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COMPETITIVE LANDSCAPE

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

Media Players Push the Envelope to Sway in on Streaming Arena

The emergence of online entertainment has led to consumers transitioning from a fixed time-based entertainment on TV to on-demand watching across a wide array of devices. Continuously shifting viewing preferences will further expand digital mode of entertainment thus intensifying the competition between online streaming services and other entertainment providers. This will likely set the tone of how traditional entertainment players refurbish their business objectives and modify their operational models to acquire and retain consumers in the times ahead.

Online video streaming soars, both in subscribers and revenue

In early 2000’s if one wished to watch a movie at home, it meant day(s) of wait before the DVD arrived at the doorstep via mail. However, in 2007, when Netflix launched its online video streaming service, it started a new wave in the entertainment world – the ability to enjoy your favorite movie at the click of a button without having to wait for it to be delivered. This marriage of content and digital technology gave consumers an exciting experience of viewing content in a new way. Since then, video streaming has come a long way and now is a multi-billion dollar industry. In 2018, the video streaming industry was valued at US$ 36.64 billion and is expected to grow at a CAGR of 19.6% between 2019 and 2025, reaching a value of US$ 124.57 billion by 2025.

A surge in the number of devices supporting digital media, increasing internet speed, and the ease to access content (be it information, entertainment, or social) anytime, anywhere is driving the growth of online content.

As the demand for digital on-demand content is growing, consumers are spending more on subscription video on demand (SVOD) such as Netflix and Amazon Prime, making it the most commonly used video service in the over-the-top (OTT) content (content delivered via internet) market – in 2018, of the total global OTT revenue of US$ 67.8 billion, SVOD generated nearly 53% of the revenue standing at US$ 36 billion. SVOD revenue is estimated to reach US$ 87 billion by 2024.

According to global information provider, IHS Markit, the number of global subscribers to online video services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime increased by 27% in 2018 and reached 613.3 million subscribers, an increase of 131.2 million in comparison to 2017. The top three online streaming players account for 45% of this share – Netflix with 155 million subscribers (148 million paid users, with another 7 million using trial accounts), Amazon Prime with 100 million subscribers, and Hulu with 28 million subscribers (26.8 million paid users, with an additional 1.3 million using promotional accounts), totaling to 283 million subscribers.

Media Players Push the Envelope to Sway in on Streaming Arena by EOS Intelligence

Cable TV bearing the brunt

Online video subscriptions (613.3 million) surpassed cable subscriptions (that stood at 556 million, a 2% decrease from 567 million in 2017) for the first time in 2018. However, the online subscription video platforms generated nearly three times less revenue than cable TV, mainly due to low subscription rates. These affordable rates coupled with the flexibility to watch any program at any convenient time has resulted in a drop in the viewership of the television network.

Cable and satellite providers, to some extent, are taking a beating from online streaming as consumers are abandoning traditional cable for streaming services. In the USA, consumers spend US$ 23.3 billion annually on home entertainment, of this 75% (US$ 17.5 billion) is spent on digital entertainment, which depicts the fact that people are spending more on online subscriptions than on the cable TV. This implies that consumers prefer viewing content online than on cable TV, which is further reinforced by the low subscription rates for online services. As a consequence, in 2018, two of the largest direct broadcast satellite service providers in the USA, AT&T-owned DirecTV and Dish Network Corporation’s DishTV, reported losing 1.24 million and 1.13 million subscribers, respectively.

Consumers prefer viewing content online than on cable TV, which is further reinforced by the low subscription rates for online services.

While both players lost a huge number of viewers of the cable television services, during the same year, they were also the largest aggregators through their streaming cable services, namely, DirectTV Now (owned by AT&T) and Sling TV (owned by Dish), which added 436,000 and 205,000 new subscribers each. This shift denotes a change in the way people consume content, choosing a plan that is cable-like but shifting to streaming services at low price point making budgetary cuts while still enjoying favorite programs.

For providers that offer both pay-tv and online subscription as part of their service portfolio, staying afloat in this competitive arena is easier since consumers can shift from one package to another (according to changes in their financial capabilities) and the company does not end up losing customers.

