Growth agenda

Acquisitions, new licences and emerging sectors bode well for the telco sector.
Roger Field is editor of CommsMEA.
Roger Field is editor of CommsMEA.

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The region’s telecoms sector is once again in a period of vibrant change, with a stake in Maroc Telecom up for sale, two licences recently awarded in Myanmar, and three MVNO licences just issued in Saudi Arabia.

It emerged just last month that Etisalat was the sole remaining bidder for Vivendi’s 53% stake in Maroc Telecom, Morocco’s incumbent operator. Etisalat found itself in the prime spot after Qatar’s Ooredoo dropped out of the race, citing frustration at the process.

For both operators, the desire to pursue the acquisition appeared to make sense. For Etisalat in particular, there is a nice fit between its African portfolio and Maroc Telecom. Indeed, Maroc, which operates fixed-line, ISP and mobile services in Morocco, also has operations in Burkino Faso, Gabon, Mali and Mauritania. Etisalat’s African footprint encompasses Egypt, Nigeria, Tanzania, Sudan, Benin, Ivory Cost, Gabon and Togo, Niger and Central African Republic.

But while the deal might look pretty on the map, it is likely that Etisalat, its advisors, and its shareholders, are continuing to scrutinise the deal carefully. At about $8 billion, Vivendi’s 53% stake in Maroc Telecom is not cheap. While Morocco’s incumbent operator is performing well at present, it faces fierce and growing competition in the country, which is one of the region’s best regulated markets.

Maroc Telecom accounts for 80% of the company’s revenue. The operator generates cash, and has a 56% EBITDA margin, according to Reuters. According to Australian research firm BuddeComm, Morocco’s internet market was dominated by Maroc Telecom’s ADSL broadband service, which once held over 90% of the market. However, 3G mobile broadband services, which were launched five years ago, had taken more than 80% of the broadband market by 2012. Furthermore, given Morocco’s telecoms regulator’s policy of market liberalisation, it looks likely that competition in the fixed-line sector will also be fostered. In this light, Vivendi’s stake in Maroc Telecom should be viewed more as a strategic set of assets rather than as a medium-term cash cow.

With other bidders pulling out the race, Etisalat’s shareholders are likely to be feeling jittery before a formal announcement is made about the telecom operator’s final decision.

While Ooredoo decided against pursuing the Maroc Telecom deal, the Qatari operator was successful in acquiring a licence in Myanmar, a country with a population of some 49 million people and a mobile penetration rate of about 11%. It is not surprising that Dr. Marafih described the country as “one of the last untapped markets”.

But as our report on Myanmar shows, even untapped markets can be more complicated than they appear. According to research from Analysys Mason, there is a vast difference between the telecoms potential in urban and rural areas of Myanmar. While the country’s mobile penetration rate is about 50% among adults in urban areas, penetration rates in the rural areas are chronically low. While this is probably partly due to a lack of coverage in many remote areas, the research also indicates that “some groups in urban areas show a definite lack of interest in services”, which could make monetising costly rural deployments a significant challenge.

On the subject of expansion and M&A, Zain Group’s CEO Scott Gegenheimer struck a bullish note in June, stating his intention make some acquisitions this year. The idea is to make acquisitions to help the company expand into new service areas such as cloud-based services and unified communications. The CEO said that the company was not interested in expanding into new countries, but viewed entering these new sectors as important.

Two regional companies that are set to expand geographically are Virgin Mobile MEA and Axiom Telecom. The two companies, which are both based in Dubai, were among the three players to gain an MVNO licence in Saudi Arabia. It appears that both firms are well-placed to make a strong play in the country. Both companies have a brand that is well recognised in KSA, and while VMMEA has a wealth of experience establishing MVNOs, Axiom Telecom has a significant retail presence in the country. However the three licencees perform, it will be interesting to see the impact they have on the market, and to see the reaction of other regulators in the region. MVNOs have a clear role to play in MEA, and it is to be hoped that more regulators embrace the concept.

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