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

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.

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