3 Jan 2009

A timely take on mobile social networking

At Informa Telecoms & Media, my task of producing telecoms sector discussion/networking events is made much easier by being able to seek the input of our own industry analysts and by my having a wealth of ITM report products and subscription research services at my fingertips. Prior to joining Informa, I worked for companies who created useful and profitable conferences without the benefit of having such resources in-house. Frankly, this meant I had to beg and borrow information and insights in order to get my job done (I won't admit to stealing). During that time, I found some analysts to be particularly insightful.

One such was Dean Bubley, whose blog is linked from this one. The motto of Dean's mobile sector advisory business is "don't assume" and he asserts that "the technology industry - and its customers and investors - have accepted too readily nebulous, unsubstantiated and unchallenged predictions of self-appointed 'experts' and pundits." Dean's blog entries are written in just this spirit. Most recently, he has turned his attention to mobile social networking.

This was very timely for me, given that I spent a large chunk of yesterday working on a presentation on exactly this subject. This will be delivered on January 15th at the next Mobile Monday Istanbul meeting, at which I was invited to speak by the local organiser, Natali Ye┼čilbahar. While I am considering quoting Dean's comments to spice things up a little, most of my slides are drawn from the Informa Telecoms & Media 'Mobile Social Networking: Communities and Content on the Move'.

While I am delighted to be sharing some of our thoughts on this area, I was also motivated to travel to Turkey for the meeting by the prospect of being able to drum up local support for our Eurasia Com event, which will take place in the same city 31 March & 1 April. The Eurasia Com speaker panel is drawn from all over the Caspian region and Central Asia, with most of the former Soviet republics well represented. I have a great team in place to ensure that good numbers of delegates from these markets also attend, but I am keen to make sure we do not neglect the matter of marketing the event very actively to telcos in its host country. Hence my keenness to spend some time in Istanbul this month. I am looking forward to this first overseas trip of 2009. I'd better finish my presentation this weekend...

2 Jan 2009

Russia's MTS brand to expand beyond CIS footprint

The new year finds me fully focused on preparations for our Russia/CIS Com event in Moscow (2-3 June 2009). Having conducted primary research in December, we will now be concentrating on making sure that the region's major telcos are represented at a high level at this year's gathering. While doing this, I naturally find my eye drawn to stories from Russia when reviewing the various telecoms news sources.

One such, from Cellular News, concerns the planned entry of Russia's MTS brand (mobile market leader with 33.85% of subs according to WCIS) into India. The Cellular News piece notes that "Shyam Telelink, which is controlled by Russia's Sistema has announced plans to use the brand-name of the Russian mobile network operator, MTS in the Indian market. MTS is itself 52.8% majority-owned by Sistema."

The piece continues: "Sistema guaranteed US$520 million of the total US$630 million that Shyam Telelink paid for obtaining its operating licenses. The company recently used a call-option to increase its shareholding in India's Shyam Telelink from 51% to 72% - just shy of the 74% which is permitted under Indian laws."

With this in mind, we will look to encourage Mr Oleg Raspopov, Director of the MTS Foreign Subsidiaries Business Unit to attend our India & South Asia Com event inMumbai in May. Mr Raspopov is already confirmed as a speaker at the event which covers the markets in his home country's most obvious and immediate sphere of influence, the former Soviet republics of Central Asia and the Caspian region. So I look foward to meeting him at Eurasia Com 2009, March 31 & April 1 in Istanbul.

31 Dec 2008

2008: meeting the challenges; 2009: more of the same

It's probably not very hard to work out that one reason for my writing this blog is to raise the profile of our Com World Series suite of telecoms sector discussion/networking/exhibition events. However, were I to do nothing more than copy text from our marketing materials and paste it here, I daresay I would get bored even faster than anyone reading these entries. For me at least, it's been fun to look out for telecoms-related news and then relate it to accounts of the people we meet and the things we hear while creating and attending these gatherings.

Reading back over my posts, I do notice that the need to promote our conferences seems to lead to my adopting a fairly optimistic tone when describing developments in the emerging markets in which we, our delegates and sponsors/exhibitors do business.

