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

Friday, 9 July 2010


I am no longer working in a telecoms sector role and have therefore decided to cease updating this blog. Thanks to all who visited here and found it useful, and to the various advertisers and media partners with whom I had the pleasure of doing business.

Friday, 21 May 2010

Vodafone to quit Egypt?

This blog is (usually) written on a Sceptred Isle whose citizens (subjects) are currently wondering what life is going to be like under a newly cobbled-together coalition government. This is rather a novel state of affairs because the our electoral system is carefully rigged designed to crown a decisive winner and deliver the 'strong government' we Brits are supposed to favour. Usually this works out fine, with a healthy majority and almost unchecked power conferred upon the winners. There's never even been the need for those 'winners' to command a majority share of the votes cast, much less the support of a majority of those eligible to vote.

During its election campaign, the senior partner in the new government issued dire warnings about the terrible consequences should the voters be unwise enough to elect a hung parliament. The markets, we were warned, would respond unfavourably, leaving our fragile economic recovery exposed to the fall out of their nervousness.

Perhaps this was not too far wide of the mark. The markets continue to be volatile in the early days of this new administration, with Nick Fletcher of the Guardian reporting another bumpy week of trading.

Bucking the current downward trend, however, writes Fletcher, is mobile behemoth Vodafone.

"The mobile phone group has had a busy week", observes Fletcher, winning an Indian 3G licence... and reporting a doubling of annual profits. Today, Fletcher reports, its shares have jumped 2p to 131.45p, making it the biggest riser in a falling FTSE, following reports it plans to sell its 55% stake in its Egyptian business.

One such report, from TeleGeography, suggests that the buyer of Vodafone's controlling stake in the Egyptian MNO may be incumbent wireline operator Telecom Egypt, already the owner of the other 45% of the business.

The article also suggests that if no agreement can be reached between Vodafone and Telecom Egypt, the fixed-line operator may seek another route into the domestic mobile sector, perhaps trying to secure its own wireless licence, should the government, as rumoured, offer a fourth mobile concession in the future.

India's cellcos to balk at mandatory switch to solar-powered equipment?

Solar power: mandatory for India's cellcos?

The green credentials of DevelopingTelecomsWatch are pretty weak - this blog has never dedicated an entire article specifically to an examination of the environmental impact of telecoms technology.

Moreover, the only time DTW has discussed 'green' technologies at length, when wind and solar-powered mobile base stations were evaulated more than a year ago, the focus was mainly on cost benefits for operators. Just a cursory mention was made how such solutions compare favourably - in terms of environmental impact - to diesel-powered generators in the vast numbers of sites where electricty distribution infrastructure is inadequate across developing countries.

Even in terms of the narrower arguments about cost control, last April's article was by no means constructed entirely of fulsome praise for wind-powered and solar-powered mobile network infrastructure. It was noted that while running costs can, of course, look very attractive, the costs of investing in new solar panels and wind turbines themselves are not trivial. DTW also reported concerns on the part of the GSM Association about the results of trials of sun and wind-powered base stations.

Mobile operators, then, mindful of these questions, could presumably be resistant to any attempt to make reliance on these green technologies mandatory.

This is precisely the situation which could be facing cellcos in India.

Writing for India's Economic Times earlier this month, Subhash Narayan asserts that the country's government "may ask telecom companies to install solar panels to generate backup power for cellphone towers, a move that could hurt the sector already troubled by a squeeze in margins."

A proposal being finalised by the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE), writes Narayan, "is aimed at containing the use of polluting diesel gensets to provide back-up power" and "could increase the cost of network expansion significantly"

"The green drive will prevent these engines of development (telecom towers) from becoming grave environmental hazards," said an official with MNRE. "We are discussing the proposal with various stakeholders. A cabinet note is proposed to be finalised thereafter to get the clearance for the scheme," the official said, requesting anonymity

Predicatably, the industry response, as reported by Narayan of the Economic Times, is not terrible enthusiatic. "This could significantly impact the margins of companies already under pressure due to rising spectrum cost and the cut-throat competition in the sector," said 'an executive with a large private telco'.

Narayan asserts that the Indian government is not keen on providing any subsidy for solar power equipment, but says it could offer them soft loans under refinancing schemes of Indian Renewable Energy Development Agency.

This skepticism from India notwithstanding, one can still find evidence of cellcos in developing countries going down the green power route. Chinese vendor, ZTE, for example, seems to have encouraged MTN's Cameroonian opco to take delivery of an unspecified number of solar-powered base stations.

Thursday, 6 May 2010

Afrique Occidentale & Centrale Com: De retour au Sénégal par demande générale

The Zain-Bharti transaction: How will West African mobile markets be affected?

Mais non! DevelopingTelecomsWatch has not become a francophone blog. The frenchified title of today's offering is in honour of the fact that a noted West African telecoms conference is, after two years in Nigeria, to be hosted in Senegal in June.

Geopolitically, West Africa is defined by the UN as consisting of: Benin, Burkina Faso, Côte d'Ivoire, Cape Verde, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone and Togo. Of these, just four are countries where English is an official language. Of the others, two are Lusophone states and ten are French-speaking.

The organisers of the aforementioned conference have found that this linguistic diversity in the region creates certain challenges for them. Nigeria, as by far the largest market in West Africa, seemed to be the logical place in which to host the event for the last couple of years. Certainly, relocating the conference to Abuja (from its previous venue of Dakar, Senegal) two years ago paid tremendous dividends in terms of boosted attendance numbers and a good buzz of activity at the 2008 and 2009 iterations of the gathering. This was achieved, however, at the cost of making the event a tad less attractive for delegates from the numerous French-speaking markets. This effect was somewhat mitigated by ensuring that simultaneous English-French translation was available during all conference sessions, but perhaps not as much as was hoped given that this year Informa Telecoms & Media have moved the show back to Dakar again.

Given that delegates from telecoms operators attend for free, Informa monetises its Com World Series events (of which West & Central Africa Com is one) largely by selling sponsorship packages and exhibition space to the telecoms technology vendors that do business with those operators. These vendors will doubtless remain keen on the potential of the large (and fragmented) Nigerian telecoms market and might be concerned about not having a good tradeshow route-to-market to address this now the conference has headed back to Dakar.

