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by EOS Intelligence EOS Intelligence No Comments

Ethiopia’s Half-Hearted Push to Telecom Privatization Finds Limited Success

Ethiopia’s telecom sector has been considered as the last frontier for telecom players, since the country is one of just a few to still have a state-run telecom industry. However, this is due to change, as the Ethiopian government has finally opened up the sector to private investment. Privatization of the telecom sector has been on the prime minister Abiy Ahmed’s agenda since he first took office in 2018, however, it was initially a slow process, mostly due to bureaucracy, ongoing military conflicts, and COVID-19 outburst. Apart from that, the privatization terms have not been very attractive for private players, making the whole process complicated.

With a population of about 116 million and only about 45 million telecom subscribers, Ethiopia has been one of the most eyed markets by telecom players globally. The telecom sector has immense potential as Ethiopia has one of the lowest mobile penetration rates in Africa.

To put this in perspective, Ethiopia has a mobile connection rate of only 38.5%, while Sub-Saharan Africa has a mobile connection rate of 77%. Moreover, 20% of Ethiopian users have access to the Internet and only about 6% currently use social media, which is much lower than that in other African countries. That being said, about 69% of the country’s population is below the age of 29, making it a strong potential market for the use of mobile Internet and social media in the future.

This makes the market extremely attractive for international players, who have for long been kept at bay by the Ethiopian government. Thus, when the government expressed plans to open up the sector, several leading telecom players such as MTN, Orange, Etisalat, Axian, Saudi Telecom Company, Telkom, Vodafone, and Safaricom showed interest in penetrating this untapped and underserved market.

Currently, state-owned Ethio Telecom, is the only player in the market. Lack of competition has resulted in subpar service levels, poor network infrastructure, and limited service offerings. For instance, mobile money services, which are extremely popular and common across Africa have only been introduced in Ethiopia in May 2021.

Moreover, as per UN International Telecommunication Union’s 2017 ICT Development Index (IDI), Ethiopia’s telecom service ranked 170 out of 176 countries. To correct this, in June 2019, the government introduced a legislation to allow privatization and infuse some competition and foreign investment into the sector. The privatization process is expected to rack up the country’s foreign exchange reserves, in addition to facilitating payment of state debt. It also aims to improve the overall telecom service levels and help create employment in the sector.

As a part of its privatization drive, the government has proposed offering two new telecom licenses to international players as well as partially privatizing Ethio Telecom by selling a 40% stake in the company. The sale of the two new licenses will be managed by the International Finance Corporation, which is the private sector arm of the World Bank.

Ethiopia’s Half-Hearted Push to Telecom Privatization Finds Limited Success by EOS Intelligence

While this garnered interest from several international telecom players, with 12 bidders offering ‘expression of interest’ in May 2020, the process has not been very smooth, owing to bureaucracy, ongoing military conflicts in the north of the country, and the proposal of an uneven playing field for international players versus Ethio Telecom. This last challenge appears to be a major obstacle to a smooth privatization process.

As per the government’s initial rulings, the new international players were not to be allowed to provide financial mobile services to their customers, while this service was only to be reserved for Ethio Telecom. Mobile money is a big part of the telecom industry, especially in Africa, where it is extremely popular and profitable as banking infrastructure is weak. This made the deal much less attractive for foreign bidders as mobile money constitutes a huge revenue stream for telecom players in African markets.

However, post the bidding process in May 2021, the government has tweaked the ruling to allow foreign players to offer mobile money services in Africa after completing a minimum of one year of operations in the country. However, since this ruling came in after the bidding process was completed, the government missed out on several bids as well as witnessed lower bids, since companies were under the impression that they will not be allowed to offer mobile money services. As per government estimates, they lost about US$500 million on telecom licenses because of initial ban on mobile money.

Another deterrent to the entire process has been the government’s refusal to allow foreign telecom tower companies to enter the Ethiopian market. The licensed telecom companies would either have to lease the towers from Ethio Telecom or build them themselves, but they would not be allowed to get third party telecom infrastructure players to build new infrastructure for them, as is the norm in other African countries. This greatly handicaps the telecom players who will have to completely depend on the state player to provide infrastructure, who in turn may charge high interconnection charges that may further create an uneven playing field.

