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

Friday, 18 December 2009

Something to Grin about for Malawi's mobile users?

Tay Grin - star of the African hip hop scene... and Malawi's mobile sector?

It is not with any pleasure that DevelopingTelecomsWatch sometimes observes a country's mobile market and concludes that one of more of its competing cellcos surely seems doomed to fall by the wayside. All such enterprises are doubtless founded in good faith and with the firm intention to reward investors and employees for providing services to customers who will want them. A somewhat recurrent theme of this blog, however, in its first year, has been to wonder aloud about likely market consolidations around the world, and to speculate a little about which actors might be shaken out in any such eventuality.

In March, DTW picked up comments on this topic from MTN CEO Phuthuma Nhleko, spotted in a Financial Times article. Nhleko was quoted as saying that he believes Africa will see a wave of telco sector consolidation in the next 1-2 years, and the article contended that this will result from both new entrants and more established competitors struggling to maintain healthy margins in increasingly crowded markets.

Shortly after this, DTW took a look at some examples of particularly congested competitive environments in Africa, starting with Benin, the continent's 31st largest country in terms of the size of its population. We noted that five mobile operators now compete in a country of just 8 million people.

In the same month, DTW articles asked about the potential for mobile market consolidation in Burundi and in Gabon. By June, the same questions was being asked of Tanzania. A related post the same month zeroed in on Malawi, which might be something of a different case.

In that piece, it was noted that this under-penetrated market (still only 17.47% mobile penetration as of end-December 2009, according to WCIS) may offer a decent opportunity for a new entrant. At present, a duopoly exists, with the country's mobile subscriber base split between Zain's Malawi operation and Telekom Networks Malawi, a cellco in which the country's incumbent fixed line operator Malawi Telecommunications owns a 44% stake. Market share now (as of end-Dec 2009) is as follows: Zain 71.34%; TNM 28.66% (estimated figures, again from WCIS).

The June article on Malawi noted that country's telecoms regulator felt that the services offered by these two operators were at a price point which did not offer a fair deal to consumers. Zain responded by blaming high tariffs on high taxes. The market-leading operator also claimed that as the overall mobile market grows in Malawi, it will be able to lower prices. Zain Malawi's Managing Director Fayaz King explained: "Imagine at Zain, we have mounted a network that could take up to 5 million users but we currently have only 1.5 million customers. We believe that if at least 3 million people started using the Zain network, we could start enjoying the benefits of economies of scale."

The regulatory agency apparently remains unmoved by this line of argument. Aiming to bring down prices and extend service availability to the wider population, the Malawi Communications Regulatory Authority felt that the best course of action was to open the market to a third entrant. As early as April this year, press reports were naming this third entrant - Globally Advanced Integrated Networks, the holder of the G-Mobile brand name.

Does Malawi, then, really offer a good prospect for this third entrant? As discussed back in June, there are reasons to suppose that while there are certainly numerous European countries with populations smaller than that of Malawi sustaining three or more mobile operators, the landlocked southeast African nation might nevertheless offer insufficiently attractive returns for prospective new entrants. While its high population density suggests that mobile coverage could be built out relatively cost-effectively, Malawi is, however, among the world's least developed countries, with a heavily agriculture-dependent economy and with GDP per capita of less than USD 320. Low life expectancy, high infant mortality and a high prevalence of HIV/AIDS all blight the country, with the latter draining the labour force and expected to impact further on GDP in the near future.

However, even in this context, mobile penetration is very low, as we have seen, even when compared with other underdeveloped African economies. So there could be room for one more MNO.

Is GAIN/G-Mobile, though, a likely candidate for success as a third entrant in this environment? Perhaps not.
Due to the economic factors mentioned above, DTW suggested back in June that Malawi might be the kind of market where only MNOs able to leverage the scale and best practices of large groups can prevail and prosper in the long term.

G-Mobile, seemingly not aligned to any such major international telecoms group, certainly does not fit that description.