With this in mind, I guess, Informa are also running a specifically Nigerian event in Lagos this year. This will make its debut in September.

In the meantime, what can we expect to be discussed at the Dakar gathering?

I guess one hot topic - addressed via offline chitchat if not via presentations and panel discussions - will be the effect of Zain's withdrawal from the region. The Kuwaiti group currently controls opcos in Burkina Faso, Ghana, Niger, Nigeria and Sierra Leone - as well as others in markets elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa. As discussed ad nauseum in DTW posts passim., all of these are now set to be in the hands of giant Indian cellco Bharti Airtel. DTW's most recent article, mainly a brief exploration of whether India's mobile market is set to consolidate, did a little to talk up the ways in which Bharti Airtel might be able to reinvent Zain Africa by introducing the low-cost business model which it has empoyed on home turf. So let's see how much tougher sub-Saharan markets are set to become for Zain/Bharti's competitors.

This acquistion, however, may yet take a little while longer to conclude. One reason for this could be resistance from the governments of the countries in which the Zain-owned opcos are set to change hands. That said, there have been recent signs of these obstacles being overcome.

Back in March, for example, as reported by India's Economic Times, the Government of Gabon said it "disapproves" of the sale of Zain's Gabonese assets to Bharti Airtel and reserves the right to take "all necessary measures". Late last week, Reuters was reporting that this objection had been resolved.

It will be interesting, then, to see how long it takes to deal with any further problems of this kind. If the difficulties do continue into June, it should be interesting to connect with Tiemoko Coulibaly, Vice President of Zain's Western Africa operations at West & Central Africa Com in Dakar.

There will be many other reasons to attend the event - but connecting with the likes of Mr Coulibaly could be motivation enough for anyone who does business with Zain in Africa and now needs to keep on top of how the change of ownership is set to change the game.

Thursday, 22 April 2010

India: operator space to consolidate while handset market gets more fragmented?

Maarten Pieters: Vodafone India CEO predicts market consolidation

Last week, a broad range of news outlets were carrying the claim that just 31% of the population of India were known to have access to a toilet and 'improved sanitation' in 2008. This is clearly a regrettable state of affairs, with dire consequences for public health, life expectancy and economic development.

Ordinarily, however, it does not follow that the seriousness of an issue always correlates strongly with the willingness of the global media to give it coverage. It was a welcome surprise, then, to see this particular issue given some space even by the website of the thin, brightly coloured newspaper given free at UK railway stations to daily commuters such as myself. After all, this is an organ whose print version dedicates just a few pages to what I would really call 'news' - far more space is given over to celebrity tittletattle and TV listings.

How, then, did this story successfully compete for space even in that kind of context?

The key seems to have been handing the global media an compelling, ready-written headline. The person responsible for doing so in this case appears to be Zafar Adeel, Director of the United Nations University’s Canada-based think-tank, the Institute for Water, Environment and Health.

So how did Dr. Adeel manage to craft a headline sufficiently eye-catching so as to propel this important but unglamorous issue up the news agenda last week? He did so by building it around the assertion that more Indians have access to a mobile phone than to a working toilet. Presumably, the desired effect on readers in Europe and North America was to stimulate a thought process along the following lines: 'More cellphones than toilets? That's crazy! Toilets have been around forever and are one of the most basic facilities expected for a civilised life -  but the mobile phone is a recently invented luxury item.'

Such a characterisation of the mobile device would be understandable when articulated by someone who ticks the following boxes:
  • lives in a wealthy, developed country and has not had the opportunity to see mobile phones being used on the city streets or in the villages of (for example) Kenya, India or Bangladesh
  • is old enough to remember when mobile phones were seen as an expensive status symbol used only by wealthy executives
  • has not thought about how access to communications services can improve the lives of poor people by connecting them with time-saving information and services
Regular readers of this blog, and anyone working in or around the telecoms sector in emerging markets/developing countries, however, would be much less likely to think of mobile phones in this way. They would probably be inclined to realise that is precisely because developing countries have weak infrastructure that the mobile phone has rapidly become a truly vital part of the lives of even very poor people in such nations. Numerous examples of this have been decribed in DTW posts passim. Rather than trawl through all of those, readers might like to look at a nicely succinct round up of observations on this topic, made recently Anand Giridharadas, writing for the New York Times.

Giridharadas observes that there is "a global flowering of innovation on the simple cellphone" and that "from Brazil to India to South Korea and even Afghanistan, people are seeking work via text message; borrowing, lending, and receiving salaries on cellphones; employing their phones as flashlights, televisions and radios." He goes on to assert that "many do all this for peanuts", noting that "in India, Reliance Communications sells handsets for less than [USD] 25, with one-cent-a-minute phone calls across India and one-cent text messages and no monthly charge — while earning fat profits."

Readers of this blog, particularly any working in India's mobile sector, might on one hand take pride in seeing such achievements talked up but may, on the other hand, not fully recognise the idea of an industry revelling in 'fat' profits.

Certainly, the feeling in India may be that at the very low tariff levels referred to by Giridharadas, not all operators may continue to be viable. Sypmathetic to this view is Maarten Pieters, CEO Of Vodafone India. Speaking to the Economic Times last week, Pieters observed: "It’s all about scale because we have very low tariffs here. If you compared the tariffs here, it’s about 10% or what we get in Europe in the Vodafone Group as an average tariff. So, how can you survive as an operator on those low tariffs that is by creating scale and it is very clear that it will not be able for 10 people or 10 operators to create that scale, which means there needs to be some form of consolidation".

Pieters does not expect this consolidation of the mobile market to happen overnight, however, because it would not be facilitated by India's current M&A rules. "So, we first need to see some changes of the rules and then you will probably see consolidation."

Indian mobile operators, then, have to strive for profitability in an extremely tough environment. Quite often, I have heard industry watchers articulate the view that this should equip the country's cellcos very well for meeting the challenges of extracting a profit from developing countries elsewhere in the world. Also out there is the feeling that any Indian MNOs with international ambitions will need to be mindful of quite different challenges they may face.

Writing last month for about the purchase of Zain's African opcos by Bharti Airtel, for example, Matthew Reed observes that "Bharti will be looking to reinvent Zain Africa by introducing the low-cost business model that it has pioneered successfully in India" and "will also be hoping to achieve economies of scale across its Asian and African operations, which together will make it the fifth-largest mobile operator in the world".

