19 Sep 2008

3G coverage widens across former Soviet Union

Telecoms.com reported yesterday that one of Russia's big three cellcos has stolen a march on its competitors in terms of extending 3G coverage to part of Siberia and the far east of the Russian Federation. The MTS W-CDMA footprint now reaches the cities of Novosibirsk, Norilsk and Vladivostok with HSPA-enabled services.

As we prepare for the two Com World Series conferences which gather telco execs from CIS markets, I shall be asking whether discussions around extending 3.5G to these markets' outlying regions remains a hot enough topic to warrant significant talking time. The first of these will be our annual Eurasia Com event in Istanbul (next: March 2009), where delegates from the host country's telecoms operators are joined by colleagues from the Caspian Sea region (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia) and the five other former Soviet Republics of Central Asia - the markets I've taken to calling the 'the Stans' for short: Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan etc.

MTS also has 3G deployment plans in that part of the world. The company holds 3G licenses in Uzbekistan and Armenia, where I believe the networks are scheduled for launch in 2009. As far as I know, that would put MTS first-to-market with 3G services in both countries.

However, W-CDMA networks have been live for some time in other parts of the region. I've twice had the pleasure of meeting David Lee, the British CEO of Metromedia-owned Magticom, one of Georgia's three MNOs. David has been kind enough to participate at both Eurasia Com and the Moscow-hosted Russia & CIS Com. Magticom was a 3G early mover, starting work on its W-CDMA network in 2005. At both conferences, David shared some useful insights his team has picked up along the way. By December 2006, our WCIS database was indicating that Magitcom's Turkcell/TeliaSonera-backed rival Geocell had its first few 3G subscriptions.

Tajikistan was also an (unlikely-seeming?) 3G pace-setter, with Babilon Mobile going first-to-market in 2005.

As preparations get underway for Eurasia Com 2009, I look forward to reacquainting myself with all these developments in the coming weeks. It's a fascinating region.

18 Sep 2008

A new day, a new WiMAX deployment announcement... oh, and another one...

Here at Informa Telecoms & Media, we are certainly gaining from the continued interest in the WiMAX. Our partnership with the WiMAX Forum to deliver the IEEE 802.16 industry's de facto global meeting place in Amsterdam has been very successful. The team responsible have also created a roadshow of region-specific WiMAX events in Latin America, Asia, and another coming up to cover the hotly-tipped Russia/CIS market. The speaker line-up and agenda for the latter, which takes place in Moscow next month, looks very good value. I hope to travel out there to meet executives from the likes of Enforta, Trivon, Synterra, Comstar and Golden Telecom.

This will be useful because shortly I am scheduled to initiate the programme of research and speaker acquisition leading to the development of the Com World Series team's annual Eurasia region conference and exhibition in Turkey. The relevance of getting one more chance to make further connections in Russia is that the CIS markets from which our Eurasia event gathers delegates are a natural place for Moscow-headquartered telcos to grown their footprints. In mobility, MTS and Vimpelcom have been particularly active in terms of snapping up existing MNOs in these markets, or winning new licences and building new operators from scratch. Perhaps WiMAX-deploying broadband service providers from the Russian Federation will follow this lead. That's a question I'll be keen to ask if I do make the trip to the WiMAX event in Moscow next month.

When we needed to rebrand our former GSM>3G Central Asia conference two years ago, 'Eurasia' was the best term we could find to cover a wide region which takes in Turkey itself, the area around the Caspian Sea and the former Soviet states of Central Asia. Happily, our preferred term maps quite neatly onto how this huge area is described by one of the telcos most active in that territory. TeliaSonera has a dedicated Eurasia Business Area, headed up by Tero Kivisaari. TeliaSonera are joint owners (with Turkcell) of Fintur Holdings, which in turn owns a number of mobile operators in CIS markets - Azercell (Azerbaijan), K'Cell (Kazakhstan), Moldcell (Moldova) and Geocell (Georgia). Two further MNOs are owned directly by TeliaSonera but managed by the Fintur JV with Turkcell. These are Ucell (Uzbekistan) and Indigo-Somoncom of Tajikistan.

