3G services to 4G. In the case of the Russian capital, I wonder how damaging this will be for the country's three leading mobile operators MTS, Vimplecom and MegaFon, which have all rolled out 3G services in major cities except Moscow. There have been long delays with the the Russian military freeing up UMTS frequencies and I have discussed here in previous posts the argument that this frustrating 3G launch delay in the country's most lucrative market has created a window of opportunity for the likes of Scartel and Comstar. In the case of the latter, however, it is worth mentioning that the Comstar-UTS group, a leading provider of integrated telecommunication solutions in Moscow and other cities, is controlled by Sistema, which is also the parent company of mobile market leader MTS.

Scartel, says the article, plans services in over 40 Russian cities and launched the world's first GSM/WiMAX phone with HTC. This has not remained the sole GSM/WiMAX device on the market for very long. reported on Tuesday this week that Quantum Telecom had unveiled at the Mobile World Congress in its first Ultra Low Cost GSM-WiMAX handset. I assume this is aimed primarily at emerging markets.

Other emerging markets and middle income countries which have seen WiMAX deployments include:
  • Pakistan, where Wateen Telecom has launched the largest WiMAX network in the world covering 26 cities with plans to grow to over 70 cities; mobile operator Mobilink also launched WiMAX services in August 2008.
  • Venezuela, where MobileMax has deployed WiMAX in Caracas in June 2008 with up to 20K users
  • Brazil, where Embratel, part of Telmex, is operating a WiMAX network covering over 20 cities
It will be interesting to see which emerging markets are home to further WiMAX deployments. I know less about developments in Africa and SE Asia, but Intel and ZTE certainly seem to be vocal, powerful backers of WiMAX as a useful option for service providers in developing countries.

Friday, 20 February 2009

Protectionism and unfair competition in Europe's mobile markets?

As someone used to spending a busy week doing business at the Mobile World Congress, I have spent a little time this week wondering what opportunities I might be missing by not attending this year. Given that I am writing this on a pleasant South Florida morning, looking out at a swimming pool, a line of trees and the St. Lucie River beyond them, it might seem odd that I would spend even a second missing the harsh lighting and the long slog around Barcelona's Fira. Two reports from Spain, however, seem to vindicate my decision to use this short hiatus between one job and another to enjoy a family holiday.

The first comes from Dean Bubley of Disruptive Wireless. Dean highlights a few things he's taking away from this year's MWC, of which I was most interested in the idea of "CTO-to-CFO friction" within mobile operators resulting in revived HSPA+ plans and LTE deployment timelines "being pushed out a bit". Dean also reports detecting less overall pessimism about the economy than he had expected but wonders if that might be "because the real doom-mongers all had their travel expenses cut this year." Interesting though these observations are, the part which made me feel really good about taking a vacation during the cellular sector's annual get-together was Dean awarding a "villains of the year" gong to "the GSMA Stasi demanding photo ID to get into the Fira precincts in the morning." While I daresay I will throw myself back into the MWC fray again in 2010, this is the kind of thing I don't miss.

The other MWC report reaching me here in sunny Palm City, Fla. is the ever-amusing Week in Wireless, penned by the mysterious 'Informer' who observes that attendance was noticeably down on previous years. The Informer’s straw poll of a score or so of exhibitors puts the contraction at an estimated 20-25 per cent. The Informer was intrigued to notice that this year there was no sign of exhibition staff scanning badges at hall entrances, something which has been done in recent years to gauge footfall. The Informer wonders if this was a cost-cutting exercise and reserves judgement about the suggestion made by "one naughty cynic" that not measuring traffic in the exhibition halls simply removes any obligation on the part of the GSMA to report exact figures to exhibitors "in a year where those figures might not have encouraged onsite rebooking." The Informer is quite right to label this a cynical suggestion.

This stuff, as the Informer says, is for the conspiriacy theorists. More important than this, the Informer feels that there was also a lot less news than in years past. This is what makes me feel OK about missing out this time. I daresay the next time I attend the old buzz I know and love will be back.

In my most recent post, I was reflecting on the large population of Polish migrant workers in the UK, something which came up in the context of discussing mobile international money remittance services worldwide. The Informer reports remarks made in Barcelona this week by Chris Bannister, CEO of P4/Play, Poland's newest mobile operator, which has been in business for around two years. Mindful of the significance of this large Polish presence in the UK for his international business, Bannister complained about the serious problems caused by failing to get a roaming agreement with Telefónica-owned O2 UK until only three months ago.

According to the Informer, Bannister also has to contend with mobile number portability taking a whopping 51 days in Poland. The Play CEO says that 15% of his subscribers are former customers of the operator's longer-established rivals. Bannister suggests this figure could double if more effective MNP was introduced. The Informer writes that "the incumbent players, Vodafone (Polkomtel), Orange and T-Mobile (PTC), have no interest in seeing this happen", according to Bannister, who also discussed data roaming rates: he can get Eur 3.75 from T-Mobile (I assume this means T-Mobile Germany) whereas E-Plus will do it for Eur 0.25.