I make no excuses for this. A big part of my team's work is to keep reminding telecoms tech vendors of the technology requirements of operators in higher growth markets. We then strive to persuade the vendors that two days at a Com World Series show, meeting representatives of telcos from all over the region it serves, represents a time-efficient and cost-effective route to market. It therefore comes naturally to us to be bullish about growth prospects in the parts of the world in which we connect vendors with their customers and prospective customers.

However, in order to do this, I don't believe we have to misrepresent the positive buzz we experience in our conference rooms and exhibition areas. As recently as Saturday last week, I noted the optimism expressed by speakers at this month's Middle East region Com World Series event in Dubai.

However, it would be remiss of me not to acknowledge that this has been a challenging year for many of the people with whom we engage worldwide. If I were to confine my reading to telecoms industry news sources, I might be seduced into thinking that the countries and regions in which our friends and partners work are places typified by glad tidings of subscriber growth and market liberalisation. Of course, it's not possible to keep an eye on these parts of the world without getting a wider sense of what life there is really like. By talking with telecoms people from around the world, I am fortunate enough to hear from primary sources about the more difficult aspects of living and working in their various home (and adopted) countries. This adds colour and detail to the items I see on the TV news. More importantly, I get to see sensible people who go about their business very effectively in challenging environments. Further, the efforts of these people are combining to catalyse positive change - I am thinking in terms of things like:
  • how telecoms services reaching the world's less advantaged people quickly improves and enriches their lives
  • microfinance initiatives, sachet pricing and other measures designed to make services more affordable
  • green power technologies and innovative backhaul solutions designed to get services into remote and often impoverished areas
In this final blog entry of 2008, then, I find myself reflecting on the signs of trouble in the world of which my globe-trotting makes me more aware.

A news item which resonated for me last week was one picked up by myriad telecoms blogs and news portals, orginiating, I believe from this Reuters report. This was widely covered, so I won't repeat every detail here. To summarise, the story concerns a Nokia store in India being attacked by protestors enraged by the fact that the handset maker's mapping software shows Indian-claimed Kashmir as being within the borders of Pakistan. I was immediately reminded of a similar problem experienced by the Com World Series team. Some time ago, brochures were designed to promote our annual India & South Asia region event. One graphic element of the brochure was a map of the region from which delegates were to be gathered. The designer unwittingly committed much the same faux pas with regard to Kashmir as Nokia's mappers seem to have done. A contact in India was kind enough to point this out before the brochures were put in the mail - but once they had been printed... you live and learn...

Last week's Reuters story notes that "political sensitivities are an increasing problem for map making software vendors - such as how to deal with disputed borders or even national claims on areas such as Taiwan or Cyprus", going on to add that "back in 2001, Panasonic had a 12 month ban import imposed on it for selling phones in China which listed Taiwan as a separate country on the internal phonebook."

Our business has faced more serious and more costly problems than that in 2008. For example, the 2009 iteration of the India & South Asia conference, which was meant to take place early in the new year, has been pushed back to May as a result of the recent terrorist attack on Mumbai, the host city for the event. This is not without precedent. Earlier this year, our East Africa Com event was shifted from Nairobi to Dar es Salaam as a result of the unrest in Kenya following on from the disputed election results of December 2007.

On my own travels, I was lucky enough to spend a couple of weeks roaming around South America this year, working to boost attendance at our annual Americas Com event. One stop on the tour was Bolivia, where I visited operators in two cities, Santa Cruz and Cochabamba. In both of these, we could not fail to notice signs of the differences over the exploitation of energy resources which underlie recurring political crises. My understanding is that there exists a resultant desire for greater autonomy for some of the country's regions. We saw a demonstration in one city and plenty of related grafitti in the other.

These observations notwithstanding, I am choosing to face 2009 with determination to overcome any obstacles to my own aims which created by economic turmoil and political conditions. This is made easier by the great spirit and good fellowship I find among many, many telecoms people worldwide who face far greater levels of challenge than I or my team ever have to detal with. On that note, I wish you all a Happy New Year.