I met Fintur's then-newly appointed CMO Gary Koeb at Eurasia Com 2008 back in April and look forward hopefully to involving the various companies under the Fintur umbrella more closely in 2009 than in previous iterations of the conference.

There has been evidence of some interest inWiMAX in the Eurasia region. Planned and actual deployments include:

The list is growing. This week, Alcatel-Lucent announced a deal to supply a mobile WiMAX network to Delta Telecom of Azerbaijan. I expect discussions around the business case for WiMAX deployment in these markets (for MNOs, for start-ups, for the incumbent state-owned wireline carriers) to form a pretty significant component of the agenda at our next Eurasia Com conference. So these are the kinds of regional pioneers we will be looking to involve. Watch this space.

Meanwhile, in the Middle East, MNO Mobily of Saudi Arabia recently announced the launch of WiMAX services in four cities, which is apparently the first stage of a plan to cover the entire Kingdom in broadband wireless. This story was picked up by our Global Mobile Daily service on 3rd September.

WiMAX announcements seem to be popping up all over the regions we cover via the Com World Series. Expect to see that reflected at the shows.

17 Sep 2008

US cellular pioneer urges US carriers to go (back) to emerging markets

There seem to be some interesting messages in John Stanton's speech at last week's CTIA Wireless IT and Entertainment show in San Francisco. Stanton's profile is such that his comments are bound to hit the headlines, as with this write-up from the Register. Stanton was co-founder of pioneering US wireless carrier McCaw Cellular. Cade Metz, the Register's man at the event in San Francisco, says that Stanton "questioned the sanity" of the T-Mobile US, Verizon Wireless and Sprint Nextel CEOs who had "spent the morning discussing their gradual transition to... networks that accept any device and any application".

Stanton articulated the view that this approach is tantamount to making the mobile operator an access provider, stating that access is (or is fast becoming) a commodity business. He argues that "if you become a pure access technology, in a saturated environment, you’re ceding yourself to growing at the rate of the economy." Stanton feels that big European and Asian carriers are "already limited by economic growth.... and US carriers are well on their way to the same fate."

Metz reports Stanton's two suggested remedies for this. Firstly, US carriers need to "own significant content", something they have "essentially ceded... to the Googles". Secondly, Stanton invited US telcos to follow his lead by investing abroad.

The first point prompted a number of incredulous responses on the Register's comments page, mostly focused on how carriers worldwide have not fared well with a walled garden approach to mobile content. I can only add that in 6+ years of attending telecoms sector conferences and talking to telco execs, I've sensed more and more people coming around to the view MNOs are best advised to be good citizens in a multimedia ecosystem which involves content owners, aggregators, distributors etc. all getting their slice of the cake in exchange for bearing some of the risk around developing new products.

Stanton now oversees the Trinity Partnership, which invests in wireless-related companies and runs various international mobile networks, including Neuvatel PCS (Bolivia), Comcel Haiti. These two companies operate in markets where mobile penetration stood at, respectively, 45.11% and 37.29% by June 2008, according to Informa Telecoms & Media's WCIS. Clearly, there is a lot more room to grow here than in saturated Europe and near-saturated North America, hence Stanton's advice to his compatriots.

It's heartening to see someone so prominent talking up emerging telecoms markets as a smart bet. Here at Com World Series HQ, we also believe that developing markets worldwide are where the action is for telcos and their suppliers. We enjoy navigating the challenges of connecting these two groups in locations as diverse as Istanbul, Rio de Janeiro and Abuja, Nigeria.