Play is one of the core members of the Mobile Challengers Group, an alliance of third and fourth placed competitors in various European cellular markets. The aim of the group is to challenge the competitive environment of the European mobile industry. One of this association's stated intentions is to create a level playing field for all operators and to provide greater choice and better conditions for consumers.

The Informer writes that five CEOs from the Mobile Challengers Group were on hand in Barcelona to raise their grievances about what they see as the protectionist activities of incumbent carriers. The Informer feels that "the existence of this group reflects the power structure of the GSMA, which is controlled by the largest players" and was told by one employee of one of the member companies, when asked about the Mobile Challengers Group's relations with the GSMA: "they hate us."

The Informer observes that "some might view the challengers’ complaints as sour grapes from carriers that lack the scale to compete with more successful players", but feels that 51 days for MNP in Poland and Mr. Bannister's reported discrepancy in wholesale roaming rates does indeed smack of protectionism.

In addition to all of this, I noticed a few WiMAX stories emanating from Barcelona, some of which have a bearing on the question of how far that technology is set to succeed in emerging markets. I will turn my attention to that next time. For now, I really should get on with enjoying my holiday.

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Cellcos banking on m-financial services in tough 2009?

I recently made reference to the Mobile World Congress preview written by my former colleague, Informa Telecoms & Media Chief Research Officer Mark Newman. Mark's article was in large part dedicated to wondering about how tech vendors would be able to balance showcasing next generation mobile broadband technology with addressing operators' concerns about the need control costs in response to the global economic downturn. Right at the end of the article, however, Mark found the time to say that he felt growth potential in emerging markets will remain a theme of so this year's event, adding that discussions could centre on mobile banking.

There does seem to have been plenty of activity in this area of late, across a wide range of emerging markets. Yesterday's Cellular News email carried a highly relevant article about UK-based Monitise, which says that it has been awarded US$1.5 million by the Africa Enterprise Challenge Fund (AECF) to help fund the launch of its mobile banking and payments service in East Africa.

Monitise East Africa will initially offer services in Uganda and then plans to expand into Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Zambia. The service will enable the provision of banking, payment and money transfer services by both banks and mobile networks, within the regulatory framework of each market. Hugh Scott of AECF said: "By helping enterprises to build successful businesses in Africa, we believe that we can make market systems work better and generate wealth that benefits the entire society. Through the extension of the reach of the banks and allowing people to save, make payments and transfer money to their families, we believe that Monitise East Africa has the potential to transform the economic outlook for literally millions of people. I also firmly believe that in due course many of the people who use the service will, through the empowerment that a savings and payments culture delivers, become business people themselves, creating a truly sustainable economy."

The cellular news piece mentioned that the news from Monitise and AECF coincides with a recent launch by the UK's Department for International Development of a £1.4 million fund to spur the development of biometric and mobile phone-based banking in emerging economies in Asia and Africa. Known as Facilitating Access to Financial Services through Technology (FAST), this project will explore the options for introducing 'branchless banking' in developing countries and look at how technologies such as mobile phone banking can help the poor to access financial services.

Also in the news in recent months have been related operator-led initiatives - or at least initiatives in which certain MNOs are key partners. Again with reference to East Africa, I read a Global Mobile Daily new item just this week about Zain launching mobile banking services in Kenya and Tanzania in partership with Citigroup and Standard Chartered. Branded 'Zap', this service is also set to be extended to Uganda. Zain intends to offer the mobile banking service as part of 'One Network' allowing subscribers to send airtime to each other across Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda without roaming charges. 'Zap' is supported on all devices including ultra low cost handsets (ULCH) which are especially popular in Africa.

I also noticed last month, again courtesy of Global Mobile Daily, that in the same region, Rwandatel, the Rwanda-based unit of Libya's LAP Green will launch a mobile banking and cash transfer service in October 2009, according to reports, allowing subscribers to send and receive money via SMS. The operator has a target of 600,000 subscriptions by the middle of 2009. My feeling is that the low level of mobile penetration in the country (13.36% at y.e. 2008, according to WCIS) will be something of a stumbling block. I daresay that higher rates of penetration in some of the other markets mentioned here will mean that the benefits of mobile banking will spread faster elsewhere.

Ugandan incumbent telco, Uganda Telecom, meanwhile, has selected software developer Redknee to provide its 'Mobile Money 2.0' mobile money transfer solution, according to a Global Mobile Daily article this week, which reports: "Redknee's new Mobile Money 2.0 service will aim to allow subscribers to store and transfer money through their mobile device, and will be targeted at rural communities with poor or limited banking resources. Implementation of the solution will begin as soon as all requirements for launching the service have been approved, and will initially be available for subscribers making domestic payments and transfers, before being expanded to microfinance initiatives."