These two regulations are expected to insulate Ethio Telecom from facing fierce competition from the potential new players, and in turn may result in incumbency and poor service levels to continue. Moreover, even with regards to Ethio Telecom, the government only plans to sell 40% stake to a private player (while 5% will be sold to public), thereby still maintaining the controlling stake. With minority stake, private players may not be able to work according to their will and make transformative changes to the company. It is considered a way to just get fresh capital infused into the company without the government losing real control of it.

In addition to these limitations, the overall process of privatization has faced delays and complications. The bidding process has been delayed several times over the past year owing to regulatory complexities, the COVID crisis, and ongoing military conflict in the northern region. The process, which was supposed to be completed in 2020 was completed in May 2021, with the final bidding process taking place in April 2021 and the government awarding the bids in May 2021.

During the bidding process, the government received only two technical bids out of the initial 12 companies that had shown interest. These were from MTN and a consortium called ‘Global Partnership for Ethiopia’ comprising Vodafone, Safaricom, and Vodacom. While the Vodafone consortium partnered with CDC Group, a UK-based sovereign wealth fund, and Japanese conglomerate, Sumitomo Corporation, for financing, MTN group teamed up with Silk Road Fund, China’s state-owned investment fund to finance their expansion plans into Ethiopia. The other companies that had initially shown interest backed out of the process. These include Etisalat, Axian, Orange, Saudi Telecom Company, Telkom SA, Liquid Telecom, Snail Mobile, Kandu Global Communications, and Electromecha International Projects.

In late May 2021, the government awarded one of the licenses to the ‘Global Partnership for Ethiopia’ (Vodafone, Safaricom, and Vodacom) consortium for a bid of US$850 million. While it had two licenses to give out, it chose not to award the other license to MTN, who had made a bid of US$600 million. As per government officials, the latter bid was much lower than the expected price, which was anticipated to be close to a billion by the government.

Moreover, the government seems to have withheld one of the licenses as currently the interest in the deal has been low, considering that it only received two bids for two licenses. Given that they have somewhat altered and relaxed the guidelines on mobile money (from not being allowed to be allowed after minimum one year of operations), there may be some renewed interest from other players in the market. That being said, the restriction on construction of telecom infrastructure is expected to stay as is.

In the meanwhile, Orange, instead of bidding for the new licenses, has shown interest in purchasing the 40% stake in Ethio Telecom, which will give the company access to mobile money services right away. However, no formal statement or bid has been made by either of the parties yet. If the deal goes through, it will give Orange a definite advantage over its international competitors, who would have to wait for minimum one year to launch mobile money services in the market. In May 2021, Ethio Telecom launched its first mobile money service, called Telebirr, and managed to get 1 million subscribers for the service within a two-week span. This brings forth the potential mobile money holds in a market such as Ethiopia.

EOS Perspective

While several international telecom companies had initially shown interest in entering the coveted Ethiopian market, most of them have fizzled out over the course of the previous year, with the government only receiving two bids. Moreover, the bid amounts have been much lower than what the government initially anticipated and the government chose to accept only one bid and reject the other. Thus the privatization process can be deemed as only being partially successful. Furthermore, the opportunity cost of restricting mobile money services has been about US$500 million for the government, which is more than 50% of the amount they have received from the one successful auction.

This has occurred because the government has been focusing on sheltering Ethio Telecom from stiff competition by adding the restrictions on mobile money and telecom infrastructure. While this may help Ethio Telecom in the short run, it is detrimental for the overall sector and the privatization efforts.

Restrictions on using third-party infrastructure partners, may also result in a slowdown in rolling out of additional infrastructure, which is much needed especially in rural regions of Ethiopia. Other issues such as ongoing political instability in the northern region have further cast doubt in the minds of investors and foreign players regarding the government’s stability and in turn has impacted the number of bids and bid value.

It is expected that the government will restart the bidding process for the remaining one license soon. However, the success of it depends on the government’s flexibility towards mobile money services. While it has already eased its stance a little, there is still a lot of ambiguity regarding the exact timelines and conditions for the approval. The government must shed clarity on this before re-initiating the bidding process. MTN has also mentioned that it may bid again if mobile money services are included in the bid.