Reed does offer words of caution, however, arguing that "operating in Africa does present particular challenges, some of which will be new to Bharti, despite its credentials as an emerging-market operator."

"The takeover of Zain Africa", writes Reed, "will give Bharti operations in 15 different countries, each of which has its own political and regulatory conditions, and some of which present some political risk. The diversity alone will be something new for Bharti, which only had mobile operations in India until it made recent moves into Sri Lanka and Bangladesh."

Reed also observes that while tariffs in Africa have traditonally been rather higher than those Bharti Airtel has to live with on home soil, the giant Indian cellco is entering many African markets at a time when higher levels of competition have more recently been pushing down prices. "In much of sub-Saharan Africa", Reed adds, "the infrastructure is poor and distribution is difficult."

Maarten Pieters of Vodafone India, meanwhile, is almost uniquely well qualified to make predictions about how his company's major competitor is likely to fare as it embarks on its African adventure - between 2003 and 2005, he was the CEO of Celtel International, the collection of African operators acquired by Zain and subsequently sold on to Bharti Airtel. Pieters has also served on the board of Millicom International Cellular, the multinational mobile group whose African assets currently include opcos in Chad, DRC, Ghana, Mauritius, Rwanda, Senegal and Tanzania.

Pieters offers words of encouragement: "Bharti is a very fantastic company. I really admire them. They have done a very good job in India. They have a very good management. If anyone can make a success out of the old Celtel assets, then it’s them. So, I am very happy that they are in good hands."

While, as Pieters argues, consolidation of the Indian mobile operator space may be inevitable, the handset market, conversely, seems to be becoming more fragmented. Priyanka Joshi of the Business Standard writes that "the segment has seen entry of one mobile vendor every month." For the year 2009, Joshi asserts, "new vendors registered a combined market share of 12.3% of the total 101.54 million mobile handset sales."

Examples of new market entrants offered by Joshi include Wynn Telecom. "Starting May this year, writes Joshi, "the company will launch seven dual SIM handsets priced under Rs 5000 and will also get ready to manufacture handsets in India."

Some new entrants, explains Joshi, will build a business around devices tailored to meet the needs of users in India's vast rural areas. Olive Telecommunications  is one example of a company with this strategy.

It will be interesting to observe, then, whether the mobile services and mobile handsets markets do indeed move in these opposite directions - with the former consolidating down to a smaller number of operators of scale and the latter continuing to offer opportunities for innovative new entrants.

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

More chances to network with telecoms and government bigwigs from Turkey, the Caucasus and Central Asia

'tis the season to go networking with telecoms bigwigs from Turkey and the CIS, it seems. Having not long returned from one industry talking shop in Istanbul, DTW is hoping very much to be able to attend another one later this month.

The conference in question is the 9th annual Caspian Telecoms event, to be held in the city's Hilton Hotel on 28th and 29th April. DevelopingTelecomsWatch is proud to have joined the conference's roster of media partners for the first time this year.

In the coming days, I will take the time to say more about this event and why it may well be worth attending for anyone doing business with telcos, telecoms regulatory agencies and telecoms/IT/information ministries of the countries in this region.

For now, I would simply encourage readers to follow the links in this short introductory note and review the organiser's web site.

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Eurasia Com: doing the business in Turkey and the CIS

Back in January, I wrote about the Eurasia Com conference which the good folks at Informa Telecoms & Media host annually in Istanbul, taking place in either March or April. At the time, I thought it was unlikely that I would be able to attend. Happily, it did turn out to be possible after all,  meaning that I am able to report some of what was discussed at the Conrad Hotel on 23rd and 24th March.

For those not familiar with the event or with the wider series of related conference-plus-exhibition events of which it is a part, a few words of explanation:
  • Informa's Com World Series evolved from what was once known as the GSM (and later GSM>3G) World Series of events. The GSM series was itself a spin-off of the GSM World Congress (now Mobile World Congress), of which Informa was the original founder.
  • The GSM World Series brought scaled-down versions of the main event to a selection of locations ranged around the world's emerging markets. In each location, the aim was to gather large numbers of decision-makers from the mobile operators of the region around the host city. These locations included cities in Africa, Asia, Latin America and Central and Eastern Europe.
  • The Com World Series brand was introduced a few years ago to reflect a perceived need to offer meeting points for a broader community than just GSM mobile operators. The organisers were mindful of the idea that the previously quite sharp fixed-mobile distinction was becoming increasingly fuzzy around the world. They thought about what had once been pure play mobile operators offering other kinds of broadband service, either by building new networks (copper, fibre, fixed-wireless) or in partnership with established fixed-line operators. They thought about new mobility propositions from companies whose previous offerings had not been in the cellular space. They thought about incumbent fixed-line operators merging with previously quite separate mobile business units (think in terms of what Deutsche Telekom is doing all over the CEE region).
  • Throughout this evolution, Informa's series of events has stuck to a pretty successful business model, which is still in place today - operators (and other telecoms service providers) attend for free, with most of the revenue coming from any organisations with products and services to sell into the operator space. This includes the major network technology vendors and all manner of software companies, systems integrators, consultancies etc.
  • Eurasia Com is a relatively new part of the Com World Series, although this year's iteration was the fourth to take place in Istanbul, having been relocated from Almaty, Kazakhstan, where the event first took place in 2006.
  • The challenge which the organisers face - and which I feel they met pretty successfully this year - is bringing together a crowd from what are quite diverse markets. A large Turkish contingent (representing the likes of Turk Telekom, Vodafone Turkey, Turkcell, Avea and mixes with delegates from the former Soviet republics of Central Asia and the Caucasus, making it necessary to arrange for everyone to gain from presentations in Turkish, Russian and English. If you attend next year, expect to spend some time wearing a headset which pipes the simultaneous interpretation right into your ears.
That, then, is a little about the event, its origins and how it works on the day. The challenge mentioned above (making the conference relevant for both Turkish delegates and for guests from the CIS) was dealt with this year by having elements of the second day billed specifically as a 'Turkey focus' session, thereby acknowledging that there probably do exist some differences between the concerns of the local audience of those of the visitors from the former Soviet republics where market conditions are quite different.