While there is plenty of mobile banking news coming out of East Africa, Francophone West Africa has seen fewer developments. In December, Global Mobile Daily reported that Orange, together with French bank BNP Paribas, will launch its Orange Money service in Côte d'Ivoire, apparently the first mobile-based payment and money transfer service in Western Africa, according to the operator.

This claim seems a little strange given that around a month earlier, GMD reported that Senegal's Sonatel is to offer the Orange Money mobile money transfer service in the country in partnership with banking group BICIS.

As a UK citizen, currently resident in my home country, and as someone who has lived in Poland, I could not have failed to notice this decade's westward movement of people from the EU accession countries of Central and Eastern Europe. When I returned from Kraków in 1997 after four enjoyable years working there, I initially found it frustrating to have very few opportunities to practise speaking the Polish language, with which I'd made some headway in my time away from home. In the years that followed, it soon became that case that not a day would pass without having the chance to chat with someone po polsku, be it a colleague in the office, the guy delivering groceries, the lady serving me coffee on the way to work or the carpenter quoting me a (very good) price to build a bookcase. It felt like Polska had followed me across the Baltic en masse. I love it that I can buy a jar of bigos and a packet of pierogi z mięsem on the high street of the SE England commuter town where I now live. It also makes me smile to travel along London's Finchley Road and see Polish language bus shelter advertisements for money remittance services. My guess is that a good proportion of the monies earned by the grocery van driver, the coffee shop lady and the carpenter have been sent back to Poland to support families there.

In December, the UK's NatWest bank gave these members of our large Polish migrant community a new option - send money to Poland from the ‘Polish Welcome Account' via a mobile money transfer service. Maybe it's a pity that this service was not launched sooner. My feeling is that the number of Poles working in the UK is set to fall rather than rise. That said, a Banking Times article of 23rd December indicates that Polish migrant workers send an estimated £1 billion a year to their homeland.

Migrant workers sending money home via mobile remittance services could be one of the m-financial services applications with the best prospects. Of these, I would guess that the new international version of Safaricom's M-Pesa services may become one of the most widely known.
M-Pesa, developed in partnership with Vodafone, has just netted another award at Mobile World Congress. Receiving the awards, Safaricom CEO Michael Joseph said: “We are very proud of the M-Pesa service. It continues to impact positively on the millions of Kenyans who have no access to banking services."

Now, in addition to Safaricom subscribers being able to transfer money and make payments within their home country, they can now take advantage of an international money transfer service between Kenya and the UK. According to a Global Mobile Daily article back in December, users of the service will be able to send money from Western Union agents in the UK to subscribers to Safaricom's M-Pesa mobile money transfer service.

Hot off the press today is news of further investment in an MVNO set up specifically to leverage the demand for international remittance services for migrant workers. Japan's Sumitomo Corporation today announced its involvment in Malaysia's first-ever MVNO, Merchantrade Asia Sdn Bhd, whose focus is prepaid mobile and remittance services targeting foreign workers, from Bangladesh, Indonesia, Nepal, the Philippines, Vietnam, India and Sri Lanka. The press release indicates that in Malaysia there are over 2 million foreign workers in various industries such as construction, plantation, manufacturing and service sector.

Merchantrade launched its mobile service in mid 2007 and as of January 2009, it has 94,000 active subscribers, according to the press relase, which continues: "as for the remittance service, Merchantrade obtained the license to operate remittance business from Central Bank of Malaysia in 2007. One of the pioneer non-bank organizations to receive license to operate remittance business in Malaysia, Merchantrade outbound remittance transaction numbers is growing aggressively. Such remittance service is in line of the global efforts targeting to secure the transparency on the personal remittance."

All of the above suggests that Mark Newman is not too far wide of the Mark in tipping mobile financial services in emerging markets as a bright spot in a tough 2009.

Monday, 16 February 2009

How rural users gain from connectivity in emerging markets

The theme to which I have really warmed in the last few days is that of how telecoms and Internet services are improving the lives of poor people in developing countries, especially those who live away from major towns and cities. I have tried to examine how this kind of humanitarian objective can be reconciled with for-profit telecoms sector businesses seeing a solid return on their investments and thereby building shareholder value.

My most recent post, for example, mentioned Village Phone projects in Bangladesh, Indonesia and those involving subsidiaries of MTN in Uganda and Rwanda. This did include a video clip about the Village Phone initiative in Uganda, but I am conscious that I have otherwise been a bit vague about precisely how access to services makes a positive impact on the economies and social conditions of rural communities in emerging markets. In the following clip, which relates to the Rwanda project, we see how a small business works more efficiently by gaining the facility to order materials online rather than having someone travel to make a purchase. The same business has also gained from being able to access international markets for its products.