However, with Vodafone-Safaricom-Vodacom consortium already winning one bid and expecting to start services in Ethiopia as early as next year, the company definitely has an edge over its other competitors. Considering that the first bid took more than a year and faced several bureaucratic delays, it is safe to say that the second bid will not happen any time soon, especially since this time it is expected that the government will give a serious thought to the inclusions/exclusions of the deal and the value that mobile money brings to the table for both the government and the bidding company.

by EOS Intelligence EOS Intelligence No Comments

Commentary: Is Privatization Key to Self-sustainability for US Post?

United States Postal Service (USPS), one of the largest government entities in the USA with over 633,000 employees as of 2019, has been bleeding red ink on its financial statements for many years now, causing a worry that it might soon need a bail-out with tax-payers money. While majority of the crisis at USPS stems from several regulatory and legislative restrictions, privatization could help USPS to transform its business to align with changing market dynamics in the digital age and to secure sustainable future.

USPS is in dire need of a revamp

USPS, the largest postal system in the world, is feared to be gradually moving towards financial instability as the revenues are not able to meet the operational costs and liabilities.

USPS’ financial woes began with enactment of the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act (PAEA) in 2006 which required USPS to create a US$72 billion reserve (equivalent to cost of employee post-retirement pension and health benefits during next 75 years) over a 10-year period from 2007 to 2016. This mandate added a huge financial burden and USPS has been registering losses every year since.

The situation is dire, as clearly stated in USPS’ five-year strategic plan (2020-2024), released in January 2020, highlighting the grim financial condition of the organization:

We have an underfunded balance sheet, significant debt, and insufficient cash to weather unforeseen cyclicality or changes in business conditions…we expect to run out of liquidity by 2021 if we pay all our financial obligations – and by 2024 even if we continue to default on our year-end, lump sum retiree health-benefit and pension related payments.

On February 5, 2020, US House of Representatives passed the US Fairness Act which repeals the prefunding mandate under 2006 legislation, thus, relieving USPS from financial burden of amassing huge reserves to fund retirement benefits. The reform does not exempt USPS from its obligations to its retired employees, but allows them to fund the costs on pay-as-you-go basis, a practice followed by most other government agencies and majority of private businesses in the USA. This bill still needs to be approved by the US Senate.

Even if the US Fairness Act becomes a law after being approved by the US Senate and the president, it does not seem to end all the challenges faced by USPS. The business has taken a major hit due to changing market dynamics with the rise of the Internet.

USPS’ largest revenue segment, i.e. First-Class Mail services, which include the delivery of letters, postcards, personal correspondence, bills or statements of account, as well as payments, has seen about 43% drop in volume between 2007 and 2019. This is because the mode of communication has changed drastically as email, mobile, social media, other tech-based platforms allow Americans to talk to one another instantaneously and mostly for free.

Marketing Mail, which includes advertisements and marketing packages, is another category that also took a hit because of the rise of digital media. Marketing Mail volume declined by more than one-fourth over the same period.

The package delivery service has experienced multi-fold increase with the rise of e-commerce, but it also faces growing competition from private players such as UPS or FedEx as well as e-commerce giants such as Amazon that are rapidly building and expanding their own network.

Due to the prefunding retirement benefit mandate, USPS has not been able to invest in new products and infrastructure since 2006. Rather than expanding its capabilities to capitalize on the new market opportunities, USPS had to take aggressive cost control measures and restricted investment in new service offerings, technology, and training.

Moreover, the coronavirus pandemic is adding to the woes of the agency. Though there has been an increase in online orders for medicines and food, the volume of letter mail, organization’s largest revenue stream, has seen a decline. Marketing mail category business has also gone down as a lot of companies have stopped advertising through mail. In April 2020, Congressman Gerry Connolly indicated that the mail volume could decline up to 60% by the end of the year. Further, USPS is facing a spike in expenses due to provision of necessary support and additional benefits to its workforce affected by the virus. In April 2020, Megan Brennan, then postmaster general, hinted that coronavirus-related losses could reach US$13 billion in this fiscal year.

