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

Friday, 9 October 2009

Quick march! Military men storm the telecoms sector

Iran's Mohammad Ali Jafari: Guardian of the Revolution... and telecoms tycoon?

Last week, Nugon Sovan of the Phnom Penh Post reported that the Cambodian Government is set to list three state-owned companies on the country's planned stock exchange. The three enterprises for which IPO preparations are underway are the Phnom Penh Water Supply Authority, Sihanoukville Autonomous Port and Telecom Cambodia, the country's incumbent fixed-line operator. Attracting investment to the latter company is certainly a pressing matter if the Hun Sen Government is serious about improving what I understand to be very underdeveloped wireline infrastructure.

The southeast Asian country has certainly enjoyed something of a cellular boom, with mobile penetration currently standing at 34.23%, according to WCIS. This is up from 23.54% in September 2008 and 14.86% a year before that. In contrast, fixed-line services have not been developed with anything like as much enthusiasm. The 2008 country profile from industry watchers Buddecomm has this to say: "fixed-line services [have] flattened out at around 42,000 [lines] with no sign of any revival in interest in this segment of the market." The report also contends that Internet penetration has remained particularly low, one of the biggest inhibitors to Internet growth in the country being the high cost of online access in comparison to other countries in the region.

One intention for the telco's IPO, then, must be to extend the reach of the Telecom Cambodia network and broaden the range of services available in the country. That will not happen right away, however, because a September 2009 target for launching the new Cambodian bourse has passed without construction of the planned stock market building getting underway.

Jason Szep of Reuters, writing on Sunday, reports that the global financial crisis intervened to delay the Cambodian Government's plans, ending an unprecedented boom which had seen the country's economy expand 10% annually in the five years up to 2008. Foreign investment collapsed, writes Szep, with tourist arrivals falling by double digits and garment exports, a mainstay of the economy, shrinking by 15%. Now, officials seem confident that these difficulties will soon have abated sufficiently for the bourse construction project to get back on track. "We want to do it next year," Mey Vann, director of the financial industry department at Cambodia's Ministry of Economy and Finance, said in an interview. "It'll be good timing for us with the economic recovery."

Plans for the new stock exchange seem to be quite modest. As Szep reports, the exchange expects to start small with just four or five companies issuing about USD 10 million worth of shares each. Contrast this with the experience of neighbouring Vietnam, whose first stock market launched in 2000 with an initial market capitalisation of USD 43 million, according to Szep. From tiny acorns, reasonably large oaks can grow, however. Perhaps the Cambodian Government will take some encouragement from the fact that today, Vietnam's market is worth USD 27 billion.

Yet, writes Szep, there are risks to Cambodian investors - "in Vietnam, most of the investors were local, often unaware of the risks, and many were burned as the market steered a rollercoaster course. Meanwhile, foreign investors largely sought to dip into the potential high returns of an emerging frontier market while hedging their bets with a highly diversified portfolio."

As in Vietnam, Szep continues, Cambodia is giving state companies priority with a place to sell stock. However, the reaction from inside the companies set to be privatised is not universally positive.

"We don't have any financial constraints. I don't understand the reasons we are going to be listed," said Ek Sonn Chan, who runs the Phnom Penh Water Supply Authority, which employs about 600 people, has about USD 200 million in assets and generates about USD 25 million in annual revenue. He said the company is profitable."If we become a public company, maybe we are more responsible, more transparent and maybe we can help the government allocate financial support to our company. But in the meantime, we don't know much about how it happens. It's very new to Cambodia, very new to me," he said.

I am not aware of any views - positive or negative - being expressed by the current management of Telecom Cambodia about next year's IPO. As Jason Szep writes, though, there does exist the view that the timing of the planned launch of the country's bourse may not be right for some time. Foreign direct investment nearly halved to an estimated USD 490 million from USD 815 million in 2008, writes Szep, who also reports that the International Monetary Fund expects Cambodia's economy to shrink nearly 3% this year before growing about 4% next year.

It seems that it will be in 2010, then, that we should watch for signs of Cambodia's fixed telephony and Internet segments beginning to enjoy the early stages of new growth. Whether this will ever be anything like as impressive as the growth of mobile services remains to be seen. I certainly doubt that the wireline space will, in the near future, be contested by anything like as many players as the mobile market, which, as I've stated here numerous times, has no fewer than nine cellcos jockeying for position. Again, let me take the opportunity to opine that while a good number of MNOs competing on price and innovation are needed to drive the growth of any cellular market, Cambodia seems to be a place were the level of competition may actually be excessive. I've repeated here (almost ad nauseum for regular readers, perhaps) that the aggressive pricing by the likes of Metfone and Vimpelcom-backed Beeline Cambodia has been cited as the reason for global emerging markets player Millicom International Cellular quitting the country.

