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

Saturday, 29 August 2009

'Nationalisation' of Belize's incumbent telco to encourage or discourage telecoms investors?

Does it sound fanciful to suggest that wrangles over the ownership of telecoms businesses in a small country in the western hemisphere could have some bearing on the next General Election here in the United Kingdom?

This may not be too far-fetched, given that the man at the centre of the story is one Lord Ashcroft, a British businessman and politician who is Deputy Chairman (and former Treasurer) of the UK Conservative Party, currently in opposition but widely expected to prevail in next year's election.

Ashcroft, estimated by the Sunday Times Rich List to be Britain's 37th wealthiest person with a fortune of around USD 1.8 billion, is no stranger to controversy. His tenure as Conservative Party Treasurer (1998-2001) was marked by media interest - he was seen to pay little UK income tax and was at the centre of a debate about the openness and accountability of political funding. In 2004 he clashed with the Conservatives' then leader when he offered a GBP 2 million donation on the condition that it should go to his specified candidates, rather than into general Conservative Central Office funds, which is the usual practice.

Ashcroft is also a citizen of Belize, a former British colony and the only country in Central America where English is the official language. However, despite having once served as the country's Ambassador to the United Nations, it now seems that Ashcroft has fallen out of favour with the current Belizean Government.

Earlier this week, the country's Prime Minister pushed through a bill amending the country’s Telecommunications Act and allowing the Government to seize control of the incumbent national telecoms operator Belize Telemedia, with shares to be distributed to domestic investors.

The telco was was incorporated by the UDP Government in 1987 to 'Belizeanize' telecommunications, replacing the control of Cable & Wireless with a national company. According to the current PM Dean Barrow, also a UDP man, it was always intended for the new entity to be majority owned by the citizens of Belize and not by the Government. Barrow claims that the national telecoms operator delivered excellent returns to the many Belizeans who invested in the company in the early years of its life, but became the victim of "the predatory designs of one man" in 1992. The alleged predator? Lord Ashcroft.

Barrow accuses the 1989-93 administration of the rival People's United Party of selling shares in the operator to Michael Ashcroft "at a rate and in a manner that was counterintuitive and counter nationalistic." The Prime Minister states that under the company's UDP-drafted Articles of Association there was a 25% cap on the shares that could be sold to any one person or entity. The point of this, explains Barrow, was so that no single individual could dominate the company and in order to make the ownership as widely Belizean as possible. In violation of this Article, alleges Barrow, the PUP presided over an ever increasing transfer of shares to Ashcroft. This process, says the Prime Minister, was interrupted by the 1993-98 UDP return to power, but restarted as soon as the PUP came to power once again.

Barrow states that Ashcroft secured a very advantageous agreement with the PUP Government in 2006, whereby he was guaranteed a certain level of return on his investment in the telecoms company. According to this agreement, says Barrow, Ashcroft could in any year declare that the telco had not delivered the stipulated return, declare how much the shortfall was "and simply not pay his taxes until the so-call shortfall had been recovered." Barrow claims that this is exactly what happened in 2007, so that thereafter Belize Telemedia "ended up paying no business tax, no customs duties, no imprest of any kind." The Prime Minister also claims that Belizean consumers have been entirely at the mercy of their incumbent telecoms operator because Ashcroft's agreement with the Government prevented the country's Public Utilities Commission (PUC) from regulating Belize Telemedia's rates.

The situation, as described by Barrow, became yet more advantageous for the incumbent operator when all other existing telecoms licences (with the exception of that held by Speednet Communications) were revoked and VoIP was outlawed. Barrow states that Belize Telemedia "is able to refuse interconnection to any and everyone" and that "the PUC cannot, for any cause and no matter what the complaint, in any way touch or alter" the telco's licence. Further, the Prime Minister states, the all Government departments and agencies are bound to use only Belize Telemedia's services "at onerous pre-arranged rates until 2015."

Barrow has also dismissed the idea of Speednet Communications - whose CDMA service has 17.71% of the country's mobile subscriptions according to WCIS -being a meaningful competitor for Belize Telemedia. The Prime Minister claims that 77.38% of Speednet is owned by three companies headquartered at premises owned by Michael Ashcroft, and controlled by two trusts owned by the billionaire.

An article in the UK's Independent newspaper yesterday quotes Lord Ashcroft's spokesman as saying that the peer has not owned Belize Telemedia for some time and that his name had been dragged into the controversy for purely political reasons. Even if there is some truth in this, the article opines that the ferocity of Dean Barrow's attack suggests the Belize Government is out to break Lord Ashcroft's influence in the country, which could lead to more attacks and embroil the Conservative Deputy Chairman in a series of controversies most unwelcome to his party leader, the UK's prospective next Prime Minister, David Cameron.

The same article notes that the attack on Lord Ashcroft by Belize's Prime Minister echoed the feelings of UK Labour MPs struggling to hold on to marginal parliamentary seats against candidates generously bankrolled by the billionaire Conservative. The Labour MP Gordon Prentice, who has campaigned to have Lord Ashcroft banned from making political donations in the UK until his tax status is cleared up, said on Thursday: "I'm delighted that the change of government is bringing a wind of change to Belize. I just hope David Cameron is listening to what the Belize Prime Minister is saying."

Speculation about the UK politics and the outcome of the next General Election here is somewhat beyond the remit of this blog. Speculation about how this development might affect the plans of international telecoms group, however, is more familiar territory.

If we choose to believe Mr. Barrow's allegation about the Belize telecommunications market not really being contested by genuinely competing players,the Central America country is one of the last markets in the Americas where a monopoly situation persists.

Another is Costa Rica, where incumbent telecoms and power company Instituto Costarricense de Electricidad (ICE) currently has no competitors. This is set to change, however, according to the Global Mobile Daily service of Informa Telecoms & Media, which reported in June that the country's Ministry for the Environment, Energy and Telecommunications (Minaet) is planning to offer three new mobile licences by April 2010. It seems that these licences will either be issued via a traditional auction process or by combining a pre-selection process with an auction. The tender will reportedly be launched next month, with the first mobile licence to be awarded in March or April 2010. Companies interested in bidding are said to include including Millicom International Cellular, Telefónica, Digicel and Cable & Wireless.

The latter, which once enjoyed a monopoly position in many now liberalised Caribbean island markets continues to trade without competiton in two tiny territories - Montserrat (population 4,488) and the Falkland Islands (population 3,140). To the best of my knowledge, no one has expressed an interest in competing with the Cable & Wireless operations in those markets.

Possibly more attractive for any prospective new entrant would be the Bahamas, another market dominated by a single operator. The population of these islands is a little larger than that of Belize and a bit smaller than that of Suriname, where the monopoly of incumbent telco Telesur was only broken in late 2007, when Digicel entered the country's mobile arena.

It is Digicel, a company founded by Irish entrepreneur Dennis O'Brien, that has broken the former Cable & Wireless monopolies across the Caribbean, and the company continues to look for new markets in both that region and among the islands of the Pacific Ocean, where it has more recently established a presence. Lavern Clark, Business Editor of the Jamaica Gleaner, wrote in December that O'Brien's company plans to expand into nine more "profitable countries", said to include Belize as well as Costa Rica.

At this point, I'd like to thank a loyal Caribbean-based reader of DevelopingTelecomsWatch for his suggestion that I write something about the situation in Belize. My correspondent wonders whether PM Dean Barrow's recent action will discourage Digicel from investing in the country. That could be the case, but I suppose Digicel might actually look more favourably at the Belize opportunity if it quickly becomes apparent that Mr. Barrow is earnestly trying to break a telecoms monopoly, i.e. rather than just trying to gain somehow from attacking the billionaire ally of his domestic political opponents.