However, for traditional cable companies, the situation is more difficult than expected. In 2018, the top six cable companies in the USA (Comcast, Charter, Cox, Altice, Mediacom, and Cable One) lost a combined 910,000 TV subscribers in comparison to 660,000 subscribers lost in 2017 (38% more in a year). Large cable telecommunications companies such as Comcast and Charter are still in a better position to deal with the situation owing to various business verticals and strong financial records. It is the small players operating in limited territories who are in a muddle – they need to look for alternative ways (other than offering cable TV services, subscribers for which are drastically reducing) to keep their businesses afloat.

Other than losing customers, they are also challenged by the increasing negotiations with programmers (for distributing content via cable) who now have the alternative to broadcast their content via online partners, eliminating the need of cable middleman.

However, unlike in the USA, where the online streaming market is pretty much advanced, in other less developed parts of the world, the development of online streaming platforms is still in its infancy. In the immediate future, it is expected that the streaming services will not be able to cause major impact on traditional video platforms in these geographies, as the adoption of video streaming will be restricted mainly by slow internet connectivity, unlike in the USA, where 5G services are on the brink of being launched.

Constantly evolving entertainment landscape, not without challenges

Online streaming is disrupting the traditional mode of video entertainment challenging the domination of TV as the main entertainment hub. Ascent of digital media players such as Netflix, Amazon, or YouTube, is posing major challenges for other players such as content production studios, cable companies, and media networks thus compelling them to develop new business models and adapt to compete with online streaming players.

To catch up with the changing dynamics of the industry, players from all verticals (including media houses, internet providers, telecom companies, distributors, etc.) in the entertainment industry are revising their business choices and strategically launching new product and services.

Media companies are reformulating their business models by including exclusive streaming services into their overall product and service portfolio. For instance, Disney, US-based mass media and entertainment company, is planning to launch its suite of direct-to-consumer (DTC) services in 2019 starting with Disney+ (to be launched in the USA in November, 2019, followed by launch in Asia and Europe in 2020 and 2021, respectively) focusing on delivering original productions, with all content available for offline viewing. It is estimated that Disney+ is likely to attract up to 90 million subscribers by 2024, nearly more than two times of what Netflix accomplished in five years.

In another example, Comcast-owned mass media house, NBCUniversal, announced the launch of its ad-supported streaming service in April 2020. The service will be free if viewers watch TV through a paid provider with NBCU access (including Comcast and Sky) but one can opt for subscription service to eliminate ads. To start with, the service will focus on licensed content with some original programming.

Recently acquired Time Warner, now named WarnerMedia (acquired by AT&T), also plans to launch its streaming service by the end of 2019 with three tiers of options – an entry-level package focused on movies, premium service with original programming and blockbuster movies, and third option that offers content from the first two packages plus an extensive library of WarnerMedia and licensed content.

With more and more players venturing into the streaming territory and offering new and fresh content, the competition is only going to get harder for Netflix and the likes of it. Players who lack in offering content volume-wise, even though successful in launching their streaming services, will find it difficult to survive, in the medium term, especially when offering premium subscriptions.

Players who lack in offering content volume-wise, even though successful in launching their streaming services, will find it difficult to survive, especially when offering premium subscriptions.

Other than media companies, pure-play cable operators are also feeling the heat of the ever-changing entertainment landscape. As the majority of viewers receiving at-home-video services through means other than traditional cable subscription increases, cable TV players are left with no choice but to look for alternative ways to engage with the market. Increasing demand for broadband services is a saving grace for cable operators in this situation. For example, cable provider, Comcast, is becoming more broadband-centric than cable-centric and shifting its focus to high-speed internet services since customers have started dumping high-priced TV services for cheaper streaming services. The company, in March 2019, launched a streaming platform, Xfinity Flex, targeted at broadband internet services customers (who do not use the company’s cable services). The service offers customers set-top streaming box that includes Netflix, Prime Video, HBO, and other apps, and voice control to manage all of the connected devices in their homes.

However, for cable operators, the situation will only worsen in the future. High-speed internet access market, currently dominated by cable operators, will soon be challenged by the rollout of 5G wireless technology by telecom companies such as Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint, among others. The implementation of 5G services will be a whole new ballgame, highly likely to transform the online viewing experience, and it will be interesting to see how exactly this space will be changed.

New entrants challenging the players

If the TV content and service providers were already not in deep waters due to the rise of online streaming, entry of retail and media players into the entertainment sector has not made the situation any better. Though these entrants are most likely going to be a direct competition for the video streaming players rather than the traditional ones, it cannot be denied that this may be a potential threat to the entire entertainment industry.