USPS needs structural transformation to meet the demands of the digital age. USPS’ five-year strategic plan (2020-2024) emphasized that despite taking all possible measures such as cost control, technology upgradation, and service improvement, financial loses are likely to continue in absence of legislative and regulatory reforms.

Privatization to provide USPS with path towards self-sustainability?

Being a government entity, USPS is subject to many regulatory and legislative constraints which makes it less competitive than its private counterparts such as FedEx or UPS. For instance, under Universal Service Obligation, USPS is required to service all areas across the country six days a week. If privatized, USPS will be able to reduce the frequency of delivery on as-needed basis to optimize operations and control costs.

Similarly, USPS is legally obligated to serve all Americans, and hence closing down of any branches generally cause public uproar as locals in the remote and rural areas demand their right to postal service. A post office closure process takes at least 120 days during which affected public can appeal the decision. As per USPS’ five-year strategic plan (2020-2024) released in January 2020, about 36% of the retail post office locations are retained despite being unprofitable. Unlike private entities, USPS cannot easily close or consolidate underperforming non-profit facilities, a fact that adds to the financial strain for the organization.

Moreover, the pricing of the postal service, which ideally needs to be a business decision based on the cost structure and profit margins, is controlled by the US government. USPS needs approval from the government for making any changes in pricing of its products. While for private entities pricing is part of routine business decision-making, for USPS, unreasonable federal controls and limitations make it difficult to adopt a market-oriented pricing strategy for the services that USPS provides.

It is also to be noted that the average compensation offered by the USPS to it employees is higher than what private-sector workers receive. A study conducted by US Treasury found that, for 2017, the average employee costs at USPS was US$85,800, compared to US$76,200 at UPS and US$53,900 at Fed Ex. About fourth-fifth of the USPS workforce is unionized which means that salary increases occur through collective bargaining agreements. While disputes are resolved in binding arbitration, the financial health of USPS is often not given due consideration in the process. USPS could save significant costs by adopting private-sector labor and compensation standards.

Further, USPS is legally required to invest funds for retirement benefits only in treasury bonds which yield very low interest. The idea of conservatively investing retirement funds to avoid risk is reasonable, but the interest earned is too low compared to other investment returns commonly achieved by private entities. Thus, despite having large reserves, USPS is legally prohibited to make sound investment in debt and equity markets which could potentially yield higher returns.

Privatization and breaking away from these limitations would allow USPS to at least attempt to optimize its operations, amend service standards, provide more pricing flexibility, and earn greater return on investments.

EOS Perspective

Time and again, US president Donald Trump has proposed privatization of USPS to make it self-sustainable and profitable. Many countries across the world have illustrated how privatization of the postal service could be a success. For instance, a European Commission report tracking development in the postal sector between 2013 and 2016 indicated that post-privatization postal services were able to diversify their revenue sources, reduce the labor costs, upgrade technology and infrastructure, close unprofitable facilities, and improve delivery frequency based on demand – all the measures which USPS needs to take. Thus, privatization could potentially help USPS to transform its business towards self-sustainability.

It can be argued that upon privatization, USPS may lose certain privileges it enjoys as a government entity. For instance, at present, USPS is exempt from all government taxes, but if privatized, USPS will be subject to federal, state, as well as local taxes. USPS boasts huge workforce operating more than 31,000 post offices using 204,274 delivery vehicles as of 2019. When USPS is opened to competition, it will have the distinct advantage due to its wide-spread delivery network and last-mile delivery capabilities. From market point of view, levying taxes on USPS may actually create a level-playing field for all the postal delivery firms promoting healthy competition. This will in turn prove to be good for the overall development of the sector.

If the idea of USPS privatization floats through, e-commerce companies and retailers such as Amazon and Walmart could be interested in acquiring a majority stake. As the e-commerce business grows, such companies are investing billions of dollars in building logistics network and capabilities to acquire larger market share. Moreover, they already rely on USPS for last-mile delivery. For instance, as per a Morgan Stanley report released in 2018, Amazon accounted for about a quarter of USPS package business. Thus, USPS’ large delivery network and resources offer a great value proposition to these companies.

by EOS Intelligence EOS Intelligence No Comments

China Bike-Sharing Market Moving towards Consolidation

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Though several bike-sharing start-ups in China flourished in past two years, mainly due to backing from venture capital funding, many are finding it difficult to keep up the momentum as the investment dries up in absence of sustainable business profitability model. Small players in particular are struggling to comply with recently introduced regulatory standards for the industry. In our article titled ‘Bikes Are Back: China Gaining Pedal Power’, published in April 2017, we discussed the outlook for the bike-sharing app-based businesses in China, and now we are taking a look again into the current market dynamics in view of new regulatory framework that can reshape the competitive landscape.