Another matter given a fair amount of space here has been the fact that the first of those two disruptive later market entrants is backed by a company owned by the military establishment of Vietnam. At risk of excessive repetition, I'll say again that an army-owned cellco from a communist, centrally planned economy is surely not under the same kind of obligations to return profits for shareholders as is the case for its competitors. This affords the operator the possibility of building a mission around extending the availability of services to more remote regions and less affluent people, as Viettel-owned Metfone seems to have done in Cambodia.

Perhaps encouraged by how successful this has been, Viettel is now reportedly keen to buy a stake in Teletalk, a state-ownd GSM operator in Bangladesh, according to a recent Cellular News article.

Teletalk has not carved out a significant chunk of the Bangladesh mobile market. According to WCIS, it is currently estimated to own just 2.31% of the country's 48.7 million subscriptions. However, with mobile penetration at under 30% in the densely populated south Asian country, a nice growth opportunity may exist for any company acquiring the public sector MNO and somehow improving its performance. If Viettel prevails in its bid and is similarly successful in growing the customer base through the application of the same low-price approach used in Cambodia, perhaps a major shake up will affect the Bangladeshi market, where change of some kind has seemingly been on the cards for a while.

Back in July, in an article which was mainly focused on Millicom's exit from Cambodia and two other Asian Markets, I also mentioned that Aktel (an Axiata/NTT DoCoMo joint venture) was rumoured to be in merger talks with Orascom Telecom-backed Banglalink, whose CEO Ahmed Abou Doma had explained in a statement that apart from market-leading Grameenphone "others are continually posting losses" and that "in order to sustain in this fiercely competitive market, and in line with [Orascom's] growth ambitions", his company was "considering many strategies of which consolidation is an option."

Here, then, we have another market in which the room for growth implied by quite low mobile penetration (29.58% in Bangladesh) does not necessarily mean that a licence to operate a mobile network is also the proverbial licence to print money. If Viettel's bid is successful and if the Cambodian example is instructive, perhaps the likes of Mr Doma at Banglalink are about to find that things are about to get even tougher.

So, the Vietnamese army may be set to march into another market and inflict damage on more private sector telecoms operators.

This meandering article will conclude with the observation that Southeast Asia is not the only battle zone for military men with an eye on the telecoms market.

Another is at the western edge of Asia, where, in Iran, the state-owned incumbent fixed-line telecoms operator, TCI has been the subject of a fairly exotic form of 'privatisation'. A 51% stake in the company has been acquired by a consortium controlled by the Islamic Republic's Revolutionary Guards, a move which, according to the Guardian newspaper, is "fuelling suspicions that the organisation is quietly staging a military takeover." The Guardian article also mentions claims that a rival enterprise had been unfairly excluded from the bidding process because it lacked appropriate "security qualifications".

Also reported are warnings from critics who worry that the deal "exposes ordinary people, especially political activists, to intensified spying and electronic surveillance." The article goes on to report that this news came days after the governor of Iran's central bank, Mahmoud Bahmani, announced that a finance company owned by the Revolutionary Guards, the Ansar Institute, had been cleared to become a fully fledged bank.

The Revolutionary Guards, formed in 1979 to safeguard the Islamic revolution, writes the Guardian's Robert Tait, have built a financial empire with interests including oil and gas fields, airports and eye and dental clinics during the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, himself a former member. Tait writes that this "empire" has been awarded lucrative building and engineering contracts "and is thought to control the smuggling of contraband into Iran."

The telecoms takeover, reports Tait, has provoked accusations that the Government's privatisation programme – required under Iran's constitution – is a sham designed to sell state assets to the Revolutionary Guards.

Journalist Mohammad Nourizad has warned that the Guards' control of TCI would be used to step up monitoring of the Government's opponents, Tait reports.

"Getting access to telecommunications management has always been vital for the security requirements of the Revolutionary Guards and the iron men behind the scenes," Nourizad wrote in a blog. "It means control over the country's entire telecommunications system, including landline telephones, mobiles, text messages, the internet and any other stuff linked to telecommunications. After that, it's a piece of cake … to trace people."

Scary stuff, if true.

At ease. Dis-MISS.

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