Either way, Digicel may relish the challenge. As Lavern Clark writes, Dennis O'Brien chooses markets where it is notoriously difficult to do business.

Belize is a nation of just 320,000 people. It is intriguing, then, that this small country's internal political battles - and the appetite of its Prime Minister to take on a powerful man he accuses of subjugating the nation - could be of interest to strategic telecoms investors and have an impact on a UK General Election.


Sunday, 23 August 2009

Mobile industry nicely balances profit motive with improving lives: not everyone agrees...

It has been a tendency of this blog to eulogise the ways in which telecoms companies with business units in developing countries are able to reconcile efforts to alleviate poverty and misery with their need to turn a profit and grow shareholder value.

I therefore tend to be very encouraged when I read articles such as that written in April by Rohit Singh of the Overseas Development Agency (ODI), a British think tank focused on international development and humanitarian issues. Singh writes about the numerous studies which support the idea that a rapid increase in mobile penetration contributes significantly to economic growth. He discusses the incremental, tranformational and production benefits brought by mobile phones:
  • Incremental benefits: improving what people already do – offering them faster and cheaper communication, often substituting for costly and risky journeys.
  • Transformational benefits: offering something new such mobile banking, enabling the unbanked to store value.
  • Production benefits: resulting from the creation of new livelihoods, not only through professional telecommunications jobs but also through activities like re-selling airtime or phone cards.
Much praise, then, has been directed by DevelopingTelecomsWatch at the efforts of mobile operators worldwide, notably in Africa. None of what has been written here suggests that there might be a possible downside to the rapid growth of mobile infrastructure and services in the places where the world's least affluent people live their lives.

There are those, however, who voice precisely that concern. Notable, I think, is Steve Song, who spent ten years working on ICT for Development issues at the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), a Canadian state-owned enterprise whose role is to help developing countries use science and technology to find practical, long-term solutions to the social, economic, and environmental problems they face. Song is now based in Cape Town, where he has taken up a fellowship with the Shuttleworth Foundation, an organisation which works to drive social and policy innovation in the fields of education and technology through policy dialogue and practical projects.

I was very interested in Steve Song's reaction to Kenyan cellco Safaricom winning a UN-HABITAT award for its M-Pesa mobile money services. This got a mention in the recent discussion here about whether mobile banking and money transfer services branded and run by cellular operators in developing countries might be vulnerable to a competitive threat from apparently operator-neutral solutions such as the one recently announced by Monitise. My own reaction to a cellco being lauded for how its services improve the lives of poor people is always very positive - it makes me pleased to make my living in and around an industry whose technologies can be a force for good. On hearing about Safaricom's award, Steve Song, however, was prompted to consider, not for the first time, "the effective monopolies/oligopolies" that mobile operators in Africa have become.

While Song acknowledges "the miracle that mobile phones are" and says that "there can't be many people who still doubt the direct value that mobile phones provide to people", he is concerned that the wealth that is being generated by cellcos in Africa is being distributed too unevenly. To support this assertion, he cites the case of South Africa's MTN apparently acknowledging that is subsidises 3G data traffic with revenue from its core voice and SMS business. This means, says Song, that when it comes to communication, "the poor in South Africa are effectively subsidising the wealthy".

Song also invites us to consider "the microeconomics of the edge cases of mobile access" - the case of a remote village served by a single cell tower. He contends that in this scenario, the majority of calls made would be to other users in the same area, i.e. local calls. Song also asserts that people in Africa "are spending substantial amounts of their disposable income on access." So, he argues, if, say 50% of the phone calls made in a remote village are local and if people are spending 50% of their disposable income on mobile access, "that means that 25% of their disposable income is being siphoned out of that village."

Perhaps with my own mobile bill in mind, I initially wondered whether it could really be true that even very poor people could possibly be spending as much as 50% of their disposable income on voice and SMS. Apparently so, according to a 2008 report from Research ICT Africa, a twenty-country network hosted by the EDGE Institute in Johannesburg and funded by Steve Song's former employers, the IDRC.

We can see from the table below that the report has indeed identifed African countries where consumers spend more than 50% of their disposable income on mobile services. These include Kenya (52.5%), Nigeria (52.4%) and Zambia (60.3%). According to this study, for the same three countries, the percentage of disposable cash spent on cellular services for the bottom 75% of the population by disposable income rises to 63.6%, 60.9% and 73.9% respectively.
Is this phenomenon - people spending such a major chunk of their incomes on mobile phone charges - purely an unavoidable consequence of how poor these people are? Or might more competitive mobile markets deliver considerably lower prices, thereby freeing up African consumers' cash to be spent on other items?

Several times, a DevelopingTelecomsWatch piece has focused on a particular country and voiced the idea that perhaps that state's mobile market is currently contested by too many cellcos - too many in the sense of not all of them being able to turn a profit and justify further investment. In the few months since this blog's inception, that question has been raised about Cambodia and Sri Lanka and about Tanzania, Burundi and Gabon.

Along the way, I've sometimes been quite critical of operators with aggressively low pricing. Metfone (the Cambodian subsidiary of Vietnamese MNO Viettel) is one example. I have expressed the view that Metfone's distribution of free SIMs and airtime is a "disruptive" market entry strategy which is "very nice for quickly building a subscriber base, but taken to its logical conclusion this can seriously erode overall market value for all players."

What I've had in mind is an idea I've heard articulated countless times at many, many telecoms industry conferences - that telecoms groups will only invest in and improve the communications infrastructure of those countries where good profits can be earned; that most operators naturally settle around a band of prices which enable profitable operation and happy shareholders for all competitors; that operators which sell their services below the lowest end of that band of prices can be accused of destroying martket value and threatening the ability of others to keep investing; that regulators/governments which allow any market actors to do this are not acting responsibly.

Steve Song would presumably not sympathise with these sentiments because he rails against the failure of telecoms regulators in Africa either to license enough new market entrants or to curb the excesses of incumbent players with significant market power. He feels that this has led to a situation where existing operators "collude to maintain high profits", citing the global price of SMS per byte vs. the true cost of delivering text messages.

The ODI's Rohit Singh also deals with the role of telecoms sector regulatory agencies in developing countries. He writes about how governments should oversee such issues as interconnection between the operators, spectrum allocation, and access to the international gateway. He argues that the importance of this role is shown when, in the absence of regulated interconnection tariffs, dominant firms charge high prices for connecting calls from other networks. Singh asserts that this limits effective competition, with dominant firms earning monopoly profits, keeping their prices high, and having little incentive to expand or innovate.

Without effective regulation, Singh continues, ownership of bottleneck infrastructure by dominant firms can diminish the developmental impact of the mobile sector by pushing up prices and restricting coverage.

When Singh reaches for an example of this kind of failure of regulation, he thinks of Zambia, where he says international calls are very expensive because the state-owned fixed-line operator charges high tariffs to private operators to access the international gateway. This distortion, he argues, then affects the domestic calls market, because private operators have to subsidise their international calls to compete with the public sector firm. In this characterisation, private sector mobile operators are the good guys of the piece, forced rather than inclined to charge high prices for their services. My feeling, then, is that Rohit Singh and Steve Song have quite different views of the optimally desirable interplay between telecoms operators and regulators.