As well as showing us the benefits for users of services, we also hear echoes of a point discussed here. In the clip, MTN Rwanda CEO Themba Khumalo says: "we are creating a base of potential customers into the future. Not the very far future. The near future." This chimes neatly with the 2005 quote from Neil Gough of Vodafone which I dug up for Saturday's entry: "all of these results were achieved through enterprise rather than aid. A clear success story in commercial terms but one that also had a profound impact on the development of the economy and society."

This is taken from the Autumn 2008 edition of Ericsson 's online magazine 'Telecom Report' and is part of a longer video article on Corporate Social Responsibility. In my last post, I looked at the enthusiasm of Ericsson's rival Nokia Siemens Siemens Networks for work of this kind, quoting the company's Head of New Growth Markets, Rauno Granath who is adamant that "there is still a lot of pure business sense for operators to reach the rural areas." With that in mind, I do wonder why the presenter of Ericsson's video magazine saw the need to round up the item by asking whether the case of the basket weavers of Rwanda is "a marketing ploy or sincere commitment", particularly because it's not immediately clear whose possible 'marketing ploy' he is referring to. Does he mean a marketing ploy on the part of MTN? It is hard to tell, not least because I am not sure who commissioned and produced the film from Rwanda. MTN? Ericsson? Some third party? Whatever the story, I feel sure that Ericsson would not want the remark to suggest any cynicism on their company's part regarding the idea of bringing communications services to poor people in rural areas in the developing world - not least because in late 2007, the Swedish vendor announced its own partnership with the United Nations and The Earth Institute to provide connectivity to African villages through the same Millennium Villages project mentioned in the Rwanda clip.

In the clip, and via Ericsson's November 2007 announcement, we can see that as well as improving the efficiency of the villages' nascent entrepreneurs, access to the Internet is being used to benefit the education of children. Ericsson's Millennium Villages announcement also emphasised the health benefits, quoting Jeffrey Sachs, special advisor to the United Nations Secretary-General and head of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, a key partner in the Millennium Villages project: "A mobile phone is one core breakthrough technology; it won’t end malaria by itself, but it can make it possible for a mother whose child is dying of malaria to access a community health worker to ensure that her child gets the emergency treatment they need to stay alive."

I only wish these points were always so clearly articulated in the general news media. The UK's Guardian newspaper supports development work carried out by the African Medical and Research Foundation (Amref) and Farm-Africa in Katine, a rural sub-county of north-east Uganda. The project was launched by Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger and is being funded by donations from Guardian and Observer (the paper's Sunday edition) readers and Barclays Bank, which initially gave £500,000 to the project and will match fund donations over the course of the project up to £1m.

The Katine project is more than just a fundraising push. Via the Guardian's dedicated Katine website readers can follow how the money is spent, how development works (the successes and the failures) and how the lives of the sub-county's 25,000 inhabitants are changing.

While this all sounds very good, something I did find rather frustrating was an article earlier this month, which I felt made a fairly weak case for spending donors' money on providing Katine resident with Internet access. I felt the flippant title ('Learning to surf') and the fact that the piece does not really go into how Internet access will benefit the villagers makes it an unhelpful contribution to the debate around this.

Last month, however, there was a better Katine article covering mobile phone use and how "the latest technology is enabling villagers to bypass middlemen and find out the prices their crops will command." I also noticed that Ken Banks of fame responded to the article's point about how mobile users in Katine charge their phones. There is more about this issue from Ken on one of his 2008 blog posts.

That's all for now. In the next hour I have to head for the airport to take the last family vacation before starting my challenging, exciting new assignment. I daresay that by the next time I am on online there will be plenty of news emanating from Barcelona worthy of comment here.

Sunday, 15 February 2009

Emerging markets to get a deserved look in at a downturn-themed Mobile World Congress

An averagely busy life does not allow for blog entries as long as novellas. I also doubt that posts as long as that would be read from start to finish by equally busy readers. Some topics, though, are worth exploring at length, and I was conscious yesterday of having downed tools before getting close to sharing more than a tiny fraction of what I've learned about the theme I was discussing - how successfully the telecoms sector is reconciling its for-profit commercial imperatives with a desire to improve the lives of poor people in developing countries. What follows today, therefore, is a little more exploration of this broad topic.

A company which got a mention here yesterday was Grameenphone, the cellco which owns the largest share of the mobile market in Bangladesh - 46.75% by December 2008, according to Informa Telecoms & Media's World Cellular Information Service. We considered the idea that the MNO's owners, Telenor and Grameen Telecom, have been at odds, with Muhammad Yunus, the Nobel Laureate behind the Grameen family of companies apparently claiming that Telenor's need to build shareholder value has not always sat comfortably with the social and non-profit agenda of its Bangladeshi partners.