Who, then, is behind this latecomer to the Malawian mobile scene? The only person connect with the business whom I have seen quoted in the press is one Limbani Kalilani, the company's Vice Chairman. Mr Kalilani appears to be something of a celebrity in Malawi - and is working to become more well known across and beyond Africa. Although he has some track record in the telecoms industry, having set up a wireless payphone company called Phone Yanu, it is in the music world that Kalilani has made his real impact. Better known to his fans as Tay Grin, Mr Kalilani has established himself as a hip hop artist. Here he is in action:

It would be truly admirable if Tay Grin can succeed as both an international music phenomenon and a domestic business success story - more admirable still if it is his indigenous Malawian company that manages to bring the benefits of mobile communications to a larger number of his compatriots than can currently afford the services offered by the two established cellcos. DTW would be instinctively in favour of this form of African empowerment.

Are there already signs, however, that the going will prove as tough as DTW fears? Perhaps.

TeleGeography has recently reported that G-Mobile has admitted it will not be able to meet the 31st December 2009 deadline for the rollout of its network as stipulated by its licence. Instead the company plans to request an extension to the deadline from the regulator, and will make up for the delay by combining rollout phases outlined by the concession. Let's wait and see.

G-Mobile's rivals, meanwhile, are making progress of their own. TNM has launched its W-CDMA/HSDPA network, with Charles Kamoto, head of the cellco's Commercial Services division, saying that the service is initially only available to post-paid subscribers but that prepaid customers will soon have access 3G. Kamoto added: "Most less developed nations do not have this service on board for their customers but in Malawi we are very aggressive, we believe that our customers need quality, they need top-notch services and that is why we had to bring this 3.5G technology."

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

More musings on a latin t(r)ip

The most recent article here was both a round up of some recent news from Paraguay and a trip down memory lane. I reminisced fondly about an interesting tour of four South American countries which I enjoyed last year. In doing so, I mentioned in passing the two telecoms cooperatives I was able to visit in Bolivia.

COMTECO HQ, Cochabama Bolivia

As the Bolivia market report from telecoms industry watchers Buddecomm notes, the Andean country is one of South America's poorest and least developed. According to Buddecomm's figures, Bolivia has the continent's lowest mobile penetration and second lowest fixed line teledensity. With regard to the former measure, data from the the World Cellular Information Service supports this claim. WCIS indicates that the country's mobile penetration stood at just 60.08% as of the end of September this year. Most other countries in South America's less affluent northern region show much higher numbers, for example:
  • Venezuela - 105.98%
  • Ecuador - 91.35%
  • Colombia - 83.75%
In the more prosperous Conosur region, the numbers tend to be higher still, for example:
  • Uruguay - 117.10%
  • Argentina - 115.97%
  • Chile - 98.33%
Certainly, Bolivia seemed to be a visibly less affluent country than others I have been able to visit in the region. Although I did spend one night in the capital, La Paz, in order to make an early flight on to Caracas (via Lima), my meetings were elsewhere. The cities I visited were Santa Cruz and Cochabamba. The former city is Bolivia's most populous and is at the heart of the country's economic activity. The latter city is Bolivia's third largest settlement, set in an Andean valley, with a magnificent backdrop of mountain peaks.

As described in the most recent post here, the purpose of my tour around South America was to drum up support for the Americas Com conference and exhibition, the success of which it was one of my tasks to contribute towards until last year. In the other countries I visited, it was sufficient to spend time just in their capital cities, travelling between meetings by taxi. This would not have worked in Bolivia, where in the wireline space, at least, the telecommunications market is highly fragmented.

In Bolivia, a national incumbent fixed line operator - Entel - does exist. This was renationalised by the left wing administration of President Evo Morales just weeks after we visited the company's Santa Cruz office. My understanding, however, is that the majority of the country's PSTN subscriptions are with the numerous cooperatives. We felt it could be useful to visit some of these. In Santa Cruz, we were received at the offices of COTAS (Cooperativa de Telecomunicaciones Santa Cruz). In Cochabamba, we visited the headquarters of COMTECO (Cooperativa de Telecomunicaciones Cochabamba).

Entel offices, Santa Cruz, Bolivia

As with the visit to Paraguay's COPACO described in the most recent previous article here, conversations with the representatives of these cooperatives (about how they might contribute to our conference) were strikingly unlike those we had at the offices of private sector telcos elsewhere in South America. Again, the themes to which our contacts warmed most readily were around bridging the digital divide and extending the availability of affordable basic services to poorer and more remotely located users.

While none of these cooperatives have constructed mobile networks, COTAS is able to compete in the cellular space. Bolivia is a rare case of a South American country in which even one MVNOs is in existence - and that MVNO is the mobile offering of COTAS, hosted by Nuevatel (which operates under the Viva brand), an MNO once owned by John Stanton's Western Wireless.

