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

Saturday, 7 March 2009

Adventures in telecoms socialism

In January, writing an article for the Com World Series blog, I discussed the links apparently being formed across Latin America by state-owned telecoms operators from countries with left-of-centre governments. The starting point was the news that Venezuelan incumbent telco CANTV was considering a strategic partnership with Ecuador's beleagured CDMA MNO Alegro PCS. I mentioned my own enjoyable trip to Caracas in April 2008, during which I had the opportunity to visit CANTV HQ. The operator had been renationalised by President Hugo Chávez in 2007. The external affairs representative whom I met was keen to tell me about how the organisation was looking to develop partnerships with telcos in politically sympathetic states such as Cuba and Nicaragua.

At that point, I was only aware of Latin America as an arena in which state-owned telecoms service providers from countries with left-leaning governments might look specifically to markets run by political fellow travellers for new opportunities.

Last month, however, I learned from a brief Global Mobile Daily report that Vietnamese operator Viettel, owned by the nation's military, has selected Huawei and Ericsson to provide equipment for expanding its networks overseas into North Korea, Cuba, and Venezuela. The report notes that the operator has yet to enter any of these markets, and states that, according to Viettel Deputy Director Tran Phuoc Minh, discussions are planned with telecoms authorities in each country.

This is just the latest move in an international expansion strategy with which Viettel has already made progress. Last month, Viettel's subsidiary in Cambodia, using the Metfone brand, officially launched mobile services. The unit is said to have over 1000 base stations supported by a 5000km fibre-optic network linking all provinces in Cambodia. The new operation reportedly attracted 500,000 subscribers in its first three months of trial services. A Saigon Times article on the operator's foray into neighbouring Cambodia indicates that the new cellco will target low-income subscribers with a wide range of low-priced services and packages. Viettel Deputy General Director Nguyen Manh Hung is quoted as saying that this approach is not only about customer acquisition but is also intended to "contribute to society".

Viettel, the article states, also announced the provision of free Internet services for nearly 1000 Cambodian schools within the next five years. Rural rollout seems to be high on the Metfone agenda, with the operating planning to "extend its coverage to Cambodia’s remote villages and islands."

Meanwhile in Venezuela, CANTV's mobile arm Movilnet is set to launch a low-cost mobile phone on the local market. A Telecompaper report this Thursday states that the device, dubbed 'El Vergatario' is the first mobile handset produced in the country. According to Movilnet President Jacqueline Faria the device will be the cheapest available in Venezuela. To be launched for Mother's Day in May, the CDMA phone will be available for VEF 30 (USD 13.95). El Vergatario will be produced at the Venezuelan Telecommunications Factory (Vetelca), a joint stock company, in which the Venezuelan state holds an 85% stake, with the remaining 15% owned by ZTE. The article suggests that Vetelca hopes to sell around 600,000 Vergatarios this year.

Movilnet's subscribers seem to be a remarkably loyal bunch and the country's mobile market overall is one in which the three competitors' share of the subscriber base has remained largely unchanged for some time. Movilnet's competitors have not remained complacent. Movistar Venezuela has been steadily migrating customers from a legacy CDMA to a newer GSM network since March 2007 and has more recently launched W-CDMA services. Digitel, owned by Venezuelan businessman Oswaldo Cisneros, is also working to roll out 3G services in two stages, starting this month, according to local news portal Ciberespacio. The operator currently offers Huawei USB modems and by mid-2009 will integrate voice and data services.

OK, comrades. That's all I have on telecom-socialism for now.

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