In May 2019, retail chain, Walmart, that bought Vudu, content delivery and media technology company in 2010, launched a video service offering more than 8,000 movies and TV shows for viewers to watch for free (with ads), as well as a library of more than 150,000 movies and TV titles that people can purchase or rent. The company dropped its initial plans to launch Vudu as a streaming service (competing with Netflix) citing huge investment requirement and lack of experience in producing original content as the reasons. However, the idea was not off the table for too long, as the company announced a list of original content programs including reviving an old movie to be delivered in 11-minute installments, a travel show, an entertainment series, and a crime thriller. Vudu is currently focused on developing content that costs much less than other top video streaming service providers spend on original content, which costs them billions of dollars; the future vision takes the path of reaching the front of the pack slowly and steadily.

In another example from 2018, Snapchat, a multimedia messaging app, launched Snap Originals, offering premium content (with episodes lasting for about five minutes) created exclusively for Snapchat’s users to be viewed on their mobiles. The content includes a range of genres including drama, comedy, documentary, etc., and is developed in partnership with film and television writers and producers.

EOS Perspective

The amount of money viewers spent globally on entertainment reached US$ 55.7 million in 2018, an increase of approximately 16% in comparison to 2017 (US$ 48.1 million). Between 2014 and 2018, consumers’ entertainment spending increased nearly 1.5 times driven by increased expenditure on digital entertainment (including electronic sell-through, video-on-demand, and paid subscriptions). The digital entertainment spending in 2018 was US$ 42.6 million in comparison to US$ 15.7 million in 2014, an increase of 171%, exhibiting a giant move towards digital viewing.

There has been a plethora of cases where TV players have either launched new ideas and concepts or joined hands with other players (in the same realm or similar playfield) to have a foothold in the otherwise challenging entertainment industry. With more and more options congesting the already tight, but diverse streaming video topography, it is most likely going to present increasing competition for traditional television. This, topped with dropping numbers of television viewers globally, only adds to the inevitable nostalgic observation that television may become obsolete, if not dead, in the next five to six decades.

Developing content and building own platforms for streaming videos does not come cheap – players will have to invest billions of dollars in developing content whilst losing revenue by not selling distribution rights to third-party networks and distributors. This stands true for content creators such as Disney and WarnerMedia, who are likely to gradually withdraw their content from online streaming platforms to be broadcasted on their own networks. For instance, Disney will bear an estimated loss of US$ 300 million in annual revenues it currently gets from Netflix for pay-tv rights to its theatrical releases. Thus, it is clear that shifting to a newer streaming business model will not only be costlier but also riskier since it would be difficult to ascertain beforehand how well the content will be accepted by the viewers. Nonetheless, in the current scenario, where there is always demand for more content, players hardly have any other alternative to explore.

The outlook for video entertainment, in the short to medium term, looks promising with coalition among various operators’ in reshaping the video media scene. It can be expected that potential partnerships, particularly among content creators and service (internet and mobile network) providers, if done right, could be a tough nut to crack for pure-play online streaming operators.

Potential partnerships, particularly among content creators and service (internet and mobile network) providers, if done right, could be a tough nut to crack for pure-play online streaming operators.

Nevertheless, given the low-price point and round the clock content availability, it can be anticipated that online streaming business will continue to see significant growth in the years to come. For other players, it is important to understand that while their direct audience is shifting, it is not vanishing – just that viewers are watching the content via different modes. Thus, in the long haul, it will be necessary for players to offer a combination of traditional TV packages along with online streaming plans and become a one-stop-shop for content to retain old customers and signing up new subscribers. However, for the businesses, the challenge lies in knowing what offerings to create and whom to partner with, all while retaining customers and generating revenue in the constantly evolving entertainment topography.

Looking at the current scenario, it is apparent that digital platform players will further continue to disrupt (and redefine) the TV and video market in the future. To survive, industry-wide alliances in the form of joint production, partnerships, and mergers are an obvious choice to make. However, in their desperate attempt to stay ahead, it can be expected that companies will try to come up with innovative solutions, something that is neither exactly a cable TV offering nor a video that can be streamed online, but an experience that enthralls the viewers and keeps them hooked to the device of their choice.

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