Nuevatel HQ, Santa Cruz, Bolivia

That COTAS is able to operate as an MVNO is not due to any particular encouragement on the part of the Bolivian telecoms regulator. A 2006 report from Diamond Consultants asked whether conditions, at that time, were right for the emergence of MVNOs in India. I'll admit that I haven't yet read this report very carefully, but perhaps it's safe to guess the answer might have been 'no'. After all, as recently as March this year, DevelopingTelecomsWatch was reporting on continued regulatory wrangles which looked set to delay the market entry of MVNOs in India. As part of its discussion, the Diamond Consultants report makes remarks about the state of play for MVNOs in some other markets around the world. Bolivia is observed to be a market in which the regulator has discouraged MVNOs, with policies "primarily driven by the low penetration of mobile services and the low geographic reach of the network." It is further argued that "low ARPUs meant that the discount MVNO model was not viable" The regulator's stance is described as seeing "brand and data service-oriented MVNOs... encroaching on the already limited capacity" Rather than encourage MVNOs to emerge, the report observes, the Bolivian regulator "stepped in and provided incentives to mobile network operators to improve capacity and coverage". Despite this, COTAS Movil was launched in mid-2002 to complement the cooperative's existing portfolio of fixed voice, ADSL and cable TV services.

The report puts Argentina in the same category as Bolivia - markets in which the entry of MVNOs is discouraged by regulatory agencies. Despite this, MVNO services have been launched there. As with Bolivia, this has been done by telecoms cooperatives.

Now, according to TeleGeography, a federation of telecoms coops, Fecosur, is planning to expand the reach of these mobile services, expecting to extend coverage to around 150 cities and municipalities across the country within four or five months. According to the federation’s president, Antonio Roncoroni, the service is already provided in 14 cities throughout the country under the 'Nuestro' banner. Fecosur and another body, Fecotel, jointly represent around 300 telecoms cooperatives across the country.

Having mused here more than once in the past about Latin America's cooperatives and about telcos renationalised by left-of-centre governments - and about how these organisations appear to operate a little differently from those for whom shareholder value is a key consideration - it will be interesting to observe whether this new mobile offering will have any very significant impact on the Argentinean market.

Others who finds the telecoms coops of Latin America at all interesting might like to look over a scholarly paper (dated 2005) from the The Journal of Community Informatics which I found recently and which rounds up the history of the Argentinean cooperatives quite nicely.

As the English winter draws in, thoughts of sunny days touring Latin America's telcos in the balmy days of April 2008 are quite attractive. Hence these musings today.

Friday, 11 December 2009

Memories of Paraguay

In April 2008, your humble scribe had the very great pleasure of visiting four South American countries on behalf of events and business information company Informa Telecoms & Media. The purpose of the trip was to drum up additional support for the Americas Com conference and exhibition, held annually, and usually attracting a few hundred telecoms sector execs from around the Western Hemisphere.

While exhibitors, sponsors, delegates and supporting industry associations seemed to be broadly happy, it was beyond dispute that assembling a crowd which really represented the majority of the countries to the south of the USA was a challenging task. Various venues had been tried over the years - and each time, the location had a significant bearing on the size and diversity of the crowd. Mexican venues made for a group of participants drawn largely from that country, from the Caribbean islands and from some Central American markets. To host the event in Buenos Aires was to ensure that the group would consist largely of Argentineans and others from the Conosur region, the most prosperous segment of the South American continent. In both of these scenarios, delegates from the less affluent Andean countries would be rather more thin on the ground.

South America's largest and most populous country by far is, of course, Brazil. Iterations of Americas Com held in that country's most amazingly attractive conference location, Rio de Janeiro, did very well in terms of delegate numbers. Brazilian delegates - who quite rarely seemed inclined to travel in good numbers to venues outside their home country - were so numerous in Rio that a particular difficulty arose, however.

It was perfectly possible to lure a decent contingent of influential delegates from Spanish speaking countries to a conference and exhibition in Rio. For exhibitors and sponsors, however, picking them out from among the massively larger group of Brazilians could be challenging. It was tough, then, to create the perception of having assembled a genuinely multinational delegate audience.