Going beyond the issue of pricing, in an earlier blog post, Song expresses concern about how mobile operators in developing countries might conceivably take advantage of the ways in which cellphones have become indispensable in people's lives. Drawing on a March 2009 presentation by Nathan Eagle, the developer of crowdsourcing application txteagle, Song observes that no one in Kenya can afford not to have a mobile phone because "even if you are digging a ditch by the side of the road, day labour is now organised via SMS." Song feels that this means that mobile operators have Kenyans by the throat. To support this argument, he discusses another anecdote from Nathan Eagle's talk, which concerns a water pump manufacturer in Kenya that, by combining an M-Pesa-enabled, solar-powered metering system with their water pumps, has completely changed its business model. This company is apparently now giving water pumps away for free and then making a profit by selling access to water through the M-Pesa service. In his presentation, Eagle observes that Michael Joseph, the CEO of Safaricom, "loves this because you have to have a Safaricom account to get water."

Steve Song ask whether he is alone in finding this a little disturbing and feels that there is something wrong about a single mobile operator acting as the gatekeeper to water supply. Song argues that "for any village in this situation, Safaricom can charge whatever they like".

When I stumbled upon Steve Song's blog, I felt it would be interesting to draw attention to the uncomfortable questions which he raises. After all, DevelopingTelecomsWatch was never intended as a cheerleader for a particular view of the role of the communications sector in developing countries and emerging markets. So, for anyone else who has so far been unaware of Song's writing, I hope it has been refreshing to consider the ideas of someone who observes the actions of mobile operators with a critical eye. What I like about Song's writing is that his arguments are not weakened by an unattractively shrill tone. However, if you're curious to hear from someone who really doesn't mince his words about cellcos, I'd suggest you read a recent article by Llewellyn Kriel about South African operators and the country's telecoms regulator.

Thursday, 20 August 2009

Cellco-branded mobile banking to thrive without challenge?

If you were asked to reach for an example of mobile financial services gaining traction really impressively, perhaps you would think immediately of the M-Pesa service offered by the Kenyan cellco Safaricom, in which Vodafone owns a minority stake.

I daresay most readers are somewhat familiar with the service. For those who are not, Safaricom's TV advertisement provides a concise demonstration of the simplicity and utility of M-Pesa:

Since its launch in 2007, M-Pesa has attracted widespread praise. In February 2008, the 'send money home'-themed marketing campaign, of which this ad was a component, scooped the 'Best Broadcast Commercial' gong at the annual Global Mobile Awards ceremony hosted by the GSM Association. This year, 'Best Mobile Money Service' was introduced as a new award category at the same ceremony - Safaricom and Vodafone were joint winners. More recently, M-Pesa has been feted by UN-HABITAT, the United Nations agency for human settlements whose mission is to promote socially and environmentally sustainable towns and cities with the goal of providing adequate shelter for all. In June, the agency announced the first Habitat Business Awards for best practice in categories including affordable housing, clean urban energy solutions and innovative ITC solutions. In the latter category, Safaricom made the winning submission for M-Pesa, which the jury felt boosts urban entrepreneurship and clearly demonstrates the impact of innovative IT solutions for sustainable urbanisation.

In its submission to the judges, Safaricom mentions Kenya's large 'unbanked' population - people, largely from the urban poor, to whom opening a bank accounts is off limits. The submission document explains that such people face challenges around the safety of carrying cash (mugging and carjacking are cited as dangers they face) and the high cost of transferring monies to relatives in rural areas via existing channels.

The benefits for the consumer, then, are quite clear - but what does a mobile operator such as Safaricom gain from entering the mobile money space? Dawn Marshallsay of mobileSQUARED, writing in January, emphasised how mobile financial services drive up cellphone usage. She also quotes Safaricom CEO Michael Joseph, who told delegates at a London conference that "banking is a value-added service for mobile, not a money-making product"

"The main purpose of mobile banking is getting the customer to have an emotional attachment with the operator as they entrust their monetary details with the operator. Customers then start using their phones more in general," Joseph continued.

Where one operator in a developing country achieves differentiation as the only provider of such services, benefits for that operator, then, would presumably include achieving a high degree of customer stickiness in a market where the vast majority of mobile users are highly price sensitive (due to their relative poverty vs. their counterparts in developed countries) and where prepaid plans are dominant.

This model, in which consumers are locked into a specific mobile operator's set of financial services, is open to challenge, however. Earlier this month, Richard Wray of the UK's Guardian newspaper wrote about a recently-announced deal between mobile banking firm Monitise and Paynet, a company which operates ATMs and electronic payment services across Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda in partnership with thirty-five banks. Wray writes that the deal "will bring financial services to millions of people in Africa for the first time". The suite of services will include checking balances, moving money between accounts, and enabling customers to fill a mobile-wallet with cash to pay bills or send money to relatives.

A pretty close resemblance to M-Pesa and other mobile operator-run services, then. The crucial difference emphasised by Wray, though, is that while operator-branded services demand that users are customers of a particular MNO or are connected with a specific bank, the Monitise system is open to any financial institution and any mobile phone network that wants to plug into it. If I have understood this correctly, it seems, then, that M-Pesa and rival services such as Zain Kenya's Zap are to be challenged by an operator-neutral alternative. Monitise CEO Andrew Lukies believes that "mobile money is most effective as an 'open ecosystem' where you can transact with anybody or any organisation, regardless of your bank or mobile operator. Another differentiator, according to the Monitise Group's press release on this deal, is that "uniquely among mobile banking services, [it] enables people without a bank account to use its services, as well as providing traditional mobile banking to those with accounts."

It remains to be seen how far operator-neutral services of this sort pose a competitive threat to cellco-branded solutions such as M-Pesa, Zap, Orange Money (launched by France Telecom's mobile operation in Côte d'Ivoire) and the service launched by MTN Uganda in March, which the South African group hopes to roll out across its African footprint.

Assuming any such threat can be withstood, services like M-Pesa - improving the lives of the unbanked while providing cellcos with a customer retention tool - seem to be good for consumers, good for society and good for the operator.

None of this is to suggest that M-Pesa and services like it are never subject to criticism or concerns around their reliability and security.

Earlier this month, writes Victor Juma of Kenya's Business Daily, a technical hitch in the M-Pesa service caused anxious customers to crowd at outlets to have their accounts updated. For several days, it seems, users were unsure of whether some transactions had been properly credited to their accounts.

The service also appears to have been targeted by organised criminals depositing counterfeit currency via M-Pesa agents. Kenya's Daily Nation newspaper reported on 4th August that staff in two bureaus in the towns of Kutus and Kianyaga had received fake money worth Sh29,000 (about USD 380). Accounts used by the fraudsters were topped up without agents spotting the counterfeit cash. I assume that fraudulent deposits of this kind can be stopped once noticed, but this incident demonstrates that no system is completely immune from human error. Having visited Kenya, but never having stepped inside a retail bank there, I have no idea whether counter staff in banks there are more highly trained than M-Pesa agents and therefore less prone to making mistakes of this kind. Whatever the case, my feeling is that if mobile operators in developing countries are to capitalise on consumers' lack of access to traditional financial services and institutions, the authorities in those countries would be justified in insisting that the cellcos' services are subject to many of the same regulations imposed on the banking sector. I daresay, however, that incidents like the two mentioned here are relatively rare, so none of these observations are meant as a very serious criticism of mobile financial services in developing countries.

Kenya - and more specifically Safaricom's M-Pesa - stands out as a mobile money success story. How far is it an exceptional story? Can we expect services of this type to face greater obstacles to consumer acceptance and commercial success in other developing countries?