I am pleased to report that this worked well. As a veteran of more conferences than I care to remember, I have got used to seeing events looking busy on day one and feeling a lot less vibrant on the second day. At Eurasia Com 2010, delegate numbers were, I think, possibly even higher on 24th March than they had been on 23rd.

So, what was discussed during these two days of slideware, panel sessions and offline networking? Well, in the sessions I managed to catch, highlights included:
  • Informa analyst Gemma Bunting cautioning delegates to remain open minded about real mobile penetration rates across the CIS, noting that multi-SIM usage makes accurate measurement quite difficult and pointing out that in the supposedly saturated Russian market over 20 million subscriptions were added by operators last year.
  • Informa's Bunting noting that ARPU is declining sharply in some markets - Uzbekistan was given as an example - USD 9/month in 2007, dropping to USD 4/month by 2009.
  • Gemma Bunting wondering about the impact of Tele2's acquisition of a mobile operation in Kazakhstan and observing that the Swedish group is known for its aggressive pricing.
  • Ineke Botter, CEO of Azeri cellco Bakcell indicating the a mobile money offering from her company might not be iminent but was certainly "on the roadmap".
  • Mustafa Kiral of Russian telecoms investment group Altimo indicating that his company is in the market for opportunities to acquire majority stakes in telecoms operators in emerging markets - African markets were mentioned.
  • Altimo's Kiral sounding lukewarm at best when the conference Chairman asked if Altimo is considering investments in the wireline space.
  • Mehmet Hasanov of Aztelekom talking up the revenue potential of the wholesale business and wondering why telcos' marketing people are generally so inclined not to get excited about it.
  • A few snippets about the planned privatisation of Tajiktelecom.
I was not surprised, also, to learn more in offline conversations than I did from listening to presentations. The lesson here, for those few conference veterans who do not already know, is that it's important to get proactive at these gatherings - get among the delegates and speakers, working the room and maximising the opportunity to develop a good number of valuable contacts under one roof.

My guess is that 2009 was at least moderately challenging for conference organisers and that delegate numbers across the events industry may have been negatively affected by financial worries on the part of target audiences. My recent experience in Istanbul, however, just went to confirm that there continues to be no substitute for making face-to-face contact with potential new clients and partners and that events of this type can be a pretty good one-stop-shop for doing so. I would also particularly recommend this and other events in Informa's Com World Series for the way in which they gather crowds from given higher growth regions around the globe.

Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Zain Africa Done Deal Watch

Former Zain CEO Al Barrak - exit from Africa caused his departure?
During 2009 DevelopingTelecomsWatch became somewhat preoccupied with the fate of the African assets of MEA mobile powerhouse Zain. As speculation mounted about whether these operations were up for sale and, if so, who the prospective purchasers might be, DTW managed to churn out no less than thirteen Zain-themed articles, the first of these appearing on 12th June. Scratching away at persistent rumours like a mutt with fleas, this blog was still whining on about the story on 18th August.

The whole series of ramblings rejoiced in the clunky title 'Zain Africa Speculation Watch', which has been revived and paraphrased here with today's offering.

Along the way, a number of potential suitors for Zain's African opcos got a mention. These included France Telecom and Vivendi plus Indian operators Reliance Communications and BSNL.

All these months later, it seems fairly safe to assert that the speculation stage is finally over, with shares in another Indian cellco, Bharti Airteledging higher on the back of news that it will sign a USD 10.7 billion deal to acquire the Zain's African telecom assets later today.

If, as now appears to be virtually certain, the Indian MNO does manage to conclude this deal, it will be a case of third time lucky, as noted recently by Shalini Singh of the Times of India, who reminds us of Bharti Airtel's two fruitless attempts to engineer a tie-up with South Africa's MTN, another saga which had some coverage here at DTW. As well as observing that the Zain Africa purchase will "catapult Bharti to the rank of the sixth-largest telecom service provider in the world by number of subscribers", Singh feels that it is "an ironic twist of fate" that one of the Indian firm's major competitors in its new markets will be MTN.

With this mega-deal now on the brink of proceeding, perhaps the time is right to ask that Bharti Airtel has to gain (and lose) from competing in so many new markets at once, and to ask what motivated Zain to quit Africa less than five years after entering the continent's mobile arena via the acquisition of Mohamed Ibrahim's Celtel International.

James Middleton of writes that "for Zain, the deal represents a retrenchment of the company's strategy as well as good value." Middleton argues that while the company has succeeded in transforming its brand and in building up an impressive customer base across sub-Saharan Africa, it has struggled to operate profitably.

Quoted in James's article is his fellow Informa Telecoms & Media employee Nick Jotischky, a principal analyst with the firm. "Perhaps it turned to the managed services model too late in the day and failed to leverage its supplier relationships so as to build in sufficient economies of scale", says Jotischky, who suggests that this is where Bharti Airtel will focus its efforts.

"Whilst it will, no doubt, be confident of controlling its costs, Airtel will aim to build up its brand equity characterised by reliability very quickly," says Jotischky. "But reliability alone will not be enough – the newcomer will have to show itself to be innovative as well. In an already competitive marketplace, Bharti will not just be competing with other mobile operators for a share of wallet but with other brands in adjacent consumer goods sectors. This means that Bharti will be under pressure to offer services that are directly relevant to end-users and this will differ from market to market."

James Middleton talks up the chances of the Indian cellco maximising the value of this large new investment. "Bharti has a heritage in making network sharing and outsourcing deals work and will not be afraid of being aggressive on per minute pricing," he writes. "The company is also well versed in addressing the difficulties of serving a largely rural, high-churn, low-revenue market."

Inspired by this transaction, Informa's is currently running a series of articles offering 'ten tips for investing in Africa'.

Informa offer their first tip, that operators need to be innovative on pricing, while noting that mobile tariffs in much of Africa are high compared to those in some other emerging markets. "For example", runs the article, "Zain Kenya’s lowest tariff is about [USD] 0.04 per minute, for on-net calls.. compared to India, where Reliance Communications offers tariffs that are as low as [USD] 0.01 per minute, for both on-net and off-net calls." The article continues by pointing out that the fact that tariffs in Africa are relatively high is reflected in ARPU levels: "In 4Q09 blended monthly ARPU across Africa as a whole was [USD] 10.49 – but in India blended monthly ARPU in 4Q09 was much lower, at just [USD] 2.73, and falling.