While doing so, I've certainly observed that European and Middle Eastern telcos have a collectively much bigger presence in emerging markets than US companies. The latter seem to have been in retreat for some time. For example, in the few years I've covered telecoms markets in Eastern Europe, I've seen Metromedia International Group dwindle from a collection of cellular and broadcast radio assets around Russia, Kazakhstan and elsewhere. I believe the company's only holding in that region now is Georgian cellco Magticom. In South America, US household names such as Verizon and BellSouth have been divesting assets since earlier this decade.

Having not long returned from our Americas Com conference in Rio de Janeiro, and having toured a few South American countries earlier this year, I am struck by the strong position of Spain's Telefonica, Mexico's America Movil and, to a lesser extent, European players such as Telecom Italia, Portugal Telecom and Millicom International Cellular in the region.

John Stanton said last week "the major American companies have essentially retrenched, which means scale is going to be ceded to foreign companies." In the regions I cover, it feel like that has already happened.

16 Sep 2008

Vodafone on the convergence trail in Qatar?

I am back in the UK, having spent much of last week at our annual Americas Com conference in Brazil. My marketing folks need me to write up the stories coming out of that gathering for our post-event press materials. Much of that can be re-purposed for this blog, so I'll share some of what I heard in Rio later this week.

I've returned to an interesting snippet of news from the Middle East.

We've known for some time now that Vodafone will be entering the Qatari mobile market. I understand that this is on track to happen in March 2009, despite reports earlier this year that a 2008 launch was on the cards. This week's news item concerns Vodafone's acquisition of a fixed-line licence in Qatar, breaking the monopoly of state-controlled QTel, whose mobile business has also owned the whole market in the cellular space up until now.

Vodafone and its consortium partners prevailed over a number of other interested parties, including AT&T, Verizon, Batelco (Bahrain), Jordan Telecom and BT.

According to these reports, fixed-line services from Vodafone Qatar should come on line at some stage next year. I am not clear on whether there will be a significant gap between this and the launch of mobile services, but I will certainly be interested to see if Vodafone exploits what looks like a great opportunity to build a fully integrated FMC player from scratch. With no hard data to back my hunch, I minded to guess that plans could well be in place to build a single core network, an integrated billing system and all the other elements needed to offer services seamlessly across fixed and mobile networks. I wonder if from the very start the business will also be structured such as to avoid creating distinct fixed and mobile silos within the organisation. Having heard so many telco execs describing the myriad challenges around integrating previously distinct fixed and mobile business units, it would seem to make sense to avoid all of that from day one.

Whatever route the new Vodafone operator takes, the man at the helm is certainly someone I know to be a highly charismatic leader. Grahame Maher got the CEO role back in April this year, having previously led Vodafone's Czech Republic operator. Maher was in this role when I had the pleasure of meeting him last year and in 2006. For both my previous company and here at Informa Telecoms & Media, I was charged with developing and hosting CEE region conferences. Prague was the venue in both cases. Maher was a very persuasive and innovative speaker at these events, notably in 2006, when he eschewed the use PowerPoint slideware. He chose instead to work the room dressed in the jeans-and-a-sweater look seemingly still favoured by the top management at Vodafone CZ, this being something of a trademark kept on when the giant cellco acquired the former Oskar-branded operator from Telesystem International Wireless of Canada. Maher wanted to make the point that customers don't want to get their heads around complexity or to understand how services work. They want it all cheap and simple. To demonstrate this, Maher had plucked a young Vodafone customer from the streets of Prague and placed him among the grey-suited telecoms executives in the conference room. The young man was asked to stand up and was then bombarded with questions about his tariff, about access network technologies and more. Naturally, he failed to answer any of these questions in detail. But he did say he cared about price and didn't want to think too much about his Vodafone service.

Maher's new role in Qatar means we have had to look elsewhere for exciting speakers at this week's CEE Com conference (again in Prague), which kicks off tomorrow. I was not able to be there this year but know that our team at the event will be working hard to make the delegates' time in the Czech capital enjoyable as well as productive.

I am hopeful that Mr Maher may be able to join us at our Middle East event this December. I know he's great value on the panel of speakers so we will try to make that happen.