Sarah Rotman of the Consultative Group to Assist the Poor (CGAP) could presumably take a view on this, having written in July about the question of whether the success of mobile banking in Kenya can be replicated in neighbouring Tanzania. Rotman notes that unlike the rapid service uptake and quick development of an agent network in Kenya, things have moved much slower for Vodacom’s M-Pesa product in Tanzania. Explanations offered are as follows:
  • Geography/demographics: Tanzania is a less densely populated country than Kenya, which is important in light of the idea that the density of an agent network is a key factor in the success of any mobile financial services suite.
  • Market and competition: Safaricom in Kenya dominates its market (77.59% market share as of June 2009, according to WCIS), holding its own very well against established competitors and new entrants. Vodacom in Tanzania has just a 35.28% market share (according to WCIS) and is losing ground to the local operation of the Zain group and Millicom International Cellular's Tigo-branded operator.
  • Control over agent networks: according to Rotman, it appears that Vodacom Tanzania has less direct control of and influence on its airtime distribution channel than Safaricom. Also, Vodacom works directly with just six airtime wholesalers, compared with 300 for Safaricom. Safaricom’s airtime distribution network was a key element in the rapid development of the M-Pesa agent network.
  • Marketing and strategy: Initial Vodacom M-Pesa marketing seems not to have communicated the easily understood 'send money home' message we say in the Safaricom advertisement. As a result, writes Rotman, customers were unsure of what the product offered them and if it was really geared at the average Tanzanian.
While there are plenty of reasons to be bullish about the success prospects of mobile money services offered by cellcos to unbanked people in developing countries, then, it seems this enthusiasm should perhaps be tempered by an awareness of possible competitive threats from operator-neutral solutions and an understanding that a one-size-fits-all approach might not work effectively across a multi-country footprint.

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Zain (Africa) Speculation Watch: Episode 13

Anil Ambani, Reliance Communications: eyeing Zain's African operations?

The newswires have been humming with more than enough Zain-related information over the last few days to justify this thirteenth episode of our mini-series following the summertime rumours around the Kuwaiti telecoms firm.

On Sunday, Eman Goma of Reuters reported that the pan-MEA mobile group has asked shareholders to vote on removing certain ownership restrictions, a move that would pave the way for selling a large stake. This seems to have prompted a Sunday surge in Zain's shares on the Kuwaiti stock exchange, as speculation rose that the move could allow an outside investor to take a large stake in the company.

In the most recent chapter of the Zain (Africa) Speculation Watch story, we considered the possible sale of the 24.61% stake in the operator held by the Kuwait Investment Authority (KIA) (the Gulf state’s sovereign wealth fund) - Kuwaiti newspaper al-Rai, had reported that "the KIA has no objection to discussing any offer to buy its stake in Zain whether made by the UAE’s Etisalat or others under the condition that the offer would be serious and with attractive returns."

Without expressing an opinion about possible purchasers of that stake, it now seems that Zain's management would welcome the opportunity to part ways with the KIA. As a Cellular News article reported this week, Zain CEO Saad al-Barrak has said that he wants to see the sovereign wealth fund sell its stake in his company as soon as possible. "I wish they would leave tomorrow, and I am working on this," he said. He added that the motivation was to ensure the company could operate without political interference.

Whatever the future holds for the group as a whole, stories continue to bubble up about Zain's African portfolio. Only yesterday, that man Eman Goma was reporting comments made by Barrak to al-Rai, to the effect that the company is in talks with three major telecoms firms, including one from India, to sell all or part of its African operations.

Which companies are being referred to here? One of them might be France Telecom. Ten days ago we noted here that in a recent Reuters note on the French incumbent telco's need to limit margin erosion, Finance Director Gervais Pellisier was quoted as saying that the company "might look at some of the African assets of Kuwait's Zain if the latter decided to sell them in parts."

What about the unnamed Indian party? Could that be Bharti Airtel? Back in February, I would not have hesitated to offer that name as my best guess. An article by a former colleague of mine, Nick Jotischky of Informa Telecoms & Media, prompted me to write my own piece about whether India's market-leading cellco might be driven to more aggressive international expansion by the numerous competitive pressures it faces in its home market.

Since then, of course, the Indian mobile operator has been involved in lengthy talks with South Africa's MTN group about a possible tie-up between the two. Given the apparent complexity of those discussions, is it naïve of me to assume that simultaneous talks with Zain would not be feasible? After all, my understanding has always been than an exclusivity agreement has been locking Bharti Airtel and MTN out of discussions with other prospective bedfellows. Earlier this month, the Bharti Group announced the extension of this exclusivity period through to 31st August, and the Economic Times has reported in the last few hours that Bharti Airtel is now very close to raising the funds needed for what would India’s biggest cross-border deal to date, surpassing Tata Steel’s acquisition of Corus for USD 12.2 billion in 2007.

Even if it were possible for India's leading mobile operator to discuss any interest in Zain's African assets at the same time as working on its mooted tie up with MTN, another complication would be that the Kuwaiti group and the South African group have somewhat overlapping footprints. The two companies compete with each other in Congo, Ghana, Nigeria, Uganda and Zambia.

As Eman Goma's article noted, this issue of overlapping assets would also have to be taken into account in any approach Etisalat may make for Zain. Goma quotes Prime Holdings analyst Sleiman Aboulhosn, who says that the Emirati group may be content to cherry pick some of Zain's assets in the region, given regulatory restrictions on a wholesale purchase. "Etisalat cannot buy the ones that co-exist with its own assets, for example in Nigeria," he said in Dubai. "So they might be interested in some parts."

If Bharti Airtel is currently an unlikely suitor for Zain, which other Indian companies might be making the enquiry mentioned by Saad al-Barrak? One possible candidate is state-owned telco BSNL. In June, Reuters reported comments made by the company's Chairman, Kuldeep Goyal, who said the the public sector telco is looking to expand to Africa by acquiring new licences or stakes in firms. "We are looking into various options there... getting into new licences, which are being issued, or partnering with existing licencees (and) taking a stake," Goyal told reporters. Asked whether BSNL, which has cash stockpile of more than USD 6 billion, was ready for a big acquisition, he said: "Yes, why not?"

The positive assessment of the state of BSNL is not shared by Kunal Kumar Kundu of consulting and IT services firm InfoSys. In our most recent article here at DTW, I quoted Kundu's recent Asia Times article, which is nothing short of a gloomy assessment of the health of the state-owned operator, which he feels is set to go the way of struggling government-run Air India, "which has had to crawl cap in hand for a state bailout to survive."

If Kundu's analysis is correct, and if this would prevent any ambitious foreign adventures by BSNL (rather than perhaps actually making it imperative to consider them), perhaps Reliance Communications is a more plausible prospective purchaser of some or all of Zain's African assets? Towards the middle of last year, the Anil Dhirubhai Ambani Group-owned operator withdrew from inconclusive talks of its own with MTN. Another Economic Times article written in the last few hours suggest that the Indian operator's interest in Africa has not waned since then. Amrita Nair-Ghaswalla writes that "sources" have named Reliance Communications as the Indian company currently in discussions with Zain.

The last time DTW visited the topic of all this speculation about the future of Zain, much was made of the impresssive performance of the company's stock since the rumour mill really got churning around mid-May. I even considered whispers passed to a loyal DTW reader - and then to me - to the effect that "the whole Zain thing" has merely been a highly successful attempt to manipulate the Kuwaiti group's share price. If there is anything in that suggestion, the success of any such ruse would appear to have come to a halt around a week after we discussed it here, should we choose to heed the warning noises emanating from Dubai-based investment bank Shuaa Capital. Late last week, Ramya Dilip of Reuters noted that the bank had downgraded Zain to "sell" from "neutral," saying the risk-reward profile of the shares were no longer attractive at current levels.

Around the same time, another Reuters piece carried quotes from analysts who could see the logic of selling the African assets and predictions about Zain's ongoing strategy in the wake of any such sale.

