12 Aug 2008

Looking ahead to insights from Ecuador at this year's Americas Com

Yesterday's Cellular News arrived in my inbox, bringing to my attention another WiMAX deployment in Latin America, this time by Ecuadorian state-owned carrier, Pacifictel. Airspan are supplying the base stations and CPE. I would be interested to know if there are plans for Pacifictel's sister company Andinatel to select the same kind of equipment and offer similar services, mainly because of a few snippets my team picked up while trying to secure the participation of Ecuadorean telcos at our imminent Americas Com conference and exhibition (September 9-10, Rio de Janeiro). We try to avoid asking telco executives to talk on very generic subjects, preferring to link each prospective speaker with something genuinely novel and value adding for the hundreds of telecoms sector delegates we gather from across South and Central America.

In the case of these two state-owned telcos from one of only two countries in South America not to share a border with the host country of the conference (ten points for telling me the other one without using Wikipedia!), we learned that plans are afoot at least to investigate the logic and processes around merging what are currently quite separate businesses. In case it's not obvious from the companies' names, Andinatel serves the Ecuadorean interior region while Pacifictel offers services in the ten coastal provinces. The companies are also aligned with Alegro PCS, a CDMA mobile operator (also state-owned), which lags far behind its two GSM rivals in terms of market share. According to Informa Telecoms & Media's invaluable World Cellular Information Service, Alegro's share of subscriptions shrank from 4.03% down to 3.00% in the period March 2008 to June 2008, losing further ground to Telefonica-backed Movistar Ecuador and América Móvil-owned Porta, whose website seems to be announcing the availability of 3G services.

When talking to industry-watchers about what Andinatel and/or Pacifictel might add to an already compelling conference agenda, we picked up on merger talk. Confirmed by a Telegeography story, we learned about about reports in the country's La Hora newspaper detailing a strategic planning consortium/council which plans to design a unified corporate policy and manage the operators' infrastructure. These plans apparently include integrating the mobile business into a future merger.

Back in April, I had the considerable pleasure of visiting telcos in Argentina, Venezuela, Bolivia and Paraguay. In the latter two countries, we visited a number of cooperative-owned LECs and the state-owned incumbent fixed-line operator respectively. I was struck by the relatively modest scale of these organisations and wondered privately whether the Bolivian telecoms sector especially might not benefit from some level of consolidation. Currently, the competitive landscape in wireline looks like this: Entel is the incumbent long-distance carrier (and is associated with Entel Movil, an MNO), but the co-ops do better in terms of the local exchange market. Each major city/region is home to its own telecoms co-op. We visited two of the more significant ones away from the country's capital. Given that we've enjoyed some success in attracting the Bolivian co-ops to this year's Americas Com, I thought it might be instructive for them (and other relatively smaller telcos from similarly fragmented markets) to learn more about the proposed Andinatel-Pacifictel-Alergo merger.

While we remain unsure of whether any of this trio will be sending representatives, we did manage to secure the participation of ETAPA, a telco based in the country's third largest city, Cuenca. ETAPA General Director Boris Piedra will join the panel of speakers, speaking about the company's efforts to bridge the digital divide between the information society haves and have-nots. I really look forward to learning about this in more detail at the event - and I must admit, I'm also looking forward to another benefit of attending Americas Com in Rio - getting away from this thoroughly miserable on-off English summer...