However, the article observes that mobile tariffs have already come down in many African markets in the past couple of years as competition has intensified, often because of the market entry of new operators. Usage in Africa, meanwhile,  the article contends, has increased over the past couple of years too. African MoU, however, remains "half that of India's, which does suggest that there is potential for substantial further growth."

This growth opportunity notwithstanding, the gist of Infoma's 'tip' is that "African operators are probably best advised to avoid getting into the kind of price wars that are taking place in the Indian market", where ARPU halved during 2009, creating a big squeeze on  operators' profits.

Rather, Informa advises, "African operators should aim to demonstrate more of the innovation in pricing that is already evident on the continent through plans such as Zain's One Network, which allows subscribers to pay local rates when roaming, and MTN's MTN Zone, a dynamic tariff plan that charges lower rates when the network is not busy."

Let's see whether Bharti Airtel considers this to be sage advice as it embarks on its African adventure.

On a personal note, I will be interested to see whether the Indian cellco will make many changes to the management teams running its numerous newly-acquired opcos - and to listen out for a sense of how far Zain's people around Africa welcome the change of ownership. One opco CEO apparently quite upbeat about all of this is Zain Zambia MD David Holiday:

Presumably less positive about Zain's sales of its African assets is the man who masterminded their acquisition for the Kuwaiti group, former CEO Saad al Barrak, who resigned in February.

At the time, Emeka Obiodu, a senior analyst at Ovum, said: "Al Barrak championed this expansion push – buying Celtel, and aiming to make Zain one of the top ten mobile operators by 2011. But his whole ambition was blown to pieces by the owners who wanted to sell off in Africa."

While Al Barrak and his strategy do appear to have some detractors, Obiodu does not seem to be among them: "He’s taken MTC, this small company from Kuwait and transformed it into Zain, a global mobile powerhouse. He didn't bite of more than he can chew, but his vision diverged from the vision of the owners. When we did some financial analysis on Zain, the company wasn’t doing particularly badly. It wasn’t like he ran the business into the ground, although you have to concede that some of the small markets in Africa were seriously under-performing."

Now we will see whether Bharti Airtel has the patience and vision to stay in these numerous African markets for longer than Al Barrak's former company elected to do.

Friday, 19 March 2010

East African opportunities unclear as cellcos remain coy about data ARPU

Kenyatta Int'l Conference Centre, Nairobi: venue for this year's East Africa Com

Last year I had the pleasure of visiting Nairobi, Kenya for the first time, building meetings around the excellent East Africa Com conference and exhibition.

This year, given that my day-to-day commercial activity now does not give me much exposure to Africa, I will not attending. Were I still more active in Africa, however, I would certainly want to be there - and I would encourage anyone who does business with the telecoms operators of the East Africa region to head for the Kenyatta International Conference Centre on 27th-28th April.

This year's event will be graced by the presence of the Hon. Samuel Poghisio, the host country's Minister for Information & Communications and by Charles J.K Njoroge, Director General of telecoms regulatory agency the CCK (Communications Commission of Kenya). I don't recall the Kenyan Government and authorities being represented at such a high level at the 2009 event, so the organisers are to be congratulated for the upgrade.

Sponsors and exhibitors will doubtless also be impressed by the number of operator CEOs to whom they will have access during the two days of discussions. Of these, two of the biggest hitters are Michael Ghossein, CEO of France Telecom-controlled Telkom Kenya, the country's incumbent fixed-line operator and Michael Joseph, the long-standing CEO of Kenya's dominant (78.8% market share, according to WCIS) mobile operator Safaricom.

This may be one of the final conferences appearances for the latter, Joseph having announced his impending retirement. He joined the Kenyan operator in mid-2000, when Vodafone first invested in the company. Since then, he has guided the company from a subscriber base of fewer than 20,000 to over 15 million today. Along the way, Safaricom has become renowned for its M-Pesa mobile money transfer service, which has brought the advantages of financial services to very large numbers of Kenya's largely 'unbanked' population. Safaricom also attracted praise this week from Alexander Grouet of Mira Networks, a leading provider of connectivity and billing tools between business and mobile networks in Africa.

Grouet asks: "Would you plan a trip to a foreign destination if you didn't know what the place looked like, what there was to see, how much a hotel room cost and what local transportation was available?" Having concluded that most readers would not, Grouet then invites us to imagine that what we’re talking about is not your vacation, but your business. "Well that’s pretty much what it’s like for most content providers wanting to penetrate the SSA [sub-Saharan Africa] market", he continues. "Despite the hype, the market metrics WASPs crucially need in order to make the next step, such as data ARPU or WAP traffic, are virtually inaccessible. Even traditional market data resellers don't offer it, as optimistically named Africa VAS reports almost exclusively include blended indicators rather than content-specific ones." I don't recall if this is a fair accusation to direct towards the good folks at the reports business of Informa Telecoms & Media, the organisers of East Africa Com.

Even if it is, Grouet suggests that the fault for the scarcity of these vital data lies with operators. "Out of the 26 operators in the 5 countries I worked on last year (Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana, Senegal and Cote d'Ivoire) only 2 to my knowledge," he writes, "publicly released their data ARPU." The two cellcos in Mr. Grouet's good books are Safaricom and Starcomms, a Nigerian CDMA carrier.

"The most likely explanation for this", ventures Grouet, "is that the data figures are still so low on most networks that operators simply don’t want to release them at this stage." According to Grouet, even Safaricom's data ARPU, including M-Pesa, stands at just USD 1 monthly, while the figure for Starcomms, including EV-DO dongles, is just under USD 2 per month. "But at least, we know where they stand, and we will be able to measure their progress when they next update those figures," Grouet continues.

Grouet hopes that other African operators will break their silence on the topic of data revenues, not least because that unwillingness to share data "only has the counter-productive effect of making it harder for international content companies, who precisely could help operators boost their data traffic, penetrate their markets."

Let's see how many cellco attending East Africa Com agree with these sentiments. Were I to attend this year, I would probably like to pursue that line of questioning, not least because I have received marketing emails from Informa which suggests that the region's operators are somewhat focused on data services.