"The African operations are the major contribution to the revenues and subscriber base," said Jithesh Gopi, head of research at Bahrain-based Sico Investments. "But as far as net profit ... they have not been a contributor to the group."

According to this article, African markets account for about 62% of Zain's 64.7 million customers, but only 15 % of the group's net profit, as of the end of March. Seven out of 16 African operations, the article states, made a first-quarter net lost. In the Middle East, only the Saudi Arabian operation was loss-making.

"It's going to be a company that's refocused on the Middle East with a series of very strong franchises," said Simon Simonian, a telecom sector analyst at Shuaa Capital.

If Simonian is correct, Zain's growth plans would be downgraded as the majority of the Middle East markets served by the group are mature to the point of saturation, the exceptions being Jordan and Iraq, where operators face security issues, a relatively unpredictable regulatory/licensing environment and the prospect of a new entrant in the mobile space.

In that scenario, Zain would presumably focus primarily on upgrading existing networks and increasing revenues from mobile broadband multimedia services.

Work of this kind is naturally ongoing across the group's Middle Eastern operations. The Saudi opco, for example, last week announced that it had secured a USD 2.5 billion Islamic loan facility (Murabahah), which will be used to repay an existing Murabahah facilitating network expansion and future growth.

In Bahrain meanwhile, writes Roger Field of ITP, Zain is planning to upgrade its network with LTE technology in a bid to "future proof" its operation and gain an advantage over rival operator Batelco and the new entrant cellco owned by Saudi Telecom. Field observes that Zain Bahrain has failed to provide a timeframe for the network upgrade, but notes that similar projects in other parts of the world are expected to take more than a year to complete, from the time they were announced.

This wraps up another episode in this ongoing saga. Perhaps the fact that Zain's own Saad al-Barrak seems to revealing snippets to the Kuwaiti press suggests that the story is moving beyond the speculation stage. Whether this means we can expect to see imminent announcements about the future of Zain and of its African operations remains to be seen. Keep watching.


Friday, 14 August 2009

WiMAX and 3G trials and tribulations for India's public sector telcos

'India Week' here at DevelopingTelecomsWatch concludes with a round up of views on the prospects for the country's public sector telecoms enterprises.

State-owned telco MTNL is one company somewhat keen to experiment with WiMAX, but is also keen to mitigate the risks and reduce costs through a proposed partnership with another organisation.

Writing for the Economic Times on Saturday, Joji Thomas Philip explains that the public sector operator has invited global telecoms businesses to set up and run its Delhi and Mumbai WiMAX operations on a franchisee basis for a six-year period. If a willing partner is found, MTNL plans to enter into a revenue sharing agreement with the successful bidder. Philip writes that the contract will be reviewed every two years and can be terminated if the franchisee partner does not meet prescribed targets. MTNL wants to work together with the winning bidder when working out strategies for advertising, marketing and promoting the broadband services, and wants those services to carry the MTNL brand. Execution on the sales and market side, along with the business of credit checking customers will be the prime responsibility of the bidder. MTNL, on the other hand, wishes to retain responsibility for fixing tariffs. While there will be room for consulation with its partner, MTNL's word will be final on this issue, the company has said.

How attractive is this opportunity? This may depend on interested parties' views of where WiMAX fits into India's evolving communications landscape. Any prospective bidders who envisage strong demand for a mobile WiMAX service, for example, may encouter words of warning - even from the CEO of the one company already offering WiMAX-based services on a franchisee model.

San Francisco-headquartered Soma Networks, is a supplier of WiMAX base stations, CPE and a multimedia application system designed to provide essential software elements for broadband service providers - support for simultaneous multimedia applications; integration with third-party, IP-based billing and provisioning; interoperability with IMS infrastructures.

A former colleague of mine, Ken Wieland of Informa Telecoms & Media, recently summarised the deal struck between Soma Networks and BSNL, India's other major state-owned telecoms operator back in January 2008. Writing for the portal, Ken notes that BSNL uses Soma Networks as a mobile WiMAX franchisee in the three circles (regions) of Goa, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra. Under the franchise arrangement, Ken writes, Soma Networks pays for the WiMAX equipment in exchange for access to BSNL infrastructure (such as tower sites and backhaul facilities). A revenue-sharing deal is also in place as part of the arrangement, with a 70-30 split in favour of the kit-maker.

Soma Networks CEO Yatish Pathak, in an interview with Business Line last month, argued that the mobile WiMAX opportunity in India is probably quite limited, at least in the short term.

"One of the reasons that Soma Networks chose to use WiMAX 802.16e-2005 technology, also called Mobile WiMAX, is that it supports mobile broadband as well as [having] the capability to provide wireless broadband to homes and offices," Pathak told Business Line. "However, its application depends on the context and availability of competing technologies. In an emerging market such as India with vast areas under-served due to lack of wired infrastructure or due to sub-optimal DSL connections, the best use of WiMAX today is to deliver broadband to the homes and businesses that have no broadband, or poor broadband connectivity."

"Using WiMAX as a mobile broadband application is better suited for developed, more mature markets that have high data consumption," Pathak asserted. "Classic examples are Tokyo and Korea."

Pathak can see the business case for broadband service providers opting to use WiMAX to target the Indian laptop user market, saying that "then it will simply be a service such as EV-DO, but with higher data rates." The Soma Networks CEO believes that India's existing mobile operators will continue to evolve their network towards LTE to address their customers' evolving mobile broadband needs. He feels that cellcos might opt for WiMAX deployments in select high traffic business districts and cities to address the enterprise market. However, Pathak does not envisage any Indian MNO deciding to use WiMAX for mobile data on cellphones, arguing that such a service would require the operator to invest in and run two separate networks - an FDD network for 3G and a TDD network for WiMAX. Besides, he continues, the service would require dual mode phones, and the support for two different types of radios would make the handsets cost-prohibitive for Indian consumers, "until there is service acceptance and we see economies of scale."

Soma Networks, is, then, in Pathak's words, currently focused on the delivery of a "broadband data service that optimises the use of bandwidth link to wirelessly deliver a megabit-rate experience within the comforts of a fixed location, such as home or office," notwithstanding the fact that the company's technology, used for rollouts in India for BSNL, "supports mobility even today". It is BSNL's prerogative, Pathak states, to make a decision depending on its business model and strategy on when it wants to extend the mobility features to consumers.

Pathak feels that "going for mobility from day one is a very ambitious plan and requires massive investments." He told Business Line that broadband penetration across the three circles (total population 240 million) served by Soma Networks and BSNL is currently just 0.5%. Even if this rises to 3% over the next three years, he says, we are still talking of very small volumes to justify that kind of investment, given the low ARPU numbers in India.

"In my opinion," Pathak says, "a prudent approach is to focus on Wireless DSL market where there is a huge pent-up demand. This helps us deploy in a scalable manner without making billion dollar investments before any revenue starts accruing. By phasing the rollouts, we lower costs and risks to achieve rapid ROI and then scale up the investments to stitch the coverage areas to offer mobility."

BSNL, however, does not seem to share Mr. Prakha's cautious view about the prospects for mobile WiMAX. Earlier this month, wireless solutions provider Harris Stratex announced an agreement to supply mobile WiMAX technology to the Indian telco. Under the multi-year contract, run the announcement, Harris Stratex will supply its StarMAX™ WiMAX solution to extend BSNL’s public wireless access network to provide high-speed wireless mobility services to enterprise and retail customers in urban areas across the southern Indian state of Kerala, the country's fourth largest telecommunications market. Financial details were not provided in the announcement, but media coverage indicates that this is another franchising model arrangement.