For many, I will be rehashing a very familiar story as I take a look at the form this agenda has taken. Some readers may know the story less well and not be fully aware of how cellcos elsewhere in the world have been inspired by Grameen Telecom/Grameenphone initiatives. The tale is one of my favourite examples of the telecoms industry changing lives for the better so I will indulge myself by repeating it, hoping that there is something new here for at least one reader of this blog.

The most famous Grameen Telecom/Grameenphone project must be Village Phone, an inititative which provides telecoms services to underprivileged people in rural Bangladesh. Prospective Village Phone subscribers must first become members of Grameen Bank and take out a small loan. This loan is then used to purchase a handset and SIM card. Once given a phone, the subscriber is encouraged to provide services to people in the adjoining area. In this way, the borrower repays the debt to the bank and earns a profit. In 2006, I welcomed a representative of Grameen Telecom to a conference I hosted in Dubai. Participants watched a moving video which showed how the Village Phone project was transforming the lives of poor Bangladeshi villages, mostly women.

This model has been replicated elsewhere in Asia and also in Africa. I think the most recent example is that of the Village Phone project launched in Indonesia by the Grameen Foundation, Qualcomm and Bakrie Telecom, a CDMA WLL operator that is seeking to establish a national presence with its Esia brand.

In July 2008, Global Mobile Daily reported on the project, whose name, 'Uber ESIA', means 'joint cooperation' in the Indonesian language, and which is aimed at delivering affordable access to remote rural areas using 3G CDMA technology. Similar to the original Bangladeshi model, the plan is to work with local Indonesian microfinance institutions to enable clients to borrow sums needed to purchase a Village Phone 'business in a box' consisting of a mobile 3G CDMA-based device and charger, marketing materials, tariff posters, business cards and training materials.

Earlier examples of the Village Phone model being exported are those of the Grameen Foundation's collaboration with MTN's Ugandan subsidiary (launched in 2003) and with MTN Rwanda (launched in 2006).

This clip (in Dutch, with English subtitles) tells the story of the Ugandan initiative:

Qualcomm's involvement in the Indonesian Village Phone project is further evidence to support a point made in yesterday's post - that telecoms operators are not the only communications services ecosystem participants which can support initiatives designed to improve the lives of poor people in emerging markets.

Another example of this is the 'Village Connection' system developed by Nokia Siemens Networks. I remember this being discussed in an email-only publication to which I was once a regular contributor, the weekly 'Telecoms Vision' newsletter associated with the Informa Telecoms & Media Com World Series. In February last year, this carried an article based on an interview with Rauno Granath, NSN's Head of New Growth Markets. Granath explained that the Village Connection solution, which is comprised of GSM access points located in villages, connected via IP links to regional access centres, was "carrying live traffic in many villages in India." The article stated that the system lends itself to new business models such as operators potentially franchising parts of their business to local village entrepreneurs.

Granath was keen, however, for NSN not to be prescriptive about business models, saying "the Village Connection solution enables new thinking in sharing the responsibilities as well as the business between the new stakeholders, but it doesn't mandate it. I would expect to see a whole variety of ways of working." The article suggested that as different business models emerge, so too could different operator approaches to charging, and went on to discuss other offerings in the NSN portfolio designed to make taking on new subscribers even more viable. An example given was that of improved radio performance and planning through which it becomes possible to allow a reduction in sites, saving money on hardware and, in isolated areas, on power. Also discussed were further ways of reducing power consumption, and thus the Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) for prospective new subscribers from among the poor of the developing world. These included base stations that can work without air conditioning and combined solar and wind power systems.

Another efficiency measure discussed by Granath concerned airtime distribution purely on an SMS basis rather than scratch cards. "It sounds trivial," said Granath, "but when we think about the tens or hundreds of millions of vouchers that operators need to distribute throughout their subscriber base every year, it starts to get big effects."

The article made the point that these are all admirable attempts to make supplying services to rural populations viable but asked the question of whether such potential subscriber additions are really worth the effort for operators. Granath was adamant that "there is still a lot of pure business sense for operators to reach the rural areas, particularly in markets like India where even the rural population is dense." Apart from which, it may be unavoidable if, as Granath pointed out, universal service obligations are imposed by governments.

For more on the Nokia Siemens Networks view on extending service availability in emerging markets, I would heartily recommend a look at the latest edition of the company's Expanding Horizons newsletter. With an editorial co-authored by Rauno Granath, this is a useful round up not only of NSN's activities in this field, but also related material such as an interview with Gabriel Solomon of the GSM Association, who worries that high taxes on mobile communications are threatening to suppress economic and social development in sub-Saharan Africa.