It was with this in mind, and with the 2008 version of Americas Com scheduled once again for Rio, that a two-man delegation set out in April that year for meetings with a varied group of telecoms operators around South America. The week-long tour took in Venezuela, Bolivia, Paraguay and Argentina. Only the last of these had ever really been a source of significant numbers of senior delegates prepared to travel to our event when it was held outside their own country.

For someone who whose previous trips to South America had all been to Brazil, I found this to be a fascinating opportunity. In many ways, it felt as if the only thing these four very different countries have in common is that the official language is Spanish. Walking the streets and having meetings in Buenos Aires struck me as being a very similar experience to what one might expect in a southern European country - Spain, Portugal or perhaps Italy. Venezuela and Bolivia were strikingly different places - the people, the climate, the infrastructure: a different world.

Paraguay was, to me at least, the really unknown quantity - a country of which I knew very little aside from recollecting the name of its erstwhile dictator, Alfredo Stroessner and a those of a couple of its notable footballers, Messrs. Santa Cruz and Chilavert.

My colleague (translator/interpreter/fixer) and I did the rounds of the mobile operator HQ buildings in Asuncion. These varied a bit in terms of how expensively they were decorated, but the offices were not vastly different in arrangement or atmosphere to ones you might visit almost anywhere in the world. We were, however, on the way to airport, to visit an HQ which looked and felt rather different.

Vox HQ, Asuncion, Paraguay

On our travels around the seemingly quite sleepy Paraguayan capital, it became clear that the local telecoms scene was a close-knit community. Having already been shown around town by a helpful local driver who seemed to know personally everyone with whom we had a scheduled meeting, we had a nice piece of luck on our visit to one of the MNOs. The gentleman with whom we met was able to open doors at one of the organisations where we did not have an appointment fixed up. This introduction, then, led to a meeting with the Gerente Comercial of COPACO (Corporación Paraguaya de Comunicaciones), the state-owned incumbent wireline operator.

Informa's Americas region event had only recently expanded its remit from a gathering purely of GSM mobile operators. Part of our task was to increase the diversity of the audience not only in terms of countries represented but also in terms of aiming for a much broader range of telecoms businesses attending the show - fixed/mobile; state sector/private sector; involving delegates from the cable sector.

So it was wonderful to have the opportunity to visit companies in these target segments and something of an eye-opener to have conversations with the leaders of public sector operators (we also visited CANTV in Venezuela) and telecoms cooperatives, of which we managed to visit two in Bolivia.

What was novel for us was discussing the proposed themes of presentations these companies might offer at our event and hearing of topics quite different from the ones we had heard discussed by private sector GSM operators in previous iterations of the conference.

COPACO HQ, Asuncion.

COPACO, which we managed to visit just ahead of our flight to the next stop on the tour, was no exception. Our host, who was exceptionally generous with him time, was most animated when talking about how his organisation was striving to extend the availability of services to under-connected settlements. During this conversation, I couldn't help being struck by how this gentleman's language varied from what I was used to hearing at such meetings and at conferences. I don't recall hearing the terms 'EBITDA', 'shareholder value', 'market share', 'ARPU' or their Spanish equivalents during our chat. Our surroundings, too, were different. COPACO HQ lacked expensively designed marketing materials and branding. We entered through a hall in which customers could make payments. The scene there, to me at least, was somewhat reminiscent of a local government office in the UK - but before our local authorities were made to organise their activities along more commercial lines.

With this memorable discussion in mind, then, it was interesting for me to learn this week, via TeleGeography, that Millicom Cellular International-owned Tigo Paraguay has been awarded a contract to deploy mobile services in four under-served departments of the country, helping CONATEL, the national telecoms regulatory agency, achieve its universal service targets. Under the deal, Tigo will roll out networks to 35 municipalities where cellular services are currently unavailable and the Government will provide funding of around USD1.04 million to support the network deployment. In total, according to the TeleGeography item, the project is expected to cost around USD1.6 million and benefit around 20,000 Paraguayans in remote areas. The private sector, then, has a role to play in meeting some of the challenges discussed by my host on our visit to COPACO HQ last year.

COPACO itself, meanwhile, continues to harbour ambitions of entering the mobile services market. At present, according to the World Cellular Information Service, that market (the mobile penetration rate of which is 85.45%) is split as follows:
According to a recent TeleGeography story, COPACO expects to join this list by mid-2010. With my visit to the company's HQ in mind, I'll be interested to see how their mobile offering fares in competition with the existing cellcos.