This has presumably not met with the full approval of global trade and standard body the WiMAX Forum, whose regional Honorary Chairman for India, C.S. Rao, in June asked BSNL to avoid further use of the franchisee model.

"While adopting the franchisee model, we feel that BSNL is losing out on the opportunity of racing ahead of the private players in this space," said Rao, who argued that if the state-owned telco deployed networks itself, this would result in revenues amounting to about USD 1.2 billion annually. In the franchisee model, argues Rao, BSNL would only get about USD 500 million per annum.

That public sector telcos BSNL and MTNL are the ones dominating WiMAX news from India at present is due to the period of exclusivity the two organisations have had in this space. As James Middleton, another former Informa Telecoms & Media colleague of mine, observed in February, BSNL also has a first-to-market advantage when it comes to BWA (broadband wireless access) spectrum. 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, for which it does not have to pay until the auctions take place. BSNL’s 20MHz of BWA spectrum will cost the state-owned operator the same as the highest amount paid for the three remaining 20MHz BWA licences that will be up for auction, two in the 2.3GHz frequency band and another at 2.5GHz. Whether BSNL can be said to have made of the most of this advantageous position seems debatable in light of the low broadband penetration figures and conservative-sounding projections offered by Yatish Pathak of Soma Networks.

BSNL and MTNL have also gained first-to-market advantage in the 3G space, again not having to make payment for spectrum until private sector operators are involved in an auction. As with the BWA auction, and as noted in a Wall Street Journal article today, the two public sector operators will have to pay the Government an amount equal to the highest bid in that auction, the date of which the article only predicts in the vaguest terms, i.e. "later this year."

The state-owned operators may have got into the 3G space ahead of their rival cellcos, but I'm not sure they can be said to have "enjoyed" first-mover advantage. In Tuesday's piece about Mobile Number Portability, we heard from Rajiv Sharma of HSBC Securities, who warned the public sector telcos not to make significant further investments in 3G mobile technology and from Alok Shende of Ascentius Consulting, who believes that the below-industry ARPU recorded by MTNL and BSNL reflects that the companies have attracted price-sensitive, low-MOU subscribers who do not use VAS and do not gain from the enhanced capabilities of a 3G offering. We noted reports that in the six months since its 3G launch, BSNL has acquired just 10,733 subscribers and that the figure for MTNL is said to stand at a mere 902, an average of just 150 per month across Mumbai and Delhi, considered the two most lucrative 3G markets in India.

It is in the context of these extremely modest 3G subscriber numbers that I'd like to consider an Asia Times article written this week by Kunal Kumar Kundu of consulting and IT services firm InfoSys. This - which is a summary of the writer's personal opinions - is nothing short of a withering analysis of BSNL, a company Kundu describes as showing "signs of sickness." Kundu feels that India's largest fixed-line telco looks set to go the way of struggling government-run Air India, "which has had to crawl cap in hand for a state bailout to survive."

For Kundu, "the signs of sickness are all too obvious, led by bloated payroll costs." He states that BSNL's salaries now account for about 25% of revenue, compared with rival Bharti Airtel's 5%, after rising at an compounded rate of 21.5% per annum between the financial years ending March '02 and March '08. Kundu notes that this far outpaces revenue gains, which in the same period increased at a compounded 5.53% per annum. He also argues that only by earning interest in cash kept idle in bank deposits has BSNL kept out of the red, and reports a deterioration in finances in the year to March 2009. Analysts, says Kundu, are forecasting a loss of between around USD 825 million-1.03 billion as salary costs jump by about USD 500 million.

The company, says Kundu, once regarded as one of the Government's crown jewels, is now one of the top candidates for disinvestment this year. He is especially critical of BSNL's performance in the fixed-line space, where "an abominable quality of service and increased options from the private sector have led to a drastic fall in the company's landline subscriptions."

Whether a proposed merger between BSNL and MTNL would cure these ills remains to be seen - and there may be some wait. A week ago, the Business Standard reported that India's Communications and IT Ministry will decide on the merger between the two state-owned telecom companies only after the listing of the former.

"MTNL is a New York Stock Exchange-listed company, and a merger would not be possible without the listing of BSNL. We will first look at listing BSNL and then will decide on the merger," Union Minister of State for Communications and Information Technology Gurudas Kamat said.

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

India Week continues at DTW

This is turning into 'India Week' here at DevelopingTelecomsWatch. Today's musings begin by revisiting yesterday's discussion here about the imposition of Mobile Number Portability (MNP) in the country. We will also consider - not for the first time - the ways in which the Indian Government's concerns about national security might lessen the appeal of this vast, growing market for foreign telecoms groups.

The reason we are returning to the MNP debate so quickly is that yesterday saw an open house discussion in Hyderabad on this theme. Hosted by the TRAI, India's telecoms regulatory body. This rejoiced in the snappy title 'Determination of Port Transaction Charge, dipping charge and porting charge for mobile number portability'. The surrounding media coverage provides more information on the range of concerns expressed by India's cellcos.

Speaking to an Economic Times reporter at the workshop was TRAI Chairman SJ Sharma, who said he expects MNP to go live on December 1st. While Sharma is confident that his agency will have its MNP regulations in place by the end of August, he expressed the belief that some of the operators do not seem to have ordered enabling equipment yet, meaning that a delay of 2-3 months is likely.

Yesterday, ahead of the Hyderabad discussions, we considered the estimated cost one operator had calculated for the implementation of MNP. State-owned BSNL had come up with a USD 250 million estimate, complaining about this cost in light of its contention that only 2% of "elite customers" are likely to use the facility.

Today, drawing on an article from K.V. Kurmanath of the Business Line, we can see how BSNL's numbers stack up against the estimates of some of its competitors in the mobile space.

Reliance Communications
, and Tata Teleservices have indicated that they expected MNP-related expenditure to the tune of USD 20.6 million each. Vodafone India has come up with the much larger figure of USD 72.3 million. Much lower numbers than those mentioned by BSNL, then, but still pretty significant sums of money. I invite anyone with a view on this to offer an explanation for why this set of estimates varies so much.

"The regulator asked the service providers to send in their points on these issues by Tuesday," Mr T. R. Dua, Deputy Director-General of the Cellular Operators’ Association of India, told Business Line, whose article states that "keeping in mind the huge expenditure", the telecos want the TRAI to ensure that they are compensated for their "huge investments".

Let's see, then, if December 1st really is the date after which Indian mobile users can elect to switch their cellular providers while keeping their phone numbers.

In the meantime, I want to consider once again how the Indian authorities' concerns about national security are impacting on the telecoms sector.

In a recent piece here about worldwide developments across the footprint of Scandinavian telecoms group Telenor, I noted that the company had been facing difficulties around establishing a controlling interest in Unitech Wireless, the start-up Indian cellco in which it currently has a minority stake. For India's security agencies, the stumbling block was Telenor's presence in Pakistan and Bangladesh - apparently a cause for concern in light of strained relations with both of these neighbouring countries.

Telenor's immediate problem appears to have been resolved with the Indian Home Ministry's suggestion that security clearance for a bigger stake in Unitech Wireless up could be provided on the condition that none of the staff who have worked at the Norwegian firm's Pakistan operation are employed in India. Other security concerns affecting the telecoms sector more broadly, however, continue to be aired pretty regularly.

For example, all telecoms firms present in India may find themselves subject to further personnel restrictions. Late last week, Joji Thomas Philip of the Economic Times wrote that India's intelligence agencies now want all telcos to have a native Indian in the post of Chief Operating Officer. At present, only operators' CTOs need be a resident Indian citizens, while foreigners are allowed to hold all other key positions such as Chairman, MD, CEO and CFO, subject to clearance from the Home Ministry on a yearly basis.

