Friday 15 December 2017

Disruptive Reliance Jio on the road to 4G leadership

Continuing from our earlier post on India in October.

According to this BGR news report:
2017 was a significant year for Indian telecom during which 4G became the new norm. Usage exploded riding primarily on Reliance Jio — the 15-month old network that is already the world’s fastest-growing telco — and the effects trickled down to other operators too. Nearly 4 million TB of 4G data has been consumed by Indians this year, according to a TRAI estimate. Consumers relished swathes of data sometimes “effectively free” and sometimes at incredibly low prices, and hordes of first-time smartphone buyers were inducted into the world of mobile data. The year came to be defined by the stiff price war between incumbent telcos and disruptor Jio.
According to this tweet by Neil Shah, Counter Point:

4G LTE subscriptions: 135 Million
Data Consumption : 10GB per month / user
VoLTE calls : 626 minutes per month / user
Video Consumption: 14 hrs per month / user

A similar picture was reported by Tefficient:
These customers generated 3780 petabyte of mobile data. It's by far the biggest network in the world. The graph suggests that might be around 80% of India's total - Q3 isn't reported by the others yet. Per subscription, that is 9,6 GB per month which means that Jio might challenge the global usage leaders of the world - 3 Austria, DNA and Elisa Finland and FarEasTone and Taiwan Mobile from Taiwan.

Its interesting to note that no only are Reliance Jio's users the highest data consumers in the world, its also driving India's infrastructure building activity. According to the newspaper report below, Reliance Industries has been responsible for 45% of capex spend in India in the last 3 years.

According to GadgetsNow:
India's current mobile data subscriber penetration stands at 40 per cent which is expected to double to 80 per cent by 2022, according to Crisil's predictions. 
"LTE services have taken the leading role in the unprecedented increase of data users in the past year, in large part thanks to Jio," the report said.
The 3G4G Small cells blog has a post on small cells rollout in India here. In addition, Tareq Amin, Senior Vice President, Reliance Jio Infocomm recently spoke in the TIP summit. His talk is embedded below.

One could argue that rolling out 4G can only be considered successful if the end users can reliably make use of it. According to Opensignal blog:

As we saw in our latest State of LTE report, published in November, LTE availability in India is remarkable: users were able to connect to an LTE signal over 84% of the time, a rise of over 10 percentage points from a year earlier. This places India ahead of more established countries in the 4G landscape such as Sweden, Taiwan, Switzerland or the U.K. 
While LTE availability saw a meteoric rise, the same cannot be said of 4G speeds. In our latest State of LTE report, India occupied the lowest spot among the 77 countries we examined, with average download speeds of 6.1 Mbps, over 10 Mbps lower than the global average. 
A key reason for the strikingly low speeds is the rapid increase in 4G users across all the networks. As 4G adoption rose, and more and more consumers subscribed to 4G services, the networks experienced congestion, resulting in a decrease in average download speeds across the board. 4G users on the networks of Idea, Vodafone and Airtel all witnessed a drop in average 4G download speeds over the course of 2017. 
Meanwhile Jio trended the opposite direction in 4G speed. In our April report Jio had the slowest 4G speed in our India tests, but as soon as Jio’s freebie plan ended in April 2017, we recorded an astonishing 50% increase in their speed (from 3.9 Mbps to 5.8 Mbps) over the course of six months, which still placed Jio at the lowest end of the speed spectrum but with a significantly narrower gap.

When it comes to mobile internet speeds, where 3G and 4G LTE are considered together, India comes in the 109th place in the world according to data collected by Ookla.
Doug Suttles, co-founder and general manager at Ookla said, “Both mobile and fixed broadband internet in India are getting faster, that’s good news for all Indian consumers no matter which operator or plan they use to access the internet. India still has a long way to go to catch up with countries that have top speeds around the world, however, we at Ookla are highly optimistic about the capacity for growth that is available in the Indian market and looks forward to watching how the market grows in this coming new year.”

2018 may probably be the year India gradually transitions from being a developing 4G country to become a full-grown 4G power.

Friday 8 December 2017

Turkey: 4G Trials and Tribulations

Image result for mobile network operators Turkey

Turkey has had its fair share of drama regarding mobile networks and technology. For example fourth-generation (4G) mobile data network didn't arrive in Turkey until April 2016 thats nearly eight years after arriving in Scandinavia and South Korea.Turkish mobile phone users had to wait for bureaucratic issues and uncertain market conditions to clear up before they could use faster data connections. Moreover in 2015 Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan claimed that his country does not need to upgrade to the 4G system. Instead, Erdogan said, Turkey should leap forward to the more advanced 5G network in two years. This was a rather bizarre statement considering 5G technology does not exist and will not for a few more years. 