The bike-sharing industry in China has noted a steep growth in a short span of time. As per estimate of Ministry of Transport, there were about 70 bike-sharing companies operating in China by July 2017 (as compared to 17 in January 2017). However, the market is skewed towards the duopoly of MoBike and Ofo. According to Sootoo (an online service platform providing analysis for internet and e-commerce industry in China), as of March 2017, MoBike and Ofo accounted for 56% and 30% market share, respectively. Other companies face cut-throat competition to carve up the remaining 14% of the market.

The summer of 2017 was particularly harsh on several small players unable to bear the heat of increasing competition and financial crunch. Chongqing-based Wukong, which shut down its operations in June 2017, is believed to be the first bike-sharing company to collapse. Subsequently, several other small companies, including 3vBike, Xiao Ming Bike, Cool Qi Bike Ding Ding Bike, Kala Bike, and Kuqi Bike, also wound up their businesses citing issues such as lack of investment, cash flow crisis, mismanagement, competition, losses due to theft and vandalism, etc.

Intense competition, especially among the second-tier companies, is driving the market towards consolidation. In October, Youon, a Shanghai-listed company operating in 220 cities and owing 800,000 bikes, acquired 100% stake in Hellobike (a Shanghai-based company with presence in 90 cities across China). In November 2017, Bluegogo, owning fleet of 700,000 bikes and 20 million registered users, announced that the company was facing financial troubles and hence the business was sold to another Chinese start-up, Green Bike-Transit. This acquisition trend is likely to continue, as the capital intensive and cash-burning bike-sharing businesses has come under the purview of strict regulatory framework.

In August 2017, Ministry of Transport and nine other ministries jointly issued the first set of guidelines with the aim to better regulate and standardize the emerging bike-sharing market in China. State governments developed their own standards and regulations based on the guidelines.

Some of these regulations are in favor of bike-sharing companies. For instance, central government directed state authorities to step up their efforts in providing protection to bike-sharing companies against vandalism, theft, and illegal parking issues. The users are required to register with the bike-sharing operators using their real name. This will allow the security forces to easily identify and penalize the offenders. This may bring some respite to small players such as 3Vbike, a Beijing-based company with a fleet of over 1,000 bikes, which shut down its operations in July 2017 after most of its bikes were stolen. Moreover, local authorities need to work with bike-sharing operators to develop dedicated parking spaces near high-demand locations such as shopping areas, office blocks, public transportation stations, etc. This is likely to ease up chaos and nuisance caused by illegal parking.

On the other hand, some of the regulations call for bike-sharing companies to bear additional expenses. As per the new regulations, all bike-sharing operators are required to provide accident insurance to their users, a practice which was earlier followed only by the market leader, MoBike. The companies are also required to set-up support mechanisms to manage customer complaints. In the guidelines, central government also advised state governments to develop local standards for regular maintenance of bikes. Accordingly, the government of Shanghai and Tianjin instructed bike-sharing operators to appoint one maintenance personnel per 200 bikes and the bikes need to be discarded after three years in operation. Such standards are certainly necessary to enhance user experience and safety, but it will put additional strain on already financially-stressed companies.

As per the new guidelines, companies are encouraged not to charge security deposits at all. If security deposit is collected, the company must clearly distinguish security deposit fund from other funds and ensure timely refund of the deposits. The bike-sharing companies typically charge CNY 99 – CNY 299 (~US$15 – US$45) as one-time refundable security deposit and then a rental fee of CNY 0.5 – CNY 1 (US$0.08 – US$0.15) is charged for every half-hour to one-hour ride. Since the firms need to refrain from using the deposits, and given that the rental fees are likely to remain significantly low due to intense competition, the companies might struggle to manage day-to-day operations. Investor money will dry out eventually, hence the companies are in dire need of developing new revenue streams. Besides in-app advertising, companies are also exploring the use of their bikes as an advertising space. For instance, Ofo customized number of bikes with Minions characters to generate revenue from advertising the release of ‘Despicable Me 3’ movie in China.