If enforced soon, this proposed new regulation might not make a big impact right away because, as Philip notes, none of the existing telcos currently has a foreign COO.

This is not to say that such restrictions will have no impact, however. An article in today's Financial Times goes as far as stating that such stringent personnel requirements would lessen the appeal of India for foreign strategic investors and will restrict the freedom of companies already operating in India to make use of existing foreign expertise within their global organisations.

The article also contends that such restrictions on management positions could complicate corporate merger and acquisition activity such as Bharti Airtel's planned tie-up with MTN, the South African telecoms firm with interests across and beyond Africa. This would just add to the concerns of some analysts who are already sceptical about the wisdom of that proposed deal for Bharti Airtel shareholders. On Monday, India's Financial Express noted that day's 4.8% drop in the market-leading cellco's share price, which seems to have been triggered by worries that the company will increase by 5-10% its offer to buy a stake in MTN. The article quotes Sonam Udas, VP Research at BRICS Securities, who says: "we don't understand the logic for this deal at all. Why does Bharti want to change from a company with a net cash position of USD 1 billion to a debt-ridden firm? We do not buy the argument the deal is going to add value. There is nothing in the deal to highlight as adding strategic value."

Operators may not be the only telecoms value chain participants affected by the Indian Government's security concerns. Joji Thomas Philip writes that the Home Ministry fears that "suspect vendors may install back-door entries, remote logic facilities and also design Trojan horses in networks and hardware. This could be used to remotely bring down the network or to monitor it." Philip states that the agencies are particularly concerned about Chinese vendors.

One definite casualty of all this worry about national security is Swiss-registered firm ByCell. On Saturday, the Economic Times confirmed that after much wrangling, the company is to be prevented from entering the Indian mobile services market, with security concerns about the company and its shareholders being the deal-breaker.

A busy week for Indian market watchers so far, then. Let's see if the rest of the week has enough action in store to warrant another look here at DTW.

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

MNP draws closer in India: How will cellcos be affected?

After years of discussions, it now seems that the imposition of Mobile Number Portability (MNP) in India really might be imminent. As noted in local reports last week, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) recently announced that its guidelines for MNP should be in place later this month and has asked operators to be ready for a quick implementation.

In the meantime, the country's cellcos continue to disagree on the desirability and likely impact of number porting in the country. Joji Thomas Philip of the Economic Times reports that, "in a move which could make it significantly costlier for mobile users to change their operator while retaining the number", GSM operators are demanding that only those who wish to change their numbers be made to bear the cost of the enabling technology.

Philip writes that state-owned telco BSNL estimates its implemtation costs for MNP will be around USD 250 million and that only 2% of "elite customers" are likely to use the facility. Philip contunues that "going by BSNL's formula, back of the envelope calculations show that it will cost about [USD 125] per user to port... number[s]".

BSNL, then, is proposing that these costs should not be borne by the subscriber base as a whole:

"Only those customers for the benefit of whom the MNP is being implemented should be made to bear the cost of the same and not the ordinary customers, who are not going to get any benefit from the implementation of MNP. All these customers, who will utilise the MNP, are big entrepreneurs, professionals [and] businessmen who will save huge switching costs, otherwise, they will have to invest on informing friends and business partners about new number, missing calls from uninformed people and updating company web pages, brochures and business cards etc. These customers can afford and must pay for availing this facility," BSNL said in a statement to the TRAI.

This concern for the vast majority of less affluent subscribers seems admirable enough. BSNL and fellow state-owned telecoms operator MTNL, though, would appear to have a compelling need to avoid taking on a lot of extra cost, if we are to believe some analysts. As reported today by Rashmi Pratap (another Economic Times writer), industry watchers such as HSBC Securities analyst Rajiv Sharma are warning the public sector telcos not to make significant further investments in 3G mobile technology.

Sharma feels that MTNL is better placed to leverage its fixed line infrastructure for wireline broadband products, and is sceptical about the chances of the operator's plans for partnering with an overseas telecoms player to run its 3G operations, asserting that "the chances of MTNL benefiting from such a structure will be restricted as the state-owned enterprise culture of the company will get in the way of foreign telcos, restricting their ability to deliver."

Rakshmi Pratap also quotes Alok Shende of Ascentius Consulting, who believes that the below-industry ARPU recorded by MTNL and BSNL reflects that the companies have attracted price-sensitive, low-MOU subscribers who do not use VAS and would not gain from the enhanced capabilities of a 3G offering. Sharma writes that in the six months since its 3G launch, BSNL has roped in just 10,733 subscribers and that the figure for MTNL stands at "a dismal 902", an average of just 150 per month across Mumbai and Delhi, considered the two most lucrative 3G markets in India.

If these observations about the state-owned telcos' subscribers are accurate, I can perhaps see why BSNL has said that only a very small percentage of its customers are likely to gain from MNP. If the bulk of the telco's subscriber base really is so price sensitive, I'd guess that use of multiple prepaid SIM cards is widespread, with customers switching between service providers to take advantage of the optimum tariff for any given call.

How widespread? Gartner analyst Madhusudan Gupta, quoted in a Forbes India article by Rohin Dharmakumar back in June, estimates that 10% of all mobile connections in India might be instances of one phone/person with multiple SIM cards. Dharmakumar writes that India's mobile subscription numbers may also be somewhat inflated by churn, stating that 35-50% percent of prepaid connections (which, he says, form 93% of all mobile connections in India) become idle. Separating live (but infrequently used) subscriptions from totally inactive ones seems to be made harder by the existence of numerous approaches to gauging the validity of a given sub. Due to the rapid evolution of lifetime offers, writes Dharmakumar, each operator is saddled with lifetime subscribers bound by different contracts - some are required to recharge once in six months to stay active while others get by simply by getting an incoming call every few months.

In this context of low ARPU subscriptions and high churn, one can perhaps sympathise with BSNL's point of view regarding the costs of implementing MNP services only likely to benefit an affluent minority of their customers.

Joji Thomas Philip notes that two other GSM players are supportive of BSNL's argument. Bharti Airtel, for example, is of the view that "all operators who make the investment (for MNP) are entitled to recover their costs". The market-leading cellco has told the TRAI that "the investments being made by operators for the implementation of MNP needs to recovered only from the consumers who want to port their numbers" and that "ordinary customers should not be penalised by increased tariffs and call charges." Idea Cellular has chipped into the debated by observing that service providers should be compensated for the one time CAPEX and recurring OPEX involved in MNP.

Strongly opposed to this line of argument, writes Philip, is CDMA operator Reliance Communications, which also launched GSM services earlier this year. The cellco asserts that since it costs less than Rs 50 (around one US dollar) for a prepaid subscriber to take a new connection, the porting cost should be lower than this figure and has suggested that the any fee charged to the individual consumer be fixed at Rs 20. If we are to believe the output of MTNL's number-crunching, Reliance Communications seems to be a strong advocate of spreading the much, much higher costs of MNP across a subscriber base most of which is not likely to be interested. Is Reliance motivated to take this position by its status as a new entrant in the GSM space? To do so, I would have thought, is to buy the idea that MNP helps new entrants and hurts incumbents. The last time DevelopingTelecomsWatch visited the MNP issue, we considered an alternative view - as articulated by Raymond Yu of telecoms think tank Ovum - that all MNOs are vulnerable to MNP-driven churn. Yu cites the cases of Greece and Lithuania, where the largest operators actually managed to increase their market shares immediately following the introduction of MNP.