A speaker likely to turn in an entertaining presentation is Noel Herrity, CEO of Tanzania's Zantel, an operator in which the UAE's Etisalat owns a 51% stake. Mr. Herrity delivered a compelling, nicely paced talk at the 2009 iteration of the conference and delegates will be hoping for more of the same. Perhaps we can be optimistic about that - Herrity may be in buoyant mood in light of recent reports indicating that the operator has begun recording net customer additions again, following two quarters of net loss.

One speaker for whom it could be challenging to stay 'on message'? Bashar Arafeh, the COO of the East Africa Region for MEA mobile group Zain.

This might arise as a result of delegates' curiosity about the future of Zain's African operations. Subject to takeover speculation for many months now (see DTW articles passim.), these assets could well be the property of giant Indian cellco Bharti Airtel before too long. The most recent developments in this long-running saga may soon prompt a revival of the popular mini-series (well, it generated more hits than usual) which appeared here on-and-off for much of 2009, rejoicing in the clunky title 'Zain Africa Speculation Watch' (and variations thereon).

Other CxOs appearing on stage at next months event include:
I'm sure this year's event will once again be a useful place to do business, gain market intelligence and enjoy the company of a crowd who always seem very open to networking and making new contacts.

Thursday, 4 March 2010

Libya: diplomatic wrangles fail to derail Vodafone's plans

Vodafone services: coming soon to a Socialist People's Arab Jamahiriya near you...

One African republic has been hitting the headlines recently, as the effects of a diplomatic row between that country and a European nation is now affecting citizens of many other states. This is a particularly thorny issue given that much European money has been poured into the construction and oil sectors of that North African nation. People carrying the passports of most major European economies are now prevented from travelling there. This must be causing great disruption to companies whose personnel usually need to spend time in the African state.

One giant global mobile business, however, seems to not to have been too seriously affected.

In July last year, DevelopingTelecomsWatch made some positive noises about the investment climate in Libya. While there was some head scratching about the attractiveness of the North African country's mobile market (mobile penetration was a hefty 141.58% at time of writing - it is 159.42% now, according to WCIS), it was noted that relations between the USA and the Colonel Gaddafi regime had improved to the point whereby foreign investors might not fall foul of restrictions set by the U.S. Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control.

More recently, however, relations between Libya and some western countries have once again become rather strained, causing Tripoli to stop issuing visa to citizens of the twenty-five European countries of the Schengen passport-free zone. At the centre of this dispute is Switzerland, which, according to a Libyan newspaper report of February 14th, had denied entry visas to nearly 200 Libyans, including Gaddafi, members of his family and other senior officials. As a helpful Reuters timeline explains, this Swiss move came after wrangles that had continued since June 2008, when police in Geneva arrested Hannibal Gaddafi, one of the Libyan leader's sons. Gaddafi jr., along with his pregnant wife, were taken into custody following allegations about the mistreatment of two of their employees.

By February 26th of this year, both the European Union and the United Nations felt forced to respond to Col. Gaddafi's subsequent call for jihad against Switzerland, announced as the row has escalated and become yet more bitter. By March 1st, analysts were commenting that the row has exposed weaknesses in Swiss foreign policy and damanged the country's reputation as an impartial global mediator.

Citizens of countries in the Schengen zone, meanwhile, continue to be refused entry to Libya.

From his name, I would hazard a guess that Mr. Colin MacDougall is either an Irish or a British citizen. As such, he would be a national of a country that has chosen to opt out of Schengen's border control arrangements. This would explain his recent present in Tripoli, representing Vodafone, on whose behalf he formalised a Partner Markets agreement with state-owned Libyan mobile operator Al-Madar.

MacDougall seems to work for the Partner Markets unit of the giant cellco, which enables subscribers of operators in which Vodafone has no equity to enjoy exclusive access to a range of products, services and devices from the UK-headquartered group. Partner operators also gain from Vodafone's experience in supply chain management, the acquisition of enterprise customers and improved network inter-working. In turn, Vodafone customers can gain from improved roaming arrangements in countries where Vodafone does not otherwise have a presence.

Over the last few years, I have had the pleasure of meeting several people attached to Vodafone Partner Markets and know that they work pretty hard to maximise the value of the numerous relationships they manage worldwide. In light of the recent wrangles, and keeping in mind the eccentricities of the state which owns Vodafone's latest MNO partner, one wonders whether this will be an especially challenging relationship to maintain. However, given that oil-rich Libya is of vital economic significance and that the Vodafone teams who run these partnerships appear to be so adept at meeting tough challenges, I daresay this will prove advantageous to the shareholders and customers of the global mobile group.

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

The road to hell...

... is paved, as Dr. Johnson didn't ever say, with good intentions.

One such intention was set out here in the most recent DTW post, namely that this blog would review some of the predictions made in the Industry Outlook report that is made available for free downloading by Informa Telecoms & Media. The plan was to zero in on any predictions relating specifically to emerging markets and developing countries.

Two months have passed since that rash promise was made and not a peep has been heard from this once prolific blog - no fewer than 147 posts saw were published here in 2009.

Apologies, then, to anyone who has found DevelopingTelecomsWatch to be a useful source of news, commentary and speculation and who now wonders whether the blog has fizzled out of existence. Happily, for anyone that cares, this is not the case. That said, I do not expect to be writing anything like as often in 2010 than was the case last year. My commercial activities are, I am pleased to report, taking up far more time now, suggesting that this year will be more profitable than the one we have left behind us. I do hope that regular readers are facing this first year of a new decade with similar optimism.

Failure to deliver on good intentions notwithstanding, then, perhaps DTW and its writer are not on that proverbial road to hell.

What of our industry and its interests across emerging markets? Hellbound? Or good times ahead?

Belatedly, then, with two months of the new year having already passed, let's attempt to answer those questions by taking a look at a couple of the predictions made by the crystal ball gazers at Informa:

'So-called emerging markets will transition into a new phase of competition based on services and bring into question the validity of the term "emerging market" as it is understood in the telecoms sector today.'

Informa's report notes that "Until now, the term 'emerging market' in the context of the mobile sector has been used as a catch-all phrase to describe markets characterised by low penetration rates, a proliferation of mobile network operators, steep drops in the price of basic communications and resulting explosive mobile subscription growth."