As I continue to tease former colleagues at Informa Telecoms & Media whose Facebook status updates suggest they are gearing up for a week of very hard work at the Mobile World Congress (while I head off for a family holiday in Florida), I was pleased to note that a senior figure at the company is predicting that the effects of the economic downturn notwithstanding, emerging markets will get a look in during the various conference sessions and workshops and in the countless discussions between individual participants.

Mark Newman, the business information and events firm's Chief Research Officer begins his preview of this year's Barcelona show by asking how how exhibiting vendors "can... showcase new mobile Internet devices, mobile applications and next generation mobile broadband network technology while at the same time satisfy[ing] operators' overriding single objective in 2009 - cutting costs as the mobile industry faces up to the global economic downturn."

All very austere. Almost as harsh as my wife returning from a lunch with friends today and sharing with me the news that several people present have either been made redundant or are expecting the axe to fall very soon.

My own view of the downturn, however, is to be grateful for the fact that however long or deep this recession proves to be, none of us living in the developed economies of Europe or North America will experience the levels of absolute poverty suffered by people in what we call emerging markets. I was therefore heartened by the final comment of Mark's MWC preview: "Growth potential in emerging markets has been a regular theme over the last few years and will remain so at this year's event". For me, that's exactly as it should be, especially if we take the view that telcos and vendors making a profit in developing economies is compatible with improved lives for the poor.

Saturday, 14 February 2009

Reconciling the profit motive with the development of the economy and society in emering markets

On what is the eve of Mobile World Congress week, I am fielding friendly messages from people suggesting meetings there. For the first time in recent years I must decline these because I am using the short gap between my last job and the next one to catch up with relations in the Sunshine State of Florida. Sitting by the pool in the sunshine with a nice cold drink, I will really miss lugging a laptop and printed materials around airless meeting rooms and giant exhibition halls. No, really.

Earlier this week, I posted a link to this blog on the wall of a Facebook group set up by someone I met at last year's MWC and with whom I have corresponded on-and-off since then. The Social Mobile Group was set up by Ken Banks, the founder of FrontlineSMS and Ken specialises in the application of mobile technology for positive social and environmental change in developing countries, having lived and worked in countries including Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, Mozambique, Cameroon, Zambia, Uganda and Zimbabwe.

In 2007 Ken hit the headlines when his text messaging application, FrontlineSMS, was used to help monitor the Nigerian Presidential elections, as discussed in a My Social Actions blog post by Peter Dietz. Since launch the software has been successfully implemented in countries including Indonesia, Zimbabwe, the Philippines and Pakistan.

With the free FrontlineSMS software, a laptop computer and a mobile phone, users can create a central communications hub for sending text messages to large groups of people. One of the most recent applications involves supporting a telemedicine initiative in Malawi.

I was briefly a 'rotating group officer' in Ken's Facebook group but I will admit to being rather tardy and irregular with my appointed task there, which was to add articles of possible interest to group members. I hope that giving Ken's remarkable efforts a plug here goes some way towards mitigating my ineffectiveness as a contributor to the group. That said, Ken's work is so often reported in the press these days (rightly so!) that a link from this blog is only a very small gesture in the context of all that coverage.

At last year's MWC, Ken stood out for me as the only person I met whose motivation for attending was not primarily commercial. That said, there does exist a strong relationship between commercial, for-profit telecoms enterprises and improvements in the the lives of people in developing countries. It has been argued, for example, that just by making connectivity available, mobile operators can provide a vital boost for growing economies.

An article carried last month by India's Economic Times is just one of the most recent examples of this view being discussed. It cites a yet-to-be-released study, 'The Impact of Mobile Phones,' conducted by the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations (ICRIER). The study is said to show that Indian states with 10% higher mobile phone penetration will enjoy a 1.2% higher annual average growth rate than those with a lower teledensity. The study flags up the uneven distribution of mobile and Internet services in India. According to the article, "Delhi's penetration rate is in excess of 100% but states such as Bihar, Orissa, Assam and Madhya Pradesh have not yet reached the critical 25% threshold. In addition, access to the Internet is only around 5% nationally and in some states, such as Bihar, the figure falls to 0.1%."

Studies of this sort are not new. In the winter of 2005 I was developing a conference, which I hosted in Dubai early the following year. The broad theme was around how operators could cost-effectively reconcile the profit motive with extending the availability of services to under-connected regions and population segments in developing countries. In the research phase I spoke with Dr. Leonard Waverman, who was then Professor and Chair of the Department of Economics at the London Business School. Dr. Waverman had contributed to a paper titled The Impact of Telecoms on Economic Growth in Developing Countries, which found that "a developing country that had an average of 10 more mobile phones per 100 population between 1996 and 2003 would have enjoyed per capita GDP growth that was 0.59 percent higher than an otherwise identical country."

