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

Monday, 14 September 2009

Sri Lankan mobile market: one way or another, consolidation looks likely

Sri Lankans queue to get their hands on Airtel 's low price offers earlier this year

When Bharti Airtel's Sri Lanka operation Airtel Lanka launched its cut price services in January this year, the new cellco became the fifth operator competing for a share of the country's mobile market. The number of mobile service providers in the island nation, however, may soon be set to fall back to four. This will depend, though, on which party comes forward to snap up one operator currently sporting a 'for sale' sign.

Up for grabs is Tigo Sri Lanka, one of the Asian operations that Millicom International Cellular is keen to sell. When this blog first commented on Millicom's planned withdrawal the three Asian markets in which it has done business, Axiata (formerly Telekom Malaysia International) was mentioned as a possible purchaser of two of these operations - Tigo Sri Lanka and Cambodia's Cellcard. In both cases this would lead to market consolidation - in Sri Lanka, Axiata has a controlling stake in market-leading cellco Dialog Telekom; Cambodian MNO Hello is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Malaysian group. As discussed in the most recent DTW article, however, it was another existing shareholder in the Cambodian cellco (the Royal Group) which eventually relieved Millicom of its stake in Cellcard. Given that other organisations have been more recently and more regularly touted as potential purchasers of Tigo Sri Lanka, Malaysia's Axiata also seems to be out of the running with regard to that opportunity.

One potential suitor mentioned very recently is state-owned Indian operator BSNL, whose management committee approved a proposal to submit a bid to acquire the Sri Lankan operator company last week, according to Manoj Gairola of the Hindustan Times.

The public sector telco seems to have attracted considerable criticism of late, some of which has been reported here. Quite striking was the August 12th article written by Kunal Kumar Kundu, who feels that BSNL is crippled by political interference, poor demand forecasting, lack of effective budgetary control and a bloated payroll. This blog has also reported the very modest take-up of BSNL's wireless broadband offerings and negative feedback about the company's preferred franchisee business model for the development of both 3G mobile and WiMAX services. Almost as often, however, the state-owned operator has been linked here with possible overseas investments. Perhaps the competitive pressure from India's numerous private sector mobile players is felt so keenly by BSNL's management that foreign opportunities are seen as a much better bet in terms of realistic growth opportunities. This may explain the fact that in the few months since the inception of this blog, the Indian operator has been mentioned in connection with a stake in pan-MEA mobile group Zain and with a new telecoms licence in Tunisia. BSNL's interest in Tigo Sri Lanka, then, is perhaps not very surprising.

Also connected in media reports with the sale of Tigo Sri Lanka is the UAE's Etisalat, which in August was reported to be considering an investment in the country now that the long civil war seems to have finally reached a conclusion. Priyantha Kariyapperuma, Director General of Sri Lanka's telecoms regulator, reportedly met with a visiting official from Etisalat last month and told journalists that "with the war over in May, there is ample scope for investments into telecom services and infrastructure facilities, especially in the north and east," referring to the area of the island that was most affected by the conflict. Few of the reports on Etisalat's possible interest in Sri Lanka have stated explicitly that the UAE company's route into the country's market would be via the acquisition of the Tigo-branded MNO. All of these reports, however, mention the availability of Millicom's Sri Lankan operation, so perhaps it's not unreasonable to infer that the Emirati company might have had Tigo Sri Lanka in its sights.

The most recent name floated in connection with the opportunity, however, is one from India rather than from the Middle East. As with an Axiata purchase, this move would also lead to market consolidation - because the company concerned is Bharti Airtel, already present in the Sri Lanka market since January, as we noted at the top of this article.

It seems, then, that the management of the giant Indian telecoms firm is not completely absorbed by the ongoing negotiations about the proposed mega-merger with South Africa's MTN. That saga has been notable for the repeatedly-extended deadline for concluding the talks and for various parties weighing in with opinions about the desirability of the mooted deal. One recently expressed opion comes from South Africa's Communications Minister, Siphiwe Nyanda, who voiced caution over the proposed tie-up in an interview yesterday. The Minister told the Sunday Times that any deal should take into account that MTN was a "South African company with a footprint in Africa." I take this to mean that there exists concern over MTN potentially losing its identity as a telecoms group with its roots - and the bulk of its business - in Africa. The Minister's comments are certainly of relevance given that South Africa's Government-owned Public Investment Corporation holds a 21% stake in MTN.

Bharti Airtel's interest in Tigo Sri Lanka came to my attention earlier this week, when R. Jai Krishna of the Wall Street Journal reported comments from an unnamed person close to the development. Suggesting that any deal would be worth USD 100-120 million, the mystery source said "in Sri Lanka, if you need to be a significant player in the market, you need to do an acquisition... greenfield, you will not be successful," by way of explaining the rationale behind Bharti Airtel's rumoured move.

A strengthened presence in Sri Lanka on the part of the Indian cellco could be welcomed by consumers - certainly if the company continues to compete aggressively on price, a strategy that has yielded impressive subscriber growth. Since going to market in January, the new entrant had 900,000 subs by the end of June, according to WCIS market intelligence. Another Informa Telecoms & Media service, Global Mobile Daily, reported in late July that Airtel Lanka claimed to have reached the one million subs mark.

The Bharti-owned cellco, however, has seen some of its competitors crying foul over its tariffs. Late last month, for example, Duruthu Edirimuni Chandrasekera of Sri Lanka's Sunday Times, reported that some operators have threatened to cut their interconnection with Airtel Lanka to retaliate for the the Indian-owned company failling to withdraw tariffs not approved by the country's telecoms regulator.

This sounds oddly familiar - the most recent article here covered a very similar wrangle over tariffs and interconnect agreements in Cambodia. Competition in Asia's mobile markets, then, certainly seems to be brutally fierce right now. Again I find myself voicing the view that there may well be casualties when the going gets this tough.

What price on mobile market consolidation in Sri Lanka then?

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