This is familiar territory here at DTW. Numerous times, reference has been made to markets in which the price of mobile services has been squeezed down to a level that makes life very hard for some of the competing cellcos. In July last year, for example, this blog covered the decision of Millicom International Cellular to withdraw from all the Asian markets in which it once did business - Sri Lanka, Laos and Cambodia. The latter country certainly matches the Informa's report's reference to "a proliferation" of MNOs. No fewer than nine (!!) cellcos are currently fighting for business in a country with just 14.8 million inhabitants. Here they all are, with market share figures from Informa's WCIS product:
  1. Cellcard (GSM, 42.12% market share - the operator in which Millicom had a stake)
  2. Metfone (GSM, 18.86%, owned by Viettel of Vietnam)
  3. Mfone (GSM/W-CDMA, 15.52%)
  4. Hello (GSM, 13.38%, controlled by Axiata)
  5. Star-Cell (GSM, 3.56%, part of the TeliaSonera group)
  6. Beeline Cambodia (GSM, 2.90%, owned by Russia's Vimpelcom)
  7. qb (W-CDMA, 1.95%)
  8. Latelz (GSM, 1.32%)
  9. GT-TELL/Excell (CDMA, 0.39%)
Regular readers may have spotted that from time to time I like to share video clips of telecoms operators' TV advertisments from around the world. Latelz (AKA Smart Mobile), as the list above suggests, is one player that may need some pretty compelling advertising if it is to become a more significant player. You decide how powerfully the Smart Mobile case is made by these:

Cambodia is a pretty extreme case, perhaps, but DTW has also examined a number of African markets which seem to be ripe for mobile market consolidation. I daresay there are many more around the world in much the same state.

While I am insinctively in favour of competitive environments which offer value and choice to consumers of mobile services, I do also sympathise when I speak with employees of operators that are struggling to improve shareholder value in the context of dramatically slashed prices. These guys, it sometmes seems to me, can feel as if they are on that proverbial inferno-bound round. If Informa's prediction is on the money, however, perhaps that fiery destination need not be reached this year.

On to the next prediction with an emerging markets/developing countries angle...

'Mobile banking efforts will continue to proliferate in emerging markets, but in the short-term these will be more important as a customer acquisition and retention tool than as a genuine driver of significant new operator revenue streams.'

The efforts made to date in this area got some coverage here last year. In May we noted that giant cellco Bharti Airtel was looking to tap into the big opportunity presented by the fact that 85% of the citizens of its Indian home market do not have bank accounts. By August, readers were invited to consider whether mobile operators would necessarily dominate the market for mobile banking services aimed at turning a profit while going some way to alleviating the poverty of subscribers in developing countries. An alternative that we discussed was the possibility of operator-neutral solutions gaining traction.

The chaps at Informa were have not been alone in keeping discussions of this sort on the agenda for 2010. Indeed, mobile banking in emerging markets got a mention during the plenary session of last month's Mobile World Congress. Simon Rockman of the Register noted, however, with some distaste, "that transforming the lives of millions of people by giving them bank accounts – something that can make the difference between eating and starving - didn't garner the same round of applause" as that received by the GSMA project aimed at making every mobile phone use the same charger."

Writing up his notes from the Congress the following week, Rockman also wondered at some of the number crunching around the scale of the m-banking opportunity. He noted that day four of event saw an assembly of the mobile money working group that has received USD 12.5m from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and is working towards the GSMA's target of getting 20 million of the billion people who have a mobile phone but do not have a bank account onto the first rung of the financial ladder.

Ignacio Mas, writes Rockman, gave a detailed account of what the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation wants to achieve: "They wanted the very poor and insecure to be able to save", targeting people living on less than USD 2 per day. "As much as they have low subsistence incomes", reports Rockman, "the real problem is stability - they might only find work occasionally and have to eke out money until they next find work. Or if they are farmers they get paid seasonally at harvest time."

Without access to banks, continues Rockman, such people are very vulnerable: "They will often give the money to people they trust for safekeeping but these are people in a similar situation to themselves. Lack of stability means people get multiple jobs. They can't concentrate on what will get the best return and pull themselves out of poverty because they have to opt for stability."

This, and other challenges, blight the lives of so many people around the world that it does seem reasonable to suppose that a huge opportunity does exist for the telecoms industry to provide what the retail banking sector cannot in underdeveloped countries.

Well, I enjoyed finally finding the time to write something here after such a long hiatus - but will refrain from making rash promises about when the next article will appear. More soon, I hope, though.

Monday, 4 January 2010

Telco sector bigwigs converge on Istanbul

Doing telco sector business in Turkey, the Caspian region or Central Asia?
......head for Eurasia Com at Istanbul's Conrad Hotel this March.

A belated Happy New Year to all loyal readers of (and occasional visitors to) DevelopingTelecomsWatch.

I daresay some of you will have found 2009 above-averagely challenging and are looking forward hopefully to a more prosperous and settled year ahead.

With this in mind, DTW will soon be evaluating some predictions about what 2010 may have in store for those of us with an interest in the telecoms sector in emerging markets and developing countries worldwide.

In the meantime, we will be using the announcement of the conference agenda for this year's Eurasia Com conference in Istanbul as the inspiration for a look around developments in Turkey, the Transcaucasus region and Central Asia. These are the markets from which the event gathers telecoms sector leaders for two days of discussions and networking.

My guess is that I will not be able to attend the conference - taking place at Istanbul's Conrad Hotel on 23-24 March - but I would definitely recommend it as a useful place to make new contacts and catch up with existing ones if you do business with the telecoms operators of that part of the world. I feel qualified to make this recommendation, having attended two iterations of the event, and having been involved in its development between 2006 and 2009.

This year's speaker panel includes a glittering array of telecoms leaders from both the host country and from numerous CIS markets. Those able to attend will have the opportunity gain a uniquely valuable opportunity to learn from these panellists - and some will doubtless advance their cases for doing business with the speakers' organisations.

While I daresay, however, that many of the presentations and public panel discussions will be somewhat insightful, my experience of attending many conferences has taught me that delegates can learn far more by being above-averagely proactive. This means being a real participant rather than a mere attendee. It means doing more than just scribbling/typing notes during the conference sessions. It means more than downloading the presentation slides.