This paper was included in a public policy document produced by Vodafone, on whose Advisory Board on the Social Importance of Mobile Dr. Waverman serves. The document, Africa: the Impact of Mobile Phones, includes opening remarks from Neil Gough, then the company's Director of International Institutions. Gough asserts that "while there is a lot of focus on low absolute rates of mobile penetration, this underestimates the real impact that mobile is having through the innovative and entrepreneurial ways in which the technology has been extended
beyond the model of individual ownership. Thousands of jobs have been created and some very successful indigenous companies have emerged." A point made by Gough to which I would like to pay particular attention is that "all of these results were achieved through enterprise rather than aid. A clear success story in commercial terms but one that also had a profound impact on the development of the economy and society" (my emphasis).

Neil Gough was another helpful research respondent as I worked to construct the agenda and round up speakers for the 2006 conference in Dubai. Gough, now in the related role of Director of Public Policy for Emerging Markets, was in the news in October last year when he articulated Vodafone's desire for a short delay in auction for 3G operating licenses in India, asking for more time in order to raise adequate funds in credit crunch conditions.

I remember a number of respondents I spoke with back in 2005-06 wanting to make the case for governments in emerging markets doing more to enable operators to run sustainable, profitable businesses. This is picked up again by the recent Economic Times article about the Indian market: "According to experts, there is a serious need for policy shift. Policy makers should consider restructuring the current caps on foreign investment." The article quotes Professor Rajat Kathuria, who led the research team behind the ICRIER report: "Government needs to re-look at the licensing policy. The tax implied is very high. Then there is USFO policy that needs to be restructured. The amount that they take away from the operators is very high. These changes could stimulate greater investment in Indian telecom industry, improve access to communication in poorer areas and ultimately lead to increased economic growth."

Looking at the whole mobile services ecosystem, it is not just operators that can make a positive impact on the lives of poor people in emerging markets. Another recent story from India concerns the Tamil Nadu Social Welfare Board, the Madras Christian Council of Social Service (MCCSS) and the Manpower Awareness Social Service (MASS) collaborating with handset vendors Nokia and Motorola and with motherboard manufacturer Foxconn to find alternative employment for one particular disadvantaged group.

My understanding is that members of India's transgender community routinely suffer from discrimination and are in most cases economically marginalised as a result. According to the article, about 100 members of this community will be trained for a month and will then assemble parts for these three companies. Nokia, Motorola and Foxconn have sub-contracted the assembly of spare parts to the MASS Trust. Poet Salma, Chairperson of the Tamil Nadu Social Welfare Board, said "This is a good opportunity for transgenders whose livelihood has for long depended on begging and commercial sex." The article also states that the MASS Trust has been acting as a facilitating agency to enable people with disabilities and those in rural areas to get jobs, adding that this is the first time transgenders have been included in the plan.

Working to have a positive impact in emerging markets is not, however, always without pitfalls. In September last year, Cellular News picked up the widely reported story of Bangladeshi cellco Grameenphone being accused of 'using child labour'. This is not the only bump in the road for the generally successful, market leading MNO. An October article on the Finance Asia website reported a "public tussle" the company's two shareholders Telenor and Grameen Telecom. Muhammad Yunus, the man behind the Grameen family of companies apparently claimed at an Oslo news conference in early September that "the aims of the two owners were not in accord", saying that while both Telenor and Grameen Telecom want Grameenphone to succeed, "the agenda of Telenor to maximise returns for the benefit of its owners is in conflict with the social and non-profit agenda of Grameen Telecom". It seems that Yunus cited the case of child labour being used at a workshop belonging to one of Grameenphone's suppliers, which he said helped bring the entire Grameen name into disrepute. Another issue for the Nobel Laureate seems to be the issue of ownership. According to the article, Yunus said that when Grameenphone was founded in 1996, Telenor agreed that in six years it would be majority-owned and run by Bangladeshis. A few days after Yunus made these comments, the article continues, a conciliatory press release was put out: "Both the shareholders of Grameenphone, Telenor and Grameen Telecom...have reiterated their continued commitment to the success of Grameenphone and to the ongoing IPO process." Even if the problems had been ironed out, the article asserts, such a high profile disagreement between the major shareholders will not have helped persuade international investors to participate in this frontier market.

I am warming to this theme. There is so much more to say about the good work done by telecoms companies in emerging markets - and about the challenges they face. I shall continue mulling over these issues in my next post. Until then, I'd just like to wish my former colleagues at Informa Telecoms & Media a safe trip to Barcelona. I know you will all work hard and wear out a lot of shoe leather in those exhibition halls, chaps (and chapesses). Enjoy. I'll raise a cold drink to you from my Florida retreat early next week.