The new guidelines also allow the local authorities to limit the number of bikes to check over-supply and traffic congestion. Following the announcement of this new guideline, Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Wuhan, Shenzhen, and eight other cities reportedly banned deployment of additional bikes. As a result, the prime markets are now off-limits for new entrants.

china bike sharing

EOS Perspective

App-based bike-sharing start-ups have revived the biking culture in China. By July 2017, the bike-sharing companies, claiming 130 million registered users in total, flooded the streets of China with 16 million bikes. The bike-sharing boom is certainly more than a fad, however, a shift in market composition is expected in the near future.

The new regulations have paved the way for development of higher industry standards aimed at better user experience and safety. However, compliance with these regulations is likely to put an additional financial burden on small players. Moreover, small players are finding it difficult to challenge the duopoly of MoBike and Ofo (together accounting for 86% of the market share as of March 2017). The consolidation among second-tier companies might ease the competition, however, this might not be enough to level with the market leaders. To survive the competition, small companies will need to either innovate or capitalize on niche markets and opportunities. Most of the companies operating in the market today have similar service model. Technological innovation or distinguished service model can enable the company to stand out from their competition. Furthermore, with rising level of competition and market saturation in major cities, small companies need to shift focus on underserved third and fourth-tier cities. For instance, in May 2017, Shanghai-based Mingbike announced its plan to gradually move out of Shanghai and Beijing in a strategy shift towards smaller cities. In these smaller cities, the companies can also explore niche business opportunities such as gaining exclusive contract for operating around local attractions.

Speculation about the merger of two dominant players MoBike and Ofo surfaced in October 2017. The two bike-sharing giants are under investor pressure to consolidate and put an end to the competitive pricing war. For now, both the companies have clearly stated that they are not interested in merger at this point. However, industry experts are hopeful of a merger in the future given the history of the investors – Tencent (backing MoBike) and Alibaba (backing Ofo), who separately invested in taxi-haling rival companies that eventually merged to become a single dominant player in China. Didi Chuxing, a taxi-hailing service company, was formed with merger of Tencent backed Didi Dache and Alibaba backed Kuaidi Dache in 2015. In 2016, Uber merged its China operations with Didi Chuxing, while retaining a minority stake. Travis Kalanick, co-founder of Uber, acknowledged that both the companies were making huge investments in China but unable to retrieve profits and the merger was aimed to build a sustainable and profitable business in China. Bike-sharing industry in China is also at a similar juncture. Since both MoBike and Ofo have not achieved profitability yet and they largely depend on investments, they might give in to the interest of the investors. Hence, one can expect that the bike-sharing industry in China might eventually move towards monopoly.

by EOS Intelligence EOS Intelligence No Comments

Is New Legislation Enough To Transform Mexico’s Telecom Market?

When Mexico’s telecommunication market is under discussion, one name is sure to pop out – that of the world’s richest man, Carlos Slim, who through his companies (America Movil Telcel and America Movil Telmex), controls majority of the market. But now, with the government determined to break open this tightly-held market, it gave a first-ever nod to game-changing reforms that can boost foreign investment and competition. The question, however, remains whether the country is mature enough to take these reforms till the finish line.

In July 2012, when after 12 years the PRI Party (Institutional Revolutionary party) bounced back to power in Mexico under the leadership of Enrique Pena Nieto, there was little hope for any reforms in the country. This assumption was based on the party’s actions during its previous tenures, which were marked by electoral frauds, widespread corruption, economic mismanagement, and its success in blocking attempts at reforms proposed by previous presidents: Vicente Fox (2000-2006) and Felipe Calderón (2006-2012).