One expert, a senior engineer and product manager at Turkey’s leading mobile phone company, Turkcell, talked to Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. He said that the most optimistic estimate for 5G’s first use around the world would be 2020. “The hope is to use 5G at the Tokyo Olympics,” the expert said, adding that Erdogan’s estimate of two years “does not appear to be technically possible.” The lack of a 4G network would slow down every facet of the Turkish economy — business, industry, transportation, communication and government — and undermine Erdogan’s ambition to turn his country into one of the top 10 global economies by the next decade.

So why this delay in bulding 4G? According to Fusun Sarp Nebil, one of Turkey’s leading telecommunications experts, Turkey's adoption of 4G is not the first time that Turkey has been late to adopt an innovation in telecommunications.

“Turkey always follows technology belatedly. It took [four years] before ADSL Internet came to Turkey,” while “3G [mobile networks] arrived nine years after it did in the rest of the world.”

Central and local governments’ delays and inadequacy explain why the development of wireless and landline Internet is moving at a snail’s pace in Turkey. For Nebil, a major problem is the extremely high tax burden on consumers. The Finance Ministry recently admitted that an exorbitant 60% of what Turkish consumers pay on their mobile phone bills goes to taxes. That is, for every 40 Turkish liras ($15) of minutes and data that customers pay their mobile service providers, they pay 60 Turkish liras ($23) to the Turkish government. (By comparison, US customers pay about 17% in federal, state and local taxes.)

However Turkey has now launched its self-declared '4.5G' network. Turkish mobile operators have engaged in even more impressive marketing stunts to sell new phones and data plans. The market leader Turkcell appeals to popular and patriotic sentiments with its “bagliyiz biz” (we are tied / connected / loyal to each other) campaign. Vodafone, with its “4 bucak g” (4 corners g) campaign, showcases folk dancers from the four corners of Turkey performing their own regional dances as well as those of other areas. Former telecom monopoly Turk Telekom (previously Avea) takes a different route and uses Portuguese soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo to emphasize its 4G network’s speed.

Currently Turkcell is the leading mobile phone operator of Turkey,based in Istanbul. In February 1994, Turkcell started Turkey’s first GSM network. In Q3 2012, it had a market share of 52,4%. Its competitors were Vodafone with a market share of 27,9% and Avea with a market share of 19,7%. The introduction of this '4.5G' infrastructure and an increased smartphone ownership, mobile-based internet and data services in Turkey have grown, this, in turn, has boosted revenues for the country's mobile operators. 

As of June 2017, Turkey had some 76.6 million mobile subscribers, including machine-to-machine communication (M2M) subscribers, which corresponded to 96 percent a penetration rate.

Since April 2016, there was a quick transition from 3G to 4.5G subscriptions and at the end of June 2017, the number of 3G subscribers dropped to 13.2 million, while the number of 4.5G subscribers reached 59.8 million. So much so, internet and data accounted for 71.1 percent of Turkcell's, 61.2 percent of Vodafone's and 51.4 Türk Telekom's total revenues in the second quarter of this year.Online music and video streaming services, internet TV, and social media applications have mainly driven the growth in mobile data usage.

However Subscription plans also do not come cheap. Modest plans with 2 gigabytes (GB) of data, 1,000 text messages and 1,000 minutes of phone calls vary between 35-50 Turkish lira ($12 to $17). But some plans with 15 GB of data can reach as high as 159 Turkish lira ($55), including taxes and other fees. For a country where the net minimum wage is 1,300 Turkish lira ($457), even the cheapest data plan seems like a luxury. To boost consumer demand and usage, Turkey must create a mature 4G network and, more importantly, a robust Internet infrastructure.

As a result Kozan Demircan, one of the country’s leading technology experts, calls the new '4.5G' an “April Fool’s joke” because Turkey simply does not have the fiber optic network to support the promised connection speeds. High levels of fiber optic penetration (an area in which Turkey comes up short) enable high-quality connections between personal computers, mobile devices and cell towers. 

As another expert told Al-Monitor a few months ago, Portugal — with a total area of 100,000 square kilometers (38,600 square miles) — boasts a fiber optic network of 545,000 kilometers (338,000 miles). But Turkey, with nearly eight times the area of Portugal, only has 250,000 kilometers of fiber optic cable (a figure that was already 150,000 kilometers in 2005), when it should have over 4.5 million kilometers of fiber optic cable to catch up with Portugal.

