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

Friday, 18 September 2009

Millicom's Asian sell-off: two down, one to go

Vimpelcom's Beeline brand: next stop Laos

Back in late July, global emerging markets mobile group Millicom International Cellular announced that its Asian assets were up for sale. Since then, this blog has tracked other telecoms groups' interest in these operations.

The first confirmed transaction was the sale of Millicom's majority stake in Cambodian mobile operator Cellcard to another of the existing shareholders, the Royal Group. When Millicom first announced its intention to quit Cambodia, Mikael Grahne, the company's CEO, explained that this was partly due to the negative effect on profitability caused by the disruptive market-entrance strategies of the new players that have recently flocked to the Southeast Asian country's crowded mobile arena.

When DTW first covered this story, we saw that the Royal Group's CFO Mark Hanna was quick to dismiss any such concerns about profitability. We have also seen here, however, that in the months which have followed, Mr Hanna has himself felt the need to attack a new entrant for allegedly selling services below the cost of delivery. The apparently disruptive player in question is Beeline Cambodia, controlled by giant Russian mobile firm Vimpelcom.

As the dispute between mobile operators in Cambodia rumbles on acrimoniously, then, perhaps it is legitimate to wonder if a similar set of circumstances will unfold in neighbouring Laos, another country from which Millicom has been seeking to extract itself.

With a mobile penetration rate of just 27.14% (end of June, according to WCIS), Laos would appear to be quite attractive in terms of growth potential. WCIS estimates that Millicom's Tigo-branded operation has built a 17.01% share of current subscriptions since its own market debut back in 2003, when it became the third entrant.

The longest-established mobile offering in Laos is that of the country's incumbent fixed-line operator, Lao Telecom, in which the the Government of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic holds a 51% stake. Via a company named Shenington Investments, the other stakeholders are Thai communications satellite operator Thaicom, ST Telemedia, and Qatari telecoms group Qtel.

While the later entrants have, of course, eroded Lao Telecom's share of the mobile market, this share has only fallen as far as the 60% mark - still a dominant position. I will not pretend to know a lot about the telecoms market of Laos, but I note that the country profile available from Australian research firm Buddecomm mentions that "the rate of regulatory reform continues to lag well behind industry development and has the potential to derail the progress already made if the reform is not speeded up." This, perhaps, explains the qualified success of those challenging the national incumbent telco in the mobile space and might be part of why Millicom preferred to focus its efforts elsewhere.

Undeterred by such challenges, however, is the purchaser of the 78% stake that Millicom International Cellular held in Tigo Laos. That purchaser, as I learned yesterday from TeleGeography, is none other than Russia's Vimpelcom, whose Cambodian Beeline-branded operation has been offering aggressively priced services and arousing the anger of its competitors in the process. If Vimpelcom is planning something similar in Laos, perhaps the arrival of Beeline's low-price offerings will accelerate the growth of the country's modest mobile penetration rate. It's also possible that any such strategy would cause the same friction as seen in Cambodia. Beeline comes to Laos and grows its SE Asia cluster. Let's see if there's a sting in the tale.

Regarding Millicom's plan to quit Asian markets and sharpen its focus on Africa and Latin America, just one task remains - the disposal of its asset in Sri Lanka. DTW has noted in previous articles that interest seems to be strong. The last I read about it, both India's BSNL and the UAE's Etisalat remain in what some are describing now as a "race" to buy Millicom's Sri Lankan operation.

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