Friday, 13 February 2009

Mobile price wars in the downturn: time to do battle?

Still reeling from the roaming bill I racked up on my last trip to the UAE in December, I was interested to see the Dubai Chronicle reporting a big cut in international calling prices on the part of Emirates Integrated Telecommunications Company, better known as Du.

For the first time, Du's prepaid customers can now use a AED 200 recharge card and receive AED 320 credit to towards international calling. Other Du recharge card denominations of AED 100, AED 50 and AED 20 will provide instant credits of AED 150, AED 70 and AED 26 respectively, to be used towards international calling.

Farid Faraidooni, EVP Commercial at Du says: "Every dirham counts, and more so in the case of the UAE, with a large expatriate population with the need to stay in touch with their loved ones back home."

This might make me think more seriously about getting myself a prepaid Du SIM for future trips to the Emirates. However, my situation is similar to that of Dean Bubley of Disruptive Wireless, who, in an amusing blog post this week, describes himself a frequent traveller, but to lots of different countries. Writing this Wednesday, Dean bemoaned the costs and complications of staying in touch with work contacts, friends and family while attending next week's Mobile World Congress. "One thing that's immediately apparent," writes Dean, "is that despite all the talk of VoIP, SIM-swapping and the like, I'm going to end up with a large bill for voice and SMS roaming. I've got dozens of meetings, loads of people I'll need to contact (or be contacted by), inevitable changes to schedules and venues, plus all the usual work and personal call traffic I'd normally get in the UK. I'll be paying for both inbound and outbound roaming calls."

"It's clearly not an option just to get a local SIM card - most of the people I need to contact will be outside Spain and there are too many people likely to contact me to inform everyone of a new number." Given that, as Dean says, keeping a Spanish SIM year-round would not work because it would expire after a few months without use, I had to sympathise when I read his remarks about WiFi not being an option due the likely (he says notorious!) congestion on the network provided at the Barcelona Fira (MWC venue). Dean also criticises VoWLAN service providers for having "haphazard support of SMS, which is absolutely mandatory at trade shows where you have back-to-back meetings."

Dean's suggested remedy for international travellers? "What would be good would be a way to get a local SIM or account/number - ideally without physically having to buy one - and for this to automatically propagated to all your contacts when you were in-country. Or for it to somehow be linked to your existing home account in the network."

That sounds useful. Let's see. In the meantime, after reading about Du's reduced international call charges, I noticed a couple more stories about operators slashing prices. Both relate to markets from where a large number of the UAE's expatriate workers originate.

According to an article last week on the Bangladesh news portal, the CDMA operator CityCell is "struggling to remain in business... with operating losses escalating to almost double in the first quarter." The company, of which SingTel is the largest shareholder, has apparently suffered as a result of having to subsidise handsets. The article asserts that only market-leading
Grameenphone is profitable, "with other players bleeding for years."

While device subsidies are said to be hurting CityCell, greater pain is apparently being caused by an intense price war. Says Zia Uddin, an analyst with New York-based asset management company LR Global: "Intense competition has led to [an] unhealthy price war in [the] Bangladesh mobile phone market. Most of the companies have to subsidise handset prices to woo clients," he said. "In addition, the ARPU and [tariffs] in Bangladesh are possibly the lowest in the world".

CityCell, the country's first ever MNO, seems poorly positioned to grind it out in this kind of environment, having steadily lost market share to rival GSM operators since Grameenphone, Banglalink (then called Sheba Telecom) and AKTEL entered the market in 1997. The CDMA carrier now has just 4.03% of the subscriptions in Bangladesh.

Meanwhile in India, according to an story carried by Global Mobile Daily last month, the entry of CDMA operator Reliance Communications onto the GSM scene has already triggered rivals Airtel, Vodafone and Idea Cellular into price cutting mode.

This is not surprising if, as reported by the Economic Times yesterday, Reliance plans to slash its GSM rates by 50%. However, the same article cites a recent study by Lirneasia which deduces that such a move is not likely to make a significant dent in telcos' existing subscriber base.

Lirneasia, a not-for-profit ICT policy and regulation capacity building organisation working in nine South Asian countries, conducted a survey on mobile users at the bottom of the socioeconomic pyramid which shows that even the most cost sensitive subscriber segment has reached a stage where it is driven more by service offering, brand loyalty and number retention than by price discounts.

T.V. Ramachandran, head of India GSM operators' trade association the COAI supports the findings of the Lirneasia study. This seems like a sensible response from a body whose members could suffer badly if a price war is escalated and sustained.

It will be interesting to watch developed and emerging markets worldwide to see how many operators feel this economic downturn compels them to cut prices heavily and how many take the view outlined in the Lirneasia report - that it makes more sense to compete on quality and brand value.