30 Dec 2008

3G Americas on LatAm region's contribution to the 4 billion global mobile subs

Just before the Christmas break, our friends at 3G Americas flagged up a historic milestone for the cellular industry, announcing that as of December 2008 there exist "4 billion connections to mobile devices worldwide." Citing the number crunching of our very own market watchers at Informa Telecoms & Media, the GSM family-focused wireless industry trade association noted that this "represents 60% of the entire global population today" and that "in some countries, millions of people are now experiencing connectivity to the world for the first time through wireless and changing their economic, social and political fortunes forever."

The 3G Americas release goes on to quote Marisol Gomez, our LatAm region analyst, with whom I've had the pleasure of working in the last few months. Marisol says: "the Latin America and Caribbean region continues to show steady consumer growth with 16% year-on-year growth as subscription numbers are expected to reach in excess of 440 million, equating to 76% penetration."

I remain keen to keep an eye on the Latin American mobile scene, not least because preparations for the next GSM Americas/Americas Com conference are well underway. As part of this, the Com World Series team is now working much more closely with our Sao Paulo-based colleagues at sister company Informa Brasil. Marisol and I have both been involved in detailed briefings designed to ensure that we harmonise our efforts with our Brazilian friends and jointly add value to an already well-established regional discussion and networking forum. We return to Rio de Janeiro for the 2009 iteration, hosting the event at the wonderful beachfront Windsor Barra Hotel 30th June-1st July.

It's gratifying to see the folks at 3G Americas continuing to cite Informa TM market information given that I've personally striven to develop further our partnership with Chris Pearson, who heads up the association and Erasmo Rojas, who leads activities in Latin America. For as long as I've been involved in our Americas event, Chris and Erasmo have jointly led a co-located 3G Americas Executive Briefing, which assembles CxO-level speakers from leading mobile carriers. We are on track to offer this feature of the conference once again in 2009, and both sides have been discussing how we can do even more to ensure that the audience maximises the opportunity to engage with the panellists and derive maximum value from their presence.

Chris and Erasmo both seem very keen that the wider conference begins to offer more insights around the roadmap for evolution towards LTE.

"Third generation technologies continue to evolve and the GSM operator today has a clear path towards LTE," stated Chris earlier this month. "In addition to the evolution to LTE by GSM operators, LTE is proving to be the technology choice for CDMA operators as well."

3G Americas quote Informa TM's estimate that there are nearly 415 million 3G subscriptions to date, with 77% share of the 3G market on UMTS/HSPA networks or 320 million connections, and the remaining 95 million on CDMA EV-DO. Our figures suggest that the number of commercial UMTS/HSPA networks has risen to 258 in more than 100 countries, including 41 networks in 20 countries in the Latin America and Caribbean region.

"HSPA and HSPA+ will compete with any and all mobile wireless technologies available today and in the near future," concludes Chris Pearson. "In fact, recent commercial launches of HSPA+, such as that of Telstra in Australia, are reporting peak theoretical downlink speeds of 21.6 Mbps. 3G is more than capable of delivering the bandwidth customers need today, and the emerging LTE technology provides us with a clear evolution path for the future."

29 Dec 2008

HSPA subs growing in Saudi Arabia; market developments in slow-to-liberalise Kuwait

While I was moderating conference sessions at this month's GSM>3G Middle East conference in Dubai, I had the pleasure of introducing a representative of Saudi cellco Mobily to the audience.
Mohamed A. Radwan heads up the development of the MNO's chain of retail outlets and told conference participants about the company's approach to promoting all 3.5 G capabilities and VAS. According to the notes I made on the day, Mohamed did not share numbers regarding HSPA subscriber growth. I was therefore interested to see this question addressed in an edition of Global Mobile Daily last week. The Informa Telecoms & Media research service says that the number of Mobily's HSPA-based subscriptions has reached 300,000, having acquired this number of subs in the 18 months since launching a mobile broadband bundle in May 2007. Mobily charges SAR350 per month (USD 93.40) for the service and also has higher usage bundles on offer - 5GB for SAR200 and 1GB for SAR200.

The same issue of GMD picked up news of Kuwait's Ministy of Communications moving to reduce the cost of calling several European and Arab countries. The MoC has a free hand in such matters. The market is the least liberalised in the MENA region: fixed line network operations remain the exclusive preserve of the MoC itself and the Gulf state has no independent regulator.

