20 Jan 2009

Informa bullish on mobile data during the economic downturn

During my time with Informa Telecoms & Media I have not had the opportunity to consult with Mark Newman, our Chief Research Officer, anything like a regularly as I would have liked. The last time I had cause to do so was in the lead-in to December's GSM>3G Middle East conference in Dubai, at which Mark was in the Chair, sharing the stage with heavy-hitters from the likes of Etisalat, Zain, Turkcell and Nawras. At that event, all of these companies made very positive noises about mobile data services in the context of the markets which they serve.

Yesterday, in Informa's telecoms.com blog, Mark reported a general feeling of optimism around mobile data worldwide. Mark began by noting the "widely held view that the mobile content sector is failing to live up to expectations, 3G has disappointed and mobile operators have thrown away an opportunity to develop a revenue stream that could ultimately surpass the voice business."

Mark feels that "if 2008 is remembered for one thing, it should be for being the year that this notion was dispelled. Until last year, the non-voice business was dominated by SMS. For a typical European operator, SMS accounted for up to 80% of non-voice revenues in previous years. But this figure has started to fall sharply. Operators such as Vodafone are seeing non-SMS services generating up to half of non-voice revenues. Investment in 3G - or 3.5G - is now generating payback."

While pointing out the erroneous nature of the idea that North America is a laggard in terms of mobile data adoption, Mark notes that Japan and South Korea continue to be the real hotbeds of enthusiasm for data services. This has been a well-worn truism for as long as I've been attending conferences and workshops themed around boosting the acceptance and profitability of mobile content, data and value-added services. I recall being asked to take over the running of a London conference about five years ago and hearing all kinds of actors in the mobile VAS value chain complaining about revenue sharing arrangements with operators and MNOs' 'walled garden' approaches. The participants were at least 90% European and content providers and aggregators were much better represented than network operators. Everyone seemed to be casting envious glances at their Japanese and Korean counterparts, speaking warmly about how the likes of NTT DoCoMo were enabling the growth of a healthy mobile content ecosystem.

Only last week, when I was asked to make a presentation on mobile social networking at the most recent Mobile Monday Istanbul meeting, I found myself referring constantly to the greater success of some of these services in the Far East. Quoting from an Informa Telecoms & Media report, I told the Turkish audience that according to a Sydney Morning Herald article published in December 2007, half of Japan’s top 10 works of fiction are now written on mobile handsets. These works, called keitai shousetsu’, each sells an average of 400,000 copies and are written entirely on cell phones complete with emoticons and common SMS abbreviations.

Today, according to Mark Newman, the ratio of prepaid subscribers to postpaid goes a long way toward accounting for the differences among markets in mobile content adoption and usage. Postpaid subscriptions account for 99% of all subs in South Korea, 94% in Japan and 90% in the US. Mark points out that these are the countries with the highest mobile data ARPUs.

Overall, Mark feels that even if the most pessimistic scenarios for the economic downturn come to pass, it seems unlikely that the mobile content sector will stop growing. Mark points out that 2008 saw a switch to flat-rate and mobile Internet models and believes that 2009 will see this trend continue and will see the arrival of more-affordable mobile Internet devices. For Mark "the bigger uncertainty is whether mobile operators will accept a role as dumb pipes rather than continuing to invest in their own services and smart-pipe strategies. "

Today I should complete handing over my notes to colleagues who will be developing our annual Russia & CIS Com conference, set to take place in Moscow in early June. With the Russian MNOs having now deployed 3G networks in most major cities, our research respondents have expressed the desire to use the event to debate how best to accelerate the process of getting a return on these investments by encouraging customers to accept mobile data and content services.