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

Thursday, 16 April 2009

A naked giant in a perfect storm

I enjoyed constructing the title of today's offering. The image of a stoic titan leaning into a howling maelstrom of wind and rain, bereft of protective clothing, is a colourful one, not least on a rare day of hazy sunshine and light Spring breezes here in the north London suburbs (when I started this; the rain is now hammering down). I don't expect it's at all obvious what the title refers to, however. I just looked back at recent post headings and thought they've all been a little too prosaic. That Spring feeling just seems to have me waxing lyrical. Dont' worry. What follows is the usual sensible stuff... and the nude giant in the story makes an appearance before the end of this piece.

The giant concerned is South Africa's former land-line monopolist Telkom, which continutes to adapt to a range of changes in its home market. The managed liberalisation of the country's telecoms sector was catalysed by the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and the Telecommunications Amendment Act of 2001, which paved the way for a second national fixed-line operator. With the exception of full mobility, that second wireline player, Neotel, provides a wide range of products including basic voice and data services, high-speed Internet access, VPNs, and network management and hosting.

The new kid on the block, however, has not found competing with Telkom to be without challenges. South African telecoms and tech news portal MyBroadband yesterday picked up a newspaper article whose broad theme is that although the Neotel provides a "welcome" alternative to Telkom, "it doesn't quite offer all the answers."

Penned by Barrie Terblanche of the Mail & Guardian, the article focuses on particular difficulties faces by Neotel in the business telecoms market. Terblanche writes that "years after Neotel received its license to provide South Africa with an alternative to Telkom, by far the majority of small businesses are still forced to depend on the old behemoth for basic fixed telephony – even those businesses situated in the middle of Neotel’s coverage areas in Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban."

One reason for this, argues Terblanche, is the lack of fixed-line number portability.

The country's telecoms regulator, ICASA, launched a Mobile Number Portability system in Q4 2006, the first instance of MNP on the African continent. This might have happened even earlier had South Africa's three mobile operators not twice asked the regulatory agency to postpone the introduction of the MNP platform. As my former colleague Matthew Reed (editor of Middle East and Africa Wireless Analyst) noted in a South Africa market update some months later, Cell C, MTN and Vodacom claimed more than once not to be "ready to implement portability" on the earlier scheduled launch dates of March and September 2006. This aroused the ire of no less an individual than billionaire industrialist Sir Richard Branson, whose Virgin brand is used by more than 360 companies worldwide - as I write this, I am still aching as a result of my most recent session in a Virgin Active gym and have yet to pay off the credit card bill for my recent trip to the USA on Virgin Atlantic Airlines.

Branson's interest in South Africa's delayed implementation of MNP stemmed from attempts of the country's Virgin Mobile-branded MVNO to carve out a share of the cellular market. Early last month, when discussing the prospect for MVNOs gaining traction in Africa and India, I observed that this has not been an easy task, noting that Virgin Mobile South Africa had signed up just 600,000 subs by end-2008, of which only 200,000 were active. Back on September 27 2006, a member of Matt Reed's MEAWA team quoted Branson as saying "South Africa's mobile players are dragging their heels on this issue, because it isn't in their best interests... they want to lock their customers in. You shouldn't be held hostage by your mobile phone company."

In the same article, this was refuted by a Vodacom spokesman, who said that the delays had been caused by "the technically complex nature of MNP, which requires new business processes to be designed and implemented."

The article, however, also contended that Cell C, then (and now) the country's third placed mobile operator had lobbied for MNP to be introduced more quickly but that Vodacom and MTN had insisted on a longer delay.

Whichever operator(s) may or may not have been behind any alleged MNP foot-dragging, the MEAWA article of the time raised the question of whether number portability would really have any very significant market impact. "Local analysts have played down the likely effect of MNP on the market," stated the article, which reported the view that fewer than half a million subscribers would be likely to change networks within a year.

I don't have to hand a detailed analysis of to what extent MNP may have driven customer churn in South Africa. There was, however, a little jostling in the year which followed the implentation of number portability. Market-leading Vodacom lost ground a little, but maintained a significant lead over it rivals. The bigger winner over that period Sept. 2006-Sept. 2007 seems to have been Cell C, though not to such a degree that the market changed dramatically. Cell C has, however, coninued to make up ground on its competitors since then - according to the World Cellular Information Service, the Oger Telecom-backed MNO now owns 13.80% of South Africa's mobile subscriptions, up significantly from the 8.61% logged in September 2006. I am absolutely not qualified even to speculate to what degree this is due to MNP. That said, my sense is that number portability has not massively changed the South African mobile market.

