A tele-recession or not‾

The mobile business is so young it has never experienced a major recession.

In the last global downturn in 1991-92 it was still a fledgling industry. Now it's the biggest and most profitable part of the telecom business, it's worth asking if the economic slowdown - or recession - will choke off mobile profits.

The signals are mixed.

Pessimists will take heart from Telenor's second quarter result. The Nordic carrier, with operations in Thailand, Bangladesh, Malaysia and Pakistan, said Asian customers were finding mobile services increasingly unaffordable because of the spiraling cost of food.

'Inflationary pressures on daily necessities are hitting people's wallets, leading to cautiousness when it comes to consumption,' Telenor CEO Jon Fredrik Baksaas told the Financial Times. ARPU fell 24% year-on-year in Bangladesh and 14% in Pakistan.

Telenor's caution somewhat deflates the conventional wisdom that emerging market mobile will be the industry's primary growth engine over the next five years.

Yet Nokia, the master of the handset market, and whose sales mostly derive from developing countries, might just reflate those expectations.

Nokia enjoyed another bumper quarter, with global market share back to 40%, up from 39%. It expects the good times to continue, predicting Q3 device volumes to grow 10% over 2007. It even increased its operating margin, despite the fall in average handset sales price from E79 to E74.

It's Nokia's massive scale economies that enable it to dominate the low-end device markets with quality devices at $30 and under. So, despite the declining ASPs, if anyone is able to weather the storm it will be Nokia.

On the other hand, Vodafone, the world's biggest cellco, has another story to tell. It is seeing good growth in its emerging market businesses (India up 52%) but is feeling the pinch in Spain and to a lesser extent the UK. It cut its revenue guidance by 13% and may have to do it again.

Then again, AT&T, the largest American telco, and surely vulnerable to the financial meltdown, seems to be cruising. In wireless, and with a little help from Apple, net income spiked 30% in Q2, thanks to the iPhone and greater usage of both mobile voice and data.

So in the end you'd score it to the optimists, at least for now. But inflation in emerging markets could bite sooner rather than later.

 


It's taken 13 years, but the Telecom Research Project (TRP) team has finally produced a follow-up edition of Telecommunications Development in Asia.

The original was published in 1995, an eon ago in telecom terms.

Essays in the current issue touch on those telecom perennials of universal service and interconnection, and a thoughtful take on the vexed topic of wireless spectrum allocation.

Nick Ingelbrecht's timely analysis of Asia-Pacific vendors was the pick of the bunch for me, canvassing some of those questions that policy-makers and industry execs must confront daily: innovation, the relationship between operator and vendor, patent wars, international standards-setting and China's role in the industry.

 

The coming decade will challenge emerging vendors in Asia as well as the established players in US and Europe, he suggests.

As well as the essays, the book offers country profiles on 14 markets and a lengthy appendix containing fixed, mobile and internet subs numbers and maps of Southeast Asian submarine cables.

Even if essays on telecom regulation are not for you, the metrics at the back are a handy addition to the bookshelf of managers and policymakers in Asian markets.

Telecommunications Development in Asia, John Ure (ed), Hong Kong University Press 2008

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