The mobile space in Kuwait is rather more competitive, even more so since the September 2008 launch of Saudi Telecom-backed Viva, the country's newest cellco. It will be interesting to see how this third entrant fares on a market described in the abstract of my friend Paul Budde's country profile as having "[high] prices... across all sectors of the market" and a "comfortable duopoly enjoyed by Zain and Wataniya [which] has enabled them to build on their strong base to expand aggressively internationally to compete on a global scale."

Something I didn't know ahead of writing today's entry was that until very recently, Kuwaiti mobile users have had to pay to receive incoming calls. I just stumbled upon this personal blog, which reported earlier this month that Viva had broken the mould by implementing a pure Calling Party Pays model. From the comments which this entry prompted on the blog, it looks like Zain moved to introduce CPP a mere 12 hours later. I am not clear if Wataniya has done likewise or plans to do so. Warning: if you do follow the link to the blog which picked this up, prepare yourself for reader comments expressed in pretty strong language and people whose criticisms of Kuwait's operators are much less diplomatic than anything you will ever read here!

If this information is to be believed, it does suggest that Paul Budde's comment about a "comfortable duopoly" might not have been too wide of the mark - and that this duopoly has been quickly attacked by the new entrant.

I am not clear when Kuwait plans to set up an independent regulator. Global Mobile Daily suggested as long ago as August 2007 that this was a work in progress and set to be discussed "during the next National Assembly session." I haven't seen news of any developments since then and when a colleague of mine went on a fact-finding tour of the Middle East earlier this year, I do remember a number of his research respondents expressing frustration about the pace of helpful change in the country.

I can't pretend to know enough (yet!) about the MENA region to understand why the speed of evolution towards more progressive regulatory regimes is so uneven across the various markets. In Dubai this month, I certainly got the sense that things are moving faster in some states. One example would seem to be Bahrain, whose regulatory agency sent Deputy Director Tomas Lamanauskas to speak at our conference. I asked Tomas how a Lithuanian had ended up at the Bahraini regulator and learned that he had made the move from the equivalent body in his home country. Tomas told me that to some extent, his new employer is seeking to create a regulatory regime which resembles the EU framework. Tomas replied affirmatively when I asked if, in a sense, his latest role had something in common with the job of harmonising Lithuania's regime to the European framework, something which I remember being a big topic of conversation a CEE region conferences some years ago, not least among delegates from then soon-to-be EU accession states.

28 Dec 2008

Turk Telekom to grow business into Macedonia?

Looking back over some of the stories which popped up while I was away on holiday, I noticed that Global Mobile Daily picked up news of the Turkish incumbent fixed-line operator's interest in acquiring the 2nd-placed MNO in the small market of Macedonia (population approx 2 million). I am not clear to what extent any new owner (other interested parties seem to include Telekom Austria and Telekom Slovenije) would be able to grow the business. In addition to the Balkan country being a market of limited size, it is one for which our WCIS reports mobile penetration as 112.17% as of September 2008. Moreover, first-placed T-Mobile has established a commanding lead in terms of market share. According to WCIS, the Deutsche Telekom-aligned cellco owns 67.88% of subscriptions versus market shares of 32.13% and 12.16% for Cosmofon and VIP respectively.

VIP is part of the mobilkom austria group, itself a subsidiary of Telekom Austria - so if the Austrian incumbent's reported interest in Cosmofon is for real, I would assume that they would be thinking in terms of consolidating the Macedonian market down to two players.

Cosmofon's current owner is the Cosmote group, a company controlled by Greek incumbent carrier OTE. Assuming that the Greek group welcomes the interest being shown in its Macedonian outpost, this seems to represent another retreat from an East European market, OTE having not long quit Armenia. OTE sold its interest in Armentel, that country's then-monopolist wireline carrier (and associated mobile business) to Vimpelcom of Russia in late 2006.

If the Cosmofon story has played out by the end of March, and if Turk Telekom prevails, I daresay delegates at our Eurasia Com event in Istanbul will be keen to ask the company's CEO Dr. Paul Doany where the acquisition fits into his broader strategy.