Aside from this disagreement about how best to spread the cost of implementing MNP, what else might India's operators need to consider? ARPU may be one worry, reported Rajesh Kurup of the Business Standard in June, basing his article on a study by stokebrokers Angel Broking. This study indicates that ARPU would be negatively impacted by around 5% and that telcos' margins would also drop by 100-150 basis points and earnings per share estimates would be pruned by 9-21%. Angel Broking belives that an increase in subscriber acquisition and retention costs plus higher capital expenditure to improve service quality are also expected to exert pressure on margins and earnings growth.

What proportion of post-paid subscribers might be motivated to churn once they have the option of retaining their existing numbers? An EFYTimes article last month, drawing on a recently conducted Mobile Consumer Insights study by the Nielsen market research company, reports that around 18% of contract customers will change service provider once MNP is live. The figure is higher for customers of Tata Teleservices and Reliance Communications.

According to the study, around 55% of respondents were generally satisfied with their operator, but only 48% are satisfied with network quality. The operators are probably concerned by the fact that scores for network quality satisfaction were down compared to previous iterations of the Nielsen study. Bharti Airtel, BSNL and Reliance Communications have registered the biggest drops in this metric. According to the study, 43% of the people polled are satisfied with the price they pay for their service.

My feeling is that ARPU in India is already so low that differentiation by quality of service could prove to be a more powerful tool for any operators which cope best with this issue in India's highly competitive market. I don't imagine that competing more aggressively on price than is currently the case could be sustainable for very long.

India's operators may be interested to note that loyalty to operators is, according to the study, higher among lowest socio-economic groups, older age groups and among female customers.

Lots to think about, then, for India's numerous competing mobile operators. Let's see, however, if this end-of-year deadline for MNP going live is really going to be met. Past delays have been numerous and India would not be the only country in the world to see shifting deadlines as the many concerns about MNP are debated. Right now in Thailand, for example, while MNP regulations have come into force, it is not yet clear when mobile subscribers will be able to port their numbers as operators are not yet ready for the service, TelecomPaper reports.


Friday, 7 August 2009

Zain (Africa) Speculation Watch: Episode 12

Zain share price: massive spike since the rumour mill started turning

One loyal reader has suggested it's high time that this blog revisited its most regularly explored theme - the ongoing not-so-mini-series that is Zain (Africa) Speculation Watch.

Note the parentheses around the word 'Africa', a set of punctuation marks that, for good reason, crept into the title of this series in Episode 11. Bracketing 'Africa' in this way was to denote that while this continuing investigation into developments at the Kuwaiti MEA telecoms group was initially focused on the rumours about the sale of Zain's African operations, the focus needed to become a bit wider, i.e. speculating about the future of the whole company. This was due to the UAE's Etisalat informing reporters of its interest in buying a 51% stake in the Kuwaiti group.

Since then, that loyal reader I mentioned has urged me to take note of a couple of possibly quite significant elements of the Zain story.

The first of these is the news that a major Zain shareholder is likely to consider selling its stake in the telecoms company if it receives the right price. That shareholder, the Kuwait Investment Authority (KIA) (the Gulf state’s sovereign wealth fund), owns a 24.61% stake in the operator. According to Kuwaiti newspaper al-Rai, "the KIA has no objection to discussing any offer to buy its stake in Zain whether made by the UAE’s Etisalat or others under the condition that the offer would be serious and with attractive returns."

That, then, looks like pretty positive news for the Emirati telecoms group if its interest in Zain really is very strong.

The other bit that my friendly reader brought to my attention is much more cloak-and-dagger.

My friend tells me he's heard whispers that "the whole Zain thing" has been a ruse set in motion with the sole intention of driving up the Kuwaiti group's share price. By way of support for this assertion, my pal urged me to take a look at Zain's stock chart from March to July. "It's quite amazing what transpired", my correspondent reminds me. Kuwaiti blogger 'Alpha Dinar' concurs, having noted back on July 13th that Vivendi’s USD 12 billion rumored proposal to acquire Zain’s African operations "has stolen headlines for the past few weeks, sparked large volumes, and resulted in a huge spike in Zain’s stock price."

I asked my correspondent whether he felt that the likes of Vivendi (and other rumoured Zain Africa suitors like France Telecom) could really be tempted into declaring their interest and thereby enabling any such ruse to succeed. My friend's response: "If the new buyers weren't really aware of the game, and if the game was well-played, I don't think they would have been able to keep the genie in the bottle. In any case, if Party A wanted to manipulate the share price, they would be the ones leaking and Party B wouldn't have been able to stay in stealth mode. I don't know how likely it is. I'm not saying that's what happened. I'm just saying that the price did indeed jump up quite a bit, and despite the talks having failed, it hasn't gone down that much at all."

My correspondent concedes that games of the kind being alleged here are not terribly common in Bahrain or Kuwait. He asserts, however, that this is a game often played in other parts of the world and that the fact remains that "the stock was even and then - BOOM - a ninety degree angle."

Who knows? Not me, that's for sure.

One company whose talks with Zain could be said to have "failed" is Vivendi, which announced on July 20th that it was "interrupting" the discussions. No reason was given at the time. Since then, however, Kui Kinyanjui, writing for Kenya's Business Daily Africa, has alleged that the French telecoms and media conglomerate's interest cooled following a disappointing trip to her home country. Kinyanjui writes that "a dozen senior Vivendi officials jetted into the country to view close hand one of the Zain operations their company hoped to purchase" and that "they came, they saw, were disappointed, and in the process, a multi-million dollar deal was scuttled." The article describes Zain's struggle to compete with Kenya's market-leading cellco Safaricom and cites unconfirmed information from Kenyan sources which indicates that Zain is "keen to sell its Kenyan, DR Congo and Sierra Leone units, and could consider separate bids from disparate telecommunications firms for those operations."

Such rumours of Zain breaking up its African portfolio and selling off operations piecemeal have been far less prominent than stories of that whole portfolio being sold to a single buyer. One prospective purchaser, however, has expressed an interest in buying up only those Zain-owned opcos which would complement its own existing African footprint.

In a recent Reuters note on France Telecom's need to limit margin erosion, Finance Director Gervais Pellisier is quoted as saying that the French incumbent telco "might look at some of the African assets of Kuwait's Zain if the latter decided to sell them in parts." Any willingness on the part of Zain to consider a piecemeal sell-off of some African assets - as alleged by Kui Kinyanjui - would presumably, then, be music to the ears of Mr. Pellisier and his colleagues.

Were a sale of Zain itself or just of Zain's African assets to go ahead, one stumbling block could come in the form of legal action brought by Econet Wireless, the telecoms group led by Zimbabwe-born businessman Strive Masiyiwa. As a recent Guardian article reminds us, in late 2000, Masiyiwa led a consortium that won a licence to operate a mobile phone network in Nigeria. Econet Wireless had a 5% stake in the consortium and claims it had a right of first refusal to buy out the rest of the network in the event of any bid emerging. A bid did emerge from Mo Ibrahim's Celtel International, but, writes the Guardian's Richard Wray, "a series of legal obfuscations blocked Econet from ever getting the chance to bid."

Celtel was, of course, subsequently acquired by Zain and Wray states that the fast-growing Nigerian mobile phone business now accounts for about half of all the Kuwaiti group's African revevnues. In court, says Wray, "Masiyiwa's lawyers are arguing he should be allowed to buy back Zain's Nigerian business at the price set in 2006, in effect blasting a hole straight through Zain's plans to sell its whole African operation with Nigeria as the jewel in its crown."

Well, another episode of Zain (Africa) Speculation Watch has probably left you not much the wiser. It was ever thus. Let's see what happens in the next installment. Don't touch that dial etc.