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

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Knocked back in Sri Lanka, India's state sector telcos continue to eye international expansion opportunities

BSNL: global ambitions?

DevelopingTelecomsWatch has followed, with some interest, suggestions that India's two major state sector telecoms operators - BSNL and MTNL - might be aiming to become international players.

In September, this blog went on a meandering tour of emerging markets M&A rumours, during which it was mentioned that BSNL's bid for Millicom International Cellular's Sri Lankan MNO had been unsuccessful. Tigo Sri Lanka, as reported more recently here, was eventually acquired by Etisalat of the UAE, in a move which prompted some analysts to express fear for the profitability of the island nation's other mobile operators. These commentators have noted that Etisalat tends to compete fiercely on price when coming late to a cellular market.

In the same September M&A tour, DTW also quoted industry watchers who were warning both BSNL and MTNL to steer clear of reported attempts to acquire a stake in Kuwaiti-owned pan-MEA mobile group Zain. A Mint article by Shauvik Ghosh was referenced, in which an anonymous analyst said that BSNL would be advised not to purchase a stake in Zain. "BSNL has a lot of cash on its books but it lacks the ability to execute," said the mystery man. Not shy of the odd split infinitive, the unknown analyst said "Africa is not a market for an operator to just add some revenue to its balance sheet. They have to first show that they can execute in India with the opportunities already in front of them like broadband and 3G before they can venture into bigger game like Zain." A previous DTW article discussed at some length the view that the two public sector telcos have perhaps not yet demonstrated that ability to "execute in India" to anything like a satisfactory degree.

There is evidence, though, from as recently as mid-October, that BSNL and MTNL have not been deterred by such criticism and that the two companies continues to investigate both the Zain opportunity and other potential foreign adventures.

Writing on 15th October
, Mansi Taneja of the Business Standard reports that a consortium led by Delhi-based Vavasi Group is in discussions with both BSNL MTNL for a majority stake in a special purpose vehicle that is being formed for a bid for Zain.

Taneja quotes "a top source close to the consortium" who has said: "Our talks with BSNL and MTNL are on track, but we don’t have any exclusivity contract with them. We are also holding informal discussions with other telecom companies, including China Mobile, in case talks with BSNL and MTNL do not fructify."

(note to self: attempt to use the word 'fructify' in conversation this week)

Is it unfair on the two Indian operators to venture the suggestion that the giant Chinese cellco might be a far more powerful player to have involved in an audacious bid to acquire operations and subscribers across Africa and the Middle East? Way back in 2002, the Chinese operator stole Vodafone's crown as the world's leading mobile operator in terms of subscriber numbers. Vodafone was subsequently seen to stake out its credentials as the world's largest cellco by revenues. Finally, in September this year, this accolade was also swiped by China Mobile.

If the Vavasi Group does turn out to be more impressed by the credential of the world's most gigantically-huge-mobile-operator-by-every-measurement-ever than by what BSNL and MTNL can bring to a bid for Zain, where else might the two Indian operators look for overseas growth opportunities?

One possibility, again aired by the indispensable Business Standard, is a much more modest foray into Africa, namely the acquisition of a majority stake in Zamtel, the state-owned incumbent telco of Zambia, which competes in the mobile space and is the monopoly fixed-line operator. On 15th September, the Government of the landlocked southern African country announced its intention to part-privatise the telco through the sale of up to 75% of the company’s equity. Industry watchers Buddecomm, in their Zambia profile, describe the country's wireline infrastructure as "at a very low level of development, which in turn has impeded growth in the Internet sector." Zamtel's monopoly in this space is set to be threatened, continues the Buddecomm profile, which notes that "the country’s ISPs are rolling out wireless broadband networks, which will also position them as competitors in the telecoms sector once VoIP is fully liberalised", something which is meant to be "a key component in Zambia's new ICT Policy."

The Zambia Development Agency (ZDA) makes a more upbeat assessment of the Zamtel fixed network, claiming that it connects all major population centres and is undergoing a substantial upgrade, with over 80% of switching infrastructure now digital, and DSL capacity being rolled out. The ZDA claims that Zamtel’s primary fixed-wireless network is also being upgraded and expanded, with coverage and capacity expected to more than double within the next twelve months. Zamtel’s secondary fixed-wireless network, based on WIMAX technology, is designed to cover the whole of metropolitan Lusaka, and is scheduled to go live during 2010, says the ZDA.

In the mobile space, Zamtel lags a long way behind its competitors in terms of market share. The stats, estimated for September 2009 by WCIS look like this:
  1. Zain Zambia - 72.17%
  2. MTN Zambia - 23.12%
  3. Zamtel - 4.71%
Zamtel, then, is struggling to compete effectively against two of Africa's leading mobile groups. There is, however, room for all competitors to grow, with Zambia's mobile penetration rate currently standing at just under 33% according to WCIS. Whether BSNL and MTNL are ideally suited to improving the fortunes of the company, however, could be questioned in light of some of the criticisms aired here about their performance in their home market of India. According to the Business Standard, the two public sector telcos are joined by seven other companies or consortia from in having successfully prequalified to participate in a bid for Zamtel.

Should both the relatively modest aspiration of buying control of Zambia's incumbent operator and the rather more grand designs on Zain both come to nought, MTNL and BSNL do appear to have ambitions to establish a presence in other regions.

Again, I am indebted to India's Business Standard for an update. According to an article of October 23rd, the two operators, along with the Vavasi Group, are planning to set up new operations in Russian and western Europe.

Under this deal, the article states, Vavasi "is acquiring frequency spectrum and licences for Russia and several western European countries" and "the same [special purpose vehicle] that is being formed to acquire a majority stake in Zain will be used to invest in the Russian operations."

Confirming the development, a senior Vavasi executive is quoted as having said: "We are in the process of acquiring a licence for the new generation (NG)-1 technology and have applied in Russia and four other European countries."

This is where I betray the fact that I am not an engineer by wondering about this "NG-1 technology". What is it? The Business Standard article claims that "NG-1 technology is an alternative to GSM and CDMA and was developed in the US universities" and that "Vavasi claims that the network needs lower capital expenditure as well as operating expenses."

I'll hold my hands up. This is a new one on me.

An inspection of the Vavasi website reveals that NG-1 is a proprietary wireless access technology the company has developed itself and which it claims "understands the need of both rural and urban areas". Impressive sounding claims are also made for the spectrum efficiency and eco-friendly credentials of the technology.

NG-1 sounds wonderful - but can proprietary kit from India really prevail against global standards such as WiMAX, HSPA and LTE?

Some grand claims, then, are being made about the ambitions of India's two major state sector telecoms companies. Some of these claims seem to be articulated rather more loudly by the Vavasi Group than by the telcos themselves. I wonder how much there is in all of this. Can two operators that have attracted much criticism in their home market really be set to emerge as global players?


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