What, then, is behind Barrie Terblanche's claim for the degree to which the non-availability of fixed-line number portability has hampered Neotel's efforts to compete with the incumbent wireline opearator? He contends "that only business start-ups really have a choice between Neotel and Telkom, because established businesses can ill afford to give up an existing number."

Terblanche goes on to say that it is not only in the small business space that Neotel is finding the going tough. "Another huge hurdle in the full-scale adoption of Neotel by slightly larger businesses", he writes "is its lack of line-hunting facilities. This provides a business with one public telephone number linked to several lines in the business. When a customer phones the number, the exchange hunts for the first available line and puts the call through." The lack of line hunting, apparently to be solved in the next few months, "means that a business with a PABX still has to rent Telkom lines for incoming calls", continued this Tuesday's Terblanche article.

Tuesday was a good day for commentary on the South African telecoms market. Carried the very same day by MyBroadband was another article taken from the country's Financial Mail. This one, penned by a Duncan McLeod, zeroes in on the former fixed-line monopolist. While Barrie Terblanche contends that Telkom is better positioned than its rivals to compete in the enterprise telephony markets, McLeod constructs an interesting piece around the large number of challenges faced by the incumbent.

The article begins by noting that Telkom is soon to dispose of its 50% stake in market-leading cellco Vodacom, which, despite the advances of Cell C, continues to own slightly more than half of the country's mobile subscriptions. McLeod feels that "the divestiture will reshape SA’s telecommunications landscape for the better" and asserts that "it's sink or swim time for Telkom." Despite Neotel's struggles in the business telephony space, McLeod feels that the incumbent's fixed-line business "is going nowhere fast and, with new competition, it is going to have a hard time defending its top-line revenue and profit margins."

Given the powerful position of Vodacom in its home country, and given its valuable collection of subsidiary opcos in Tanzania, Mozambique, Lesotho and the Democratic Republic of Congo, why would Telkom seek to get rid of its stake in the business?

Let me turn once again to MEAWA's Matthew Reed, who in November last year wrote that the sale would free Telkom "from an unsatisfactory relationship with Vodacom." Matt stated "Telkom had hoped that Vodacom would help it to expand into the fast-growing mobile sector and into new markets in Africa, but it has been disappointed by the level of cooperation."

As Matt noted then, Telkom has begun a wireless play of its own. Earlier this month, as reported by TelecomPaper, the operator launched its new Mobi service, which offers mobile voice over a WCDMA network. The mobile service is currently available in Gauteng and Cape Town only.

My understanding is that the shareholder agreement with Vodacom prevents Telkom from building a national mobile network. Instead, to establish a nationwide presence, Telkom must sign a roaming agreement with with MTN and/or Vodacom. Cell C does not fit the bill, having not yet established a 3.5G network.

Beyond the home country, Telkom may also be working to find its own route into the mobile arena. Matt Reed observed in November that the operator had, in 2007, "acquired a 70% stake in Nigerian CDMA operator Multi-Links... and... is thought to have had separate talks with both Zain and Nigeria's No. 2 mobile operator, Globacom, about the possibility of forging partnerships."

Will Telkom's sale of its stake in Vodacom prove, then, to be a smart move? According to Duncan McLeod's article, one vocal supporter of the decision is the incumbent's CFO Peter Nelson, who has praised CEO Reuben September, saying "it showed a lot of leadership and courage... the new Telkom is standalone — I call it the naked Telkom."

This naked giant, McLeod contends, looks set to be caught in "a perfect storm" with the telecoms sector wide open to new competition. Cellcos MTN and Vodacom are free to compete in the wireline area, McLeod writes, also inviting readers to "consider also that new undersea cables will finally end Telkom’s control of international bandwidth."

McLeod reports that Mr. September is, however, "clearly relishing the company’s imminent divorce from Vodacom and the demands of a competitive market" and expresses admiration for the Telkom CEO's willingness to take tough decisions, such as shutting down Telkom Media, the pay TV unit for which a buyer could not be found.

Duncan McLeod wonders whether September will "take flak" for deciding to postpone a project that was set to outsource 19,000 jobs, questioning whether this has resulted from political pressure ahead of the country's elections. CFO Nelson, however, has defended the postponement thus: "We won’t outsource problematic and poorly engineered areas because what happens is you lock in inefficiency and you pay for it forever." McLeod conceded that this is a fair argument, going on to say that "Telkom is still SA's most important communications operator. It is critical for the economy that it doesn’t stumble and fall. Whatever South Africans might feel about Telkom — and it’s often not flattering — September deserves their encouragement."


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