These shortcomings slow connection speeds. Demircan points out that “whereas the targeted speed with 4.5G is around 330 to 400 megabits per second [Mbps], average connection speeds are 30-40 Mbps.” Although those figures are a respectable improvement over actual speeds of 14 Mbps on the 3G network, even those limited speeds are not available to Turks who live in major cities such as Istanbul and Ankara. (According to Akamai Technologies, a global content delivery company, Turkey’s average Internet connection speed was 6.2 Mbps in the third quarter of 2015.) As Demircan warns, there is a positive relationship between high broadband Internet penetration and its contribution to high levels of national income.

So why does Turkey not dedicate itself to a truly viable and progressive 4G that would help to grow its economy?

One major problem is the Turkish state’s inability to open up the market to competition. In particular, Turk Telekom, which owns most of the fiber optic network thanks to its former status as Turkey’s telecom monopoly, does not want to share its property with service providers. Also Turkish municipalities continue to charge exorbitant fees whenever service providers attempt to lay new fiber optic cables.

A bigger challenge is the allegation that the Turkish state and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) view high-speed Internet with suspicion. One Turkish Internet expert and former government employee told Al-Monitor alleges that Gezi protests of 2013 and the Gulen-AKP fallout in early 2014, the state — especially the national security apparatus — has become wary of very high Internet connections. “You cannot upload high-quality videos or extended audio files on the 3G,” said the expert. So there is not much enthusiasm to improve conditions through the 4G network.

Due to the delays and problems in 4G there is unfortunately a real possibility that Turkey will also be late in adopting 5G and that means falling further behind in economic development. Hopefully this can still be remedied. 

Tuesday 21 November 2017

South Africa: Progress and Problems

South Africa’s mobile networks are all growing their subscriber numbers, with Telkom the latest network to reveal its most recent figures.

Telkom’s interim results for the six months ended 30 September 2017 show it had 4.3 million active mobile subscribers.

This comprises 3 million prepaid and 1.3 million post-paid users.
The table below details the latest available subscriber numbers for South Africa’s mobile networks.

Vodacom40.0 million
MTN30.9 million
Cell C“Over 16 million”
Telkom4.3 million

According to Telkom their operating revenue was down by 0.6% compared to last year, reaching R20.1 billion.

“The first half of the year was characterized by a tough economic environment and increased competition. Even though South Africa exited the technical recession in the second quarter of the year, business confidence remains very low.”

 Despite the tough conditions, Telkom’s mobile division showed strong growth.
“The mobile business growth trajectory continued in the period with strong growth in active customers and stable ARPUs, resulting in an increase of 43.2% in mobile service revenue,” said Telkom.
“The strong mobile growth which boosted the group’s performance was underpinned by an expansion of our network, distribution, and the launch of innovative products which were well received by our customers.”
“We are pleased that our mobile business received the MyBroadband Best Mobile Broadband Provider of the year award, in the best value for money category.”

Market leader Vodacom’s priority must be defending its market share in an increasingly competitive environment. According to Equities analyst Irnest Kaplan  they must offer consumers more value, beyond simply “selling megabytes”. So-called over-the-top players — companies like Facebook and Google — are profiting from the data pipes Vodacom sells; the company needs to develop value-added services of its own, such as quality content, that subscribers are prepared to pay for. Without this, there’s the risk that consumers will simply shop around for the cheapest data rates

He said Vodacom, and the other mobile operators, are in a powerful position in that consumers carry their products in their pocket all day.

 “They should do more to leverage that. It’s hard for them because they are operators and not app developers, but people carry their products all the time, they know where you are all the time — there must be amazing apps they can offer.” Source

Moreoever all the South African operators face issued due to the  impasse over new spectrum allocation. Vodacom may be forced to cut spending in rural areas to densify its network in the more populated urban centres because of this “spectrum crunch”.

This issue needs to be sorted as soon as possible. Technology is the driver of economic growth. Spectrum is vital for the roll-out of new technologies and innovation, which will drive economic growth, create jobs and allow South Africa to take advantage of the Internet of things and the other technologies.

Meanwhile Ericsson and MTN will start a 5G trial in South Africa during the first quarter of 2018.

The companies signed a memorandum of understanding at AfricaCom 2017 to collaborate on the rollout of 5G technologies in South Africa.

MTN will trial a range of 5G use cases and applications as a proof-of-concept for South Africa in its laboratory, which will lead to commercial deployment in the future.
The companies said they will collaborate to identify 5G use cases in industries such as mining, transportation, agriculture, manufacturing, and utilities.

“5G gives us the opportunity to rethink our business and address previously-untapped value chains” 
said Giovanni Chiarelli, CTIO at MTN South Africa.Source

Sunday 12 November 2017

VEON: Rebrand and Revolutionising?