However, remaining under a growing pressure of frustrated and agitated general public asking for reforms and solutions the widespread mafia problem, PRI was forced to offer several promises during the electoral campaign. These included addressing the problem of unwarranted concentration and lack of competition in many sectors of the economy, and post election PRI had no choice but go ahead with at least some of its promised reforms. PRI’s-led government entered into an alliance, called the ‘Pact for Mexico’, with its opposition – National Action Party and the Democratic Revolution Party, to push reforms and encourage competition. After the overhaul in the labor laws and the education system, this Pact has been pushing for reforms in the country’s telecommunication and broadcast industry. These reforms look to provide a makeover to this previously quasi-monopolistic and inefficient sector, introducing several fundamental changes:

  • Firstly, opening the market to new international players by allowing 100% foreign ownership in the telecom sector (a rise from the existing 49% FDI limit)

  • Secondly, forming two new independent regulatory commissions to regularize the industry

    • Federal Telecommunications Institute, with profile similar to the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, to have the authority to check and punish non-competitive practices to the extent of withdrawing company licenses

    • Federal Competition Commission, created to fight monopolistic practices by ordering companies that control more than 50% of the market to sell off assets to reduce market dominance

  • The reforms also encompass the creation of a specialized court to oversee all competition, telecom, and media rulings

  • The previously existing Mexican law allowed companies to file private injunctions in order to block the regulator’s rulings aimed at improving competition in the market (while appeals were in progress); this loophole in law, which was misused by companies to indefinitely freeze inconvenient regulatory decisions, has been removed under the new legislation

Recently, Mexico’s Senate approved these changes, and passed legislation aiming at improving competitiveness in the telecom sector. While few key changes brought about by these reforms still need to be ratified by two-thirds of Mexico’s 31 states in order to become a law, this seems like a mere formality considering PRI’s dominance in provincial legislatures, as well as complete support from the opposition through the ‘Pact for Mexico’. The legislation is thus expected to go into effect by early 2014.

These reforms aim primarily at improving market dynamics in this $30billion annually industry, by facilitating competition, encouraging foreign investments, pushing down prices, and increasing mobile penetration, which (currently at 85.7%) stands much lower than 100%+ penetration in its neighboring Argentina and Brazil. However, the new legislation spells trouble for the current monopolies in this sector – America Movil Telcel (that accounts for 70% of the mobile market) and America Movil Telmex (that accounts for 80% of landline market). Both these companies operate as subsidiaries of America Movil, which is owned by world’s richest man, Carlos Slim.

The reforms seem to be particularly beneficial for international telecom companies operating in neighboring lands, who have been shy of entering the Mexican arena owing to the 49% limit on foreign investments. These players can look to buy companies such as Axtel and Maxcom Telecommunications, to get their hands on the fiber-optic cables placed across Mexico, thus hinting towards a wave of consolidation activities in the medium term.

However, despite ongoing efforts by the government, the success in this industry is not guaranteed. Firstly, the fixed line market is expected to remain devoid of foreign investment, owing to the overall decline of the industry globally, and the local Telmex’s 80% share in the market. Moreover, the impact of the reform would only be assessed on how it is brought to force (i.e. if it is implemented in its current form by the legislatures of the 31-states) and also upon how well is it enforced by the independent bodies (Federal Telecommunications Institute and Federal Competition Commission), as previously the industry suffered mostly due to law loopholes and poor implementation of these laws by authorities.

Moreover, reforms similar to those in the telecom industry have been implemented in the television industry, where Televista holds 70% market share. While these reforms (in both the telecom and the television industry) are expected to weaken the hold of the monopolies in their respective markets, it provides them with an opportunity to strengthen their existing presence in each other’s market. (Carlos Slim’s America Movil is a leading player in the pay-TV sector in Latin America, having a subscriber-base of 15million viewers and Televista, along with Azteca, owns Lusacell, the third largest mobile network in Mexico.) Thus, it is feared that instead of stirring foreign investments and competition, these reforms might just result in these incumbent monopolies swapping market share among themselves.

While the majority of the nation rejoices at these reforms and eagerly awaits an influx of investment and increase of competition that could push down the prices, it is premature to predict the long-term outcome of the new legislation. The country is on a correct path to build competitiveness in the telecom sector, but considering the level of corruption and red-tapism in the nation, it seems clear that what matters even more than the reforms themselves, is the way they are implemented.

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