So, if you make it to the Conrad Hotel in Istanbul, be sure to come prepared with the questions you particularly want answered. Then make the effort to direct those questions to relevant speakers, keeping in mind that however effectively the sessions are moderated, there will not be time for the Chair to deal with everyone who has something to ask. Should your most urgent questions not get dealt with, be sure to be one of those confident people seen springing from a front row seat to shake hands and exchange business cards with the hottest speakers the second the session breaks for strong Turkish coffee. Then might be the time you will finally make your point or extract the answers you're looking for. Or your possibly rather sensitive enquiry might best be handled over that coffee and a piece of sweet, flaky baklava. Failing that, the business card you've gained could be the key to setting up post-event conversations.

Question time: get the answers over coffee and Turkish treats at Eurasia Com

Does this all sounds like advice that's basic to the point of being a bit patronising? I hope not. It is, after all, offered as a result of having watched countless conference delegates fail to maximise the value of the investment their companies had made by paying for them to attend - even with the free tickets for which employees of telecoms operators and service providers are eligible at Eurasia Com and other Com World Series events, some costs are implied, be it plane tickets and hotel bills for out-of-town delegates, or just the cost of being away from the day job.

If you do decide to attend, and do attend on a mission to learn about developments in the region covered by the conference, what questions might you direct to the numerous worthies on the speaker panel?

Given that the CIS markets of Central Asia and the Transcaucasus region were among the first places that Russia's major telecoms players looked for international growth opportunities, you would hope that Eurasia Com is able to offer access to their top management. The event does not disappoint - gracing the stage for the opening Keynote Session will be Mustafa Kiral, Vice President of Altimo and Oleg Raspopov, who heads up the 'Foreign Subsidiaries' Business unit of giant Russian cellco MTS.

Any industry watchers with a strong interest in the latter company, might be tempted to try and squeeze in a question about the operator's hopes for its mobile broadband offering in Moscow, now that 3G services can finally be made available in the Russian capital. A full year after 3G services were offered in other parts of Russia, Muscovites learned last month that the country's military authorties were finally ready to cede control of the necessary spectrum and enable operators to switch on their W-CDMA base stations.

Given Mr Raspopov's responsibilities, however, and given the geographical coverage of the conference agenda, perhaps it might be more germane for delegates to ask the MTS man whether his company has any interest in further extending its CIS footprint. At present, MTS subsidiaries compete in Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Armenia. Away from the immediate focus region for this conference, further MTS business units operate in Ukraine and Belarus.

Strikingly absent from the MTS sphere of influence are two of the region's potentially more attractive markets - MTS does not compete in either Kazakhstan or Azerbaijan.

In June last year, MTS CEO Mikhail Shamolin told Reuters that his company was looking at acquisition opportunities in both countries, having decided that the prospects for a start-up operation were not good in either market.

It now appears, however, that the opportunity to make an acquisition in Kazakhstan has now passed. That country's mobile arena is contested by four operators, with the market split as follows, as of end-December 2009, according to the WCIS service offered by the organisers of Eurasia Com, Informa Telecoms & Media:
The two leading mobile operators, then, are controlled by MTS's main rivals in the region and are therefore, surely, extremely unlikely targets for addition to Mr Raspopov's Foreign Subsidiaries Unit. Altel, too, as a rare example of a CDMA operator in the region, strikes me as a company one cannot easily imagine on the MTS shopping list.

Neo, a late entrant GSM operator which went to market in 2007, would be the logical choice for an MTS purchase. A majority stake in this cellco, however, is to be snapped up by Tele2, the Sweden-headquartered pan-European telecoms group. This transaction, as reported in December, involves Tele2 paying around USD 77 million for the 51% stake held by Kazakhstan's incumbent fixed line operator, Kazakhtelecom, which also owns 49% of KCell. According to a Wall Street Journal report, Tele2 has the option to buy the remaining 49% of Neo shares in five years' time from private investment group Asianet Holdings BV.

It will now be interesting to see how much Tele2 makes of the opportunity that MTS has declined to puruse in Kazakhstan. Interesting, too, to see how far the company's usual preference for competing aggressively on price will impact on the Kazakh market.

Speaking on a conference call, Tele2 said that Neo currently has lower prices and lower ARPU than its two larger rivals, so it remains to be seen whether tariffs can be cut further in order to gain market share. According to the WSJ article, a market share of 20% is what Tele2 has in mind.

Of further CIS markets likely to prove attractive to MTS, perhaps only Azerbaijan remain. A June 2009 article here at DTW noted that the Caucasus region country, although quite small with a population of just under 9 million, is oil-rich and relatively prosperous. It is notable, therefore, that of the three groups with footprints across the southernmost CIS markets, only the TeliaSonera-Turkcell joint venture Fintur Holdings has a presence - in the form of market-leading MNO Azercell, none of whose competitors are aligned with a significant multinational telecoms groups. Of these competitors, one will be represented at Eurasia Com by its CEO - Ineke Botter, who heads up Bakcell, is among the speakers. A cheeky question one might direct to Ms. Botter would be to ask whether she feels either her company or the third entrant, Nar Mobile, is a likely acquisition target for MTS or Vimpelcom, which similarly has no presence in Azerbaijan.

With Tele2 having seized the opportunity to move into the Kazakh market, conference delegates may be wondering what impact this may have on the country's telecoms landscape. Questions along these lines can be raised at Eurasia Com, the ideal time for this probably being a morning session on Tuesday 23rd March which deals specifically with the rapid maturation of the Kazakh telecoms market. Fielding the questions will be Kuanysbek Bahytbekovich Yesekeev, Chairman of that Kazakhstan Agency of Information Technologies and Telecommunication, and Maxut Sauranbekov, President of CDMA operator Altel.

A new feature of the conference this year is a day two session focussing specifically on the Turkish market. A very strong line-up of speakers will be on hand to debate the key issues. These include:
  • Erkan Akdemir, CEO of Avea, the mobile operator in which incumbent wireline telco Turk Telekom holds a controlling interest
  • Mehmet Toros, Turk Telekom's VP International and Wholesale
  • Tayfun Cataltepe, the Chief Corporate Strategy & Regulations Officer of market-leading MNO Turkcell
  • John Samarron, CTO of Vodafone Turkey
This year's event looks set to be even more useful than previous iterations and I look forward to feedback from colleagues and contacts who are able to attend.