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

Sunday, 8 March 2009

Africa or India: Which will be first to see mass-market MVNOs?

I was pleased to see confirmation that those to whom I handed over the task of organising this year's annual Eurasia Com conference in Istanbul have found a speaking slot for Cristobal Alonso, Chief Commercial Officer at mmChannel, a technology company dedicated to the development and management of digital entertainment services and platforms on a B2B format.

Cristobal and I have been in contact since mid-2007 without ever having the opportunity to meet face-to-face. This is a shame for me given how much he has to share about boosting the take-up of mobile value-added services. You can get some sense of Cristobal's ideas by having a look at his blog, where I noticed that he and I have something in common - we have both recently had the pleasure of attending a Mobile Monday Istanbul meeting. In January, I gained from the wonderful networking opportunity which Mobile Monday events provide and made a short presentation on the theme of mobile social networking. Cristobal was at the February get-together, and on his blog he reports on that meeting's MVNO-themed discussions. I imagine that was a lively session, given that the mooted market entry of MVNOs in Turkey has been something of a hot topic for a while now. Cristobal is quite right to compliment the MoMo Istanbul organiser Natali Yeşilbahar for the great job she has done to boost attendance and further improve the usefulness of the discussion sessions.

I guess Cristobal maintains a keen interest in whether MVNOs will succeed in emerging markets, given that his blog also mentions the insightful materials on this theme recently prepared by his colleague Carlos Valdecantos. Carlos asks whether there is any realistic prospect for successful MVNOs in Africa, where "most markets are experiencing pent-up demand, customer segmentation has only started to be a buzz word, and capacity is scarce." As Carlos notes, this is a markedly different scenario from that seen in the mature markets where MVNOs have sought to exploit the challenges faced by their host network operators, namely "slowing subscriber growth, lack of consumer segmentation, and excess network capacity."

As well as discussing which MVNO business models might work in an African context, Carlos segments the continent's many markets according to the likelihood of their being able to bear the entry of MVNOs. Carlos believes the high potential markets (good market size/GDP, strong economic liberlisation and a "dynamic" telecoms sector) are Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Ghana and South Africa:

Assuming the onset of the global economic crisis has not caused him to revise his view, I assume that Peter Boyd, the former CEO of Virgin Mobile South Africa, would agree with this assertion. Back in July 2008, Boyd was quoted in a Middle East and Africa Wireless Analyst article as saying that "if there is one place where consumers need choice, it's Africa." Boyd argued that "you don't need multiple network licenses – that's an inefficient allocation of resources. Having an environment that lets people plug in an MVNO is a much more efficient way to serve consumers."

My former Informa Telecoms & Media colleague Matthew Reed wrote the article, noting that "even in South Africa, MVNOs are technically illegal. The only way for Virgin to introduce one was by forming a joint venture with Cell C, which holds a license to operate." If this and other barriers to MVNO market entry could be overcome, Boyd felt that the MVNO model enables the host network to sell its spare capacity, giving it new income to recoup expenses or invest in extending its coverage. This sounds quite compelling when applied to markets in which MNOs and governments jointly have the aim of extending the availability of services to less affluent prospective subscribers in the under-connected hinterland.

Matt's article noted that Virgin Mobile, then lobbying the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa for reduced interconnection fees, had acquired very few subscribers compared to the more than 40 million subscriptions shared by South Africa's three MNOs. Matt noted that while Virgin Moblile was lagging far behind the MNOs in this regard, "one figure where [it] is ahead of its rivals is ARPU, as a result of targeting higher-spending users rather than the mass market."

Has this situation improved for Virgin Mobile South Africa? It seem the answer is a pretty clear 'no'. Now led by new CEO Steve Bailey, the company has yet to have had a significant impact on the market, according to a more recent MEAWA article. Writing last month, Dario Talmesio notes that although the MVNO still has the highest ARPU in the market, "it had signed up just 600,000 subs by end-2008, and only 200,000 of them were active – giving it a market share of just 0.4%."

Talmesio reminds us that before launch, Virgin Mobile South Africa had hoped to acquire 10% of South Africa's mobile market within five years and asserts that target is now unrealistic. Talmesio feels that the company is unable to differentiate its services other than by using its distinctive branding. 3G services are not an option, notes Talmesio, because host operator Cell C, has not deployed a W-CDMA network. Of the three cellular network operators competing in South Africa, Cell C is alone in not having a 3G offering. Rivals Vodacom (50.98% market share according to WCIS) and MTN (35.55% share) began to sign up 3G subscribers in December 2004 and June 2005 respectively.

Virgin Mobile is also prevented from lowering its prices, Talmesio writes, because of the high interconnection rates it continues to pay. Talmesio also states that the MVNO has a more limited handset portfolio than its rivals.

In contrast to Virgin Mobile's highest ranking ARPU, host network Cell C had the lowest ARPU in the country in 2008, according to Informa Telecoms & Media. Talmesio writes that "from Cell C's perspective, hosting MVNOs makes sense when they can complement Cell C's market position and reach a different segment of the country's customers."

Talmesio seems to feel that Virgin Mobile South Africa has just one unique selling point: "the simplicity of its semiflat tariff" with "VMSA customers pay[ing] a premium rate in return for getting a simplified tariff".

Talmesio also argues that lateness to market may have worked against Virgin Mobile in South Africa, noting that "mobile penetration was already 72% when VMSA launched" and that "by contrast, the UK's penetration was just 40% when Virgin launched [there]". Therefore, he writes, "VMSA had to try to lure users away from incumbents rather than focus on greenfield users, as Virgin Mobile UK did in the late 90s."

If this last point is one of the most important inhibitors to strong growth for Virgin Mobile South Africa, this might suggest that, favourable regulatory regimes permitting, less highly penetrated markets in Africa might prove more fruitful for future MVNOs. Of the countries coloured green on the map above, perhaps Ghana looks the best bet, then. I also wonder whether Nigeria might be a viable environment for new MVNOs.

Whether MVNOs do succeed in Africa, or in other emerging markets, remains to be seen. Writing for Billing World in September, Patrick McGrory of customer care and billing giant Amdocs felt that "new services — Internet access, VoIP, WiMAX — and evolving business models like MVNOs enable cheaper and faster deployment in areas that previously were not viable prospects".

Two companies seemingly not about to launch MVNOs in an emerging market are Ericsson and Nokia. A Total Telecom report last Friday rubbishes recent rumours that the Scandinavian firms were planning to offer MVNO services in India.

"The speculation is completely incorrect – it's pure nonsense," an Ericsson spokeswoman told Total Telecom.

"Nokia is not planning on offering MVNO services in India," commented a Nokia Siemens Networks spokesman, who added "we provided input and advice to the Telecoms Regulatory Authority of India to help educate them with our experience of providing services to MVNOs, and that was it."

The denials of these two companies notwithstanding, some analysts feel that the Indian market is ripe for exploitation by MVNOs. The Total Telecom article quotes a research note from Ovum which states that "being able to enter a huge market with a population of 1.2 billion people when the mobile penetration rate is extremely low at around 26% is certainly a dream prospect for MVNOs, and many will find it hard to resist." My former Informa Telecoms & Media colleague James Moore is quoted as saying "the MVNO model will be an opportunity for GSM operators without a 3G license to offer WCDMA services."

If Africa continues to be a hostile environment for prospective MVNOs, perhaps it will be India which proves to be the first emerging or middle income market in which virtual wireless operators gain traction and become a large scale phenomenon.


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