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Cambodia's mobile price war: peace in sight?

Beeline Cambodia: late entrant doing battle in a fierce tariffs war

DevelopingTelecomsWatch depends on the indispensable Phnom Penh Post for news of all things Cambodian, quoting that organ quite liberally, for example, when donning a flak jacket to report on the mobile price war which has been gripping the southeast Asian country for months.

It was also via that esteemed news outlet that DTW learned this week that the Cambodian Government has tired of waiting for the country's numerous cellcos to end to their damaging tariffs battle. A long-awaited edict setting minimum tariffs was signed by the Government last Friday, telecoms Minister So Khun is quoted as saying.

"We offered free-market principles, but operators kept having conflicts with one another, so the government needs to have a hand in it," So Khun said. The government will suspend the licence of any operators that violate the minimum tariff set by the edict, he added.

The Cambodian mobile market is currently contested by no less than nine MNOs. If there is another country with a population under 15 million whose cellular sector is split so many ways, it does not spring immediately to mind. Of that crowd of cellcos, one, so far, has reacted positively to the imposition of a minimum tariff regime. The Phnom Penh Post quotes Simon Perkins, CEO of Axiata-controlled Hello, who says he supports the initiative "to bring some structure to the telecom tariffs, in the absence of the usual competition guidelines and rules that exist in a lot of markets".

This decision, of course, comes too late for Millicom International Cellular, which announced in July that its three Asian operations (in Sri Lanka and Laos as well as in Cambodia) were to be reclassified as assets held for sale. The Luxembourg-headquartered mobile group cited problems around ongoing profitability in these Asian markets as a key reason for selling up and focusing its efforts on its African and Latin American properties. As DTW reported in the summer, Millicom CEO Mikael Grahne appeared to attribute much of the blame for deteriorating profits at Cellcard, the Cambodian cellco in which Millicom has a 58.4% stake, to the disruptive market-entry strategies of latecomers to the country's mobile arena. The same DTW piece, however, noted that another major shareholder in Cellcard does not agree with Millicom's assertion that this is negatively impacting profitability: "[There are] no concerns on profitability from our side," said Mark Hanna, CFO of Royal Group, which owns a 38.5% stake in the cellco, denying in July that margins had become tighter.

Such was the confidence of the Royal Group in this assertion that the local Cambodian conglomerate agreed to acquire Millicom's stake in Cellcard. This confidence also seems to be shared now by the Royal Group's bankers. According to a Bloomberg article earlier this month, Royal Group has hired Standard Bank Group Ltd. and Australia & New Zealand Banking Group Ltd. to arrange an 18-month bridging loan to help with the purchase of Millicom's share of the MNO.

The appetite of the Cambodian authorities for intervention in the mobile market does not end with tariff control.

Again, we are indebted to the Phnom Penh Post, this time for coverage of a debate around mobile network sharing in Cambodia.

Last month, the newspaper carried news of Minister So Khun calling for the country's MNOs to share infrastructure. So Khun said the initiative would avoid duplication of infrastructure, thereby reducing costs across the sector, as well as moderating the effect that mobile base stations are having on their surroundings.

"We do not want to see too many antennas dotted along roads in the future," said the Minister. Perhaps it would be too sarcastic to respond by asking "So why did you license nine mobile operators in a country of that size?"

Given that some of these nine are well-established players feeling the effects of the later entry of certain rivals, it seems reasonable to suggest that the response to any mandatory network infrastructure sharing might be rather mixed. As the Phnom Penh Post points out, the operators with an established presence in the market have spent many millions of dollars on infrastructure as part of their efforts to gain competitive advantage.

The Government has shared a draft of a proposed telecoms law one of whose provisions would be to make infrastructure sharing obligatory. The private sector response has been to agree that while there do exist benefits around cost reduction and environmental impact, market forces in Cambodia have not been given sufficient time to work.

"Mandatory facilities sharing will reduce the incentive on operators to build such infrastructure," said these recommendations. "This may result in less than the optimal number of towers being constructed such that when the operators commence infilling their networks to improve coverage and provide better service, they are unable to do so as all tower capacity has been filled."

DevelopingTelecomsWatch finds the mobile market of this particular Asian country to be fascinating. We'll keep watching.