VEON came into existence early 2017, a rebrand of VimpelCom.
The Amsterdam-based telco was first founded in 1992 as Russian operator PJSC VimpelCom.  It took its current form in 2009 when shareholders Telenor and Alfa agreed to merge their assets in VimpelCom and Ukraine’s Kyivstar to create VimpelCom Ltd. In 2010 VimpelCom acquired Orascom Telecom Holding (operating in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Algeria) and Wind Italy from Egypt’s Naguib Sawiris.
VEON is among the world’s 10 largest communications network operators by subscription, with around 235 million customers in 13 countries.The company is in the process of shifting away from being a data services company, to internet via mobile devices.

VEON’s geographical footprint (September 2017) Source: VEON, STL Partners

It operates under a number of brand names in various countries for example: 
VEON’s largest market is Russia, where it has over 58 million mobile subscribers, making up 24% of its global total. Pakistan and Bangladesh comprise its second largest markets by subscribers, while it has over 30 million customers in Italy under its Wind Tre brand, a joint venture with CK Hutchison.

VEON mobile customers by region, H2 2017 (millions)

In July 2017, VEON announced that it was making progress in its strategy to reinvent itself as an online player by introducing its messaging and mobile services app in four new markets, including its largest in Russia and Pakistan.The messaging app, which is designed to compete with the likes of Facebook Inc’s WhatsApp and Rakuten Inc’s Viber, offers free services to customers via its mobile network without users incurring data charges as other apps do. According to Mark MacGann, VEON’s Group Chief Corporate & Public Affairs Officer : 
"VEON is not just communication application. It is a complete platform. We promise to completely revolutionise the digital landscape of the country and how Pakistanis communicate. We aim to disrupt the market and redefine the personal internet experience by offering diverse services to our subscribers like access to information and services and engage with the world even when they are out of balance. VEON will create its unique position in the market in the months and years to come."

At the end of October 2017 VEON announced that its App had reached 1 million downloads, in Pakistan, in the just the span of 19 days.

Two more markets where VEON will offer the app are Ukraine and Georgia. VEON aims to offer basic communication for free, while taking a cut of proceeds from partnerships with popular internet services it offers through its app, using data insights it can glean as a network operator.Deals are expected to range from streaming music to ride-hailing to retail to financial services offers. Early partners have included music streaming service Deezer and credit card company Mastercard.

It will be fascinating to monitor future developments with this operator and its markets.

Thursday 2 November 2017

The 4G explosion in China

The popularity of 4G mobile services in China continues to increase and subscriber growth shows no signs of slowing down. In fact China has built the world's largest 4G network within just four years and is aiming to add 2 million 4G base stations, mainly for townships and villages, by 2018. China began a campaign aimed at faster and more affordable Internet connection in 2015 resulting in a total of 950 million 4G network users as of the end of September 2017, according to figures from the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT).

Served principally by three mobile network operators, China’s mobile sectors are largely divided along technological lines. China Mobile - currently the largest operator by subscribers focuses on the locally-developed TD-LTE 4G standard.  While rivals China Unicom and China Telecom have gone for a mix of TD-LTE and frequency division duplex LTE (FDD-LTE). 

According to Shang Bing, chairman of China Mobile the operator has pursued a strategy of 'Big Connectivity' and invested about CNY450 billion ($66 billion) over the last three years to build  the world’s largest 4G network. Its 4G user base reached 583 million in May 2017, with 4G penetration at 67.5 per cent. “One in four 4G users in the world is a China Mobile user.” It has deployed 1.6 million 4G base stations, or about 30 per cent of the global total, Shang said. Its 4G coverage will reach 99 per cent of the population by the end of the year, when its LTE base station count rises to 1.77 million.

China Telecom’s 4G user base doubled last year to 122 million, with LTE subscribers accounting for 57 per cent of its mobile connections and deploying 1.05 million base stations, while China Unicom’s 4G subs rose from 44.1 million at end-2015 to 104.5 million, representing 40 per cent of its customer base, with 770,000 base stations.

How 4G has helped change and improve lives in China

So why is 4G so important? Probably because it is a vital foundation for all that is to come:

"Future technologies, including 5G, the internet of things and AI (artificial intelligence) will drive society into the era of the internet of everything. The development of 4G has brought about the prosperity of mobile internet and changed people's lives," 

says  Li Zhengmao, vice-president of China Mobile. Industry pundits insist that 4G has been the greatest achievement in the national information technology sector during the past five years in rural and urban areas.But then the benefits of 4G are not limited to urban areas. Rural regions in China have also been opened up by the service. In Huanggang, Hubei province, farmers can sell their produce online through e-commerce sites, and buy crucial equipment safer and quicker through the network. China Telecom has spent 200 million yuan ($29.46 million) to roll out 1,300 base stations in Huanggang.

The decision has increased 4G coverage rates from 35 percent to 93 percent. It has also helped local farmers with vital agricultural information, as well as alleviating poverty through online education.

Even after all this progress, VoLTE is still long way away. According to a report in summer, China Mobile targets 17% VoLTE penetration this year. China Mobile group vice-president Mr.Liu Aili had said back in 2015, "VoLTE network deployment is the one of the most difficult project ever, the implementation complexity and workload is unparalleled in history"

Its not unreasonable to think that since China has the world's largest 4G market it is the  country that will lead the world in the development and utilization of 5G. 

Friday 13 October 2017

The changing and challenging telecom landscape of India

The telecom landscape of India is changing exponentially. Approximately 215 million subscribers may have to change their allegiances due to the lack of financial stability at Reliance Communications, Aircell and Tata Teleservices (which is on the verge of closing down its operations across India).

The beneficiary is Mukesh Ambani. The oil tycoon who ties with Tencent Holdings Ltd.'s Pony Ma as the third-richest person in Asia is winning subscribers at a rate of 5 million a month by offering free voice calls and cheap data through his operator Reliance Jio. 

“…there are more than 50 crore (500 million) feature phone users who have been left out of the digital revolution,” Ambani said at Reliance Industries’ annual general meeting in Mumbai, where he launched the JioPhone. “This digital disempowerment and unfairness must end. Jio is committing to end it today.”
 In effect, apart from giving telecom companies a run for their money, Reliance Jio is also set to disrupt India’s smartphone market. Launched last September, Reliance Jio already offers free voice calling, as well as the world’s cheapest internet data plan, starting at Rs49 ($0.76) per gigabyte (GB). On the JioPhone, voice calling will “always” be free and unlimited data will cost only Rs153 ($2.38) per month.

Its free schemes and recharge options have expanded Jio’s user base rapidly. Some 66% of Reliance Jio customers were using the service as their primary connection by March, up from 50% in December. The company claims that mobile data usage in India fared around 0.2 billion GB per month in the pre-Jio era. After Reliance Jio’s entry, overall data consumption supposedly skyrocketed to 1.2 billion GB per month, of which 1 billion is consumed by Jio subscribers. According to Ambani the service provider now has over 125 million customers. 

However such radical changes are accompanied by various issues for example with only 300 million smartphone users in the country, the growth could soon hit a wall—hence, the development of the JioPhone, a 4G-enabled feature phone with a large screen and access to apps. More on the JioPhone here. Not to be left behind Airtel and Vodafone India are also launching smartphones. 

So Jio are dynamic enough to offer competitive data rates and a 4G phone but  as a result the prices of wireless data have fallen by about 97% in one year after the entry of Reliance Jio, from about Rs 200 per GB a year ago to about Rs 6 per GB in the June quarter.
While operators like Bharti Airtel and Idea Cellular used to offer 1 GB of data for Rs 250, they now offer about 50 GB for the same price. 

Such massive growth creates its own problems for example: Reliance Jio’s network is “overloaded”, with congestion creating a bottleneck that is slowing down connections for its customers, according to new analysis by OpenSignal. According to this report, Reliance Jio lags behind Airtel, Vodafone, and Idea in terms of 4G speeds, but is market leading in terms of 4G coverage. 

Moreoever what about the ARPU downshift? According to analysts due this reorganisation of subscribers and the very reasonable prices they are paying this is will continue. Reliance Jio has irreversibly changed the market from a pricing-focused one to an ARPU-focused one. In the price-focused market, companies like Vodafone and Airtel tried to keep prices high, volumes low and margins fat. In the volume-based game, pricing is dictated by two factors — the ability of the network to support demand, and the need to increase consumption by users. While the second factor — the need to increase data use — puts a downward pressure on prices, the first factor — network stability and quality concerns — puts a bottom on how low they can be kept.

 Another major issue is spectrum India allows relatively little spectrum for mobile communications, and splits that up among a dozen operators. A lot of radio spectrum is blocked for defence use. The 'Spectrum Crunch' is pretty bad, for example Delhi's top operator has roughly the same number of 3G users as its counterparts in Singapore and Shanghai (about 3 million), but it has about a tenth of their spectrum. As user numbers grow - faster than spectrum availability. And more people will use data, especially video, stressing the network further. This is yet another challenge for the operators. Success in this new telecom landscape depends almost entirely on network capacity. The more capacity the network has, the lower your offering can be priced and the higher consumption can be driven.