Telecoms.com periodically invites third parties to share their views on the industry’s most pressing issues. In this article, Helen Gaden of the MVNOs Series talks us through some of the key findings of a recent report they conducted into the Asia-Pacific MVNO market.
The Asia-Pacific region is alive with examples of every single nuance that plays a role in the MVNO industry – positive, open regulatory environments, and those that shut the door on virtual operators completely, highly successful symbiotic relationships with MNOs and monopolistic wholesale markets that strangle innovation and opportunity, MVNOs extending their reach into new markets, into new services, driving value with new business models, and embracing new technologies. Look to the APAC region and you can see it all.
The only problem with such enormous size and diversity is that it can be difficult to see the picture in full, or even to know where to look. However, there are certainly some key countries which emerge as key markets to watch; that standout as impressive growth drivers for MVNOs. In fact, there are five to be specific: China, Australia, Singapore, Japan and Vietnam.
Starting with the former, China’s MVNO sector finally seems to be finding its feet. With the entire Chinese mobile ecosystem adding an estimated $750bn to the country’s economy in 2018, equivalent to 5.5% of its GDP, China is certainly a nation where mobile technology takes central stage in economic strategy. And after testing the waters with an initial MVNO license trial in 2014, the Chinese government finally decided it had seen enough to make the experiment permanent last year, opening up licenses to international players for the first time as it looks to increase competition in the market.
As Renato Andrade Reis points out, China already represents a huge success story for MVNOs in that the 5% share Chinese MVNOs have of the country’s 1.2 billion mobile subscriptions has been achieved against the background of some hostile market conditions. “In China the market has developed despite the issues on pricing that in the beginning were complicated due to heavy competition from the local operators,” he said. “Growth has been based innovation – gaming, VAS, extra features. Chinese MVNOs really do present something of a white paper strategy example.”
In Australia, likewise, the market has grown substantially. As Gary Bhomer, founder and principal at Sydney-based firm Tel-Consult, points out: the growth in the Australian MVNO market “shows no signs of abating, with several new entrants on the way. Over the past two years MVNOs have taken an additional 3% market share and now account for a total of 13%.
“We’re seeing more non-traditional telco’s launch mobile propositions as an extension of brand. For established brands, an MVNO strategy can be a good way to extend an existing brand into a new segment, and provide a compelling way to interact and cross sell / up sell as well as leverage unique insights into your customer base. Recent examples include Nu Mobile, owned by Macquarie Bank, which has aggressive plans and second hand handsets as their key differentiator (Boost Mobile also recently launched second-hand device sales).“Other pending launches include Circles.life who are expecting to launch in the coming months following on from their success in Singapore, having also recently launched in Taiwan and planning at least two other Asian market launches.
Onto Singapore: their MVNO market has experienced one of the fastest rates of growth anywhere in the region over the past couple of years. Spearheaded by Circles.Life, one of the big MVNO success stories anywhere in Asia, virtual operators’ share of market climbed to 3% by the end of 2018, after the first virtual operators launched only two years previously.
While Circles.life embarks on aggressive expansion plans into other regional territories, 2019 has seen a succession of new MVNO launches in Singapore itself. The trend seems to be for larger telcos using the MVNO model to launch sub-brands targeting younger consumers, with examples including Giga, owned by the MNO StarHub, and Grid Mobile, a joint venture between Singtel and ST Telemedia. International players are getting in on the scene, too, with Malaysian brand redONE launching a subsidiary in Singapore ahead of planned roll outs in Vietnam and Thailand too.
But it isn’t just MVNOs that are adding to the competitive nature of Singapore’s mobile industry, either. Australian operator TPG Telecom last year became the fourth MNO running a network in the city state’s condensed mobile market, and announced its arrival with a low-cost SIM-only offer.
Across the pond in Japan, where more than 80 active MVNOs operate and over 18 million SIM connections are active, the Japanese virtual operator sector is one of the longest-standing and most developed across the APAC region. It has also enjoyed one of the most sustained periods of growth of any market – since 2014, Japanese MVNOs have more than doubled their share of mobile subscriptions, with the figure standing at 10.6% at the end of 2018.
During the same period, mobile ARPUs fell by 9%, which industry research consultancy Analysys Mason says compares favourably with the rest of the region. So while a growth in MVNO market share tends to be associated with falling prices due to increased competition and discounting strategies, Japan’s MVNOs have been able to grow share with theoretically better margins than most.
A couple of Japanese brands to draw attention to include the IIJmio consumer brand, which boasts 1.074m subscribers, and Rakuten Mobile, which has 1.5 million subscribers and recently announced the takeover of fellow Japanese MVNO DMM Mobile for US$21.2m.
On the other side of the coin, Vietnam is one of the youngest MVNO markets anywhere in the APAC region. In fact, the country’s first virtual operator launch took place as recently as April 2019. But after nearly a decade of frustrated attempts to get MVNOs off the ground in a nation of 95.5 million people, largely because of apparent reluctance on the part of the country’s MNOs to switch focus to wholesale services, there is now real hope that the model could take off in a big way over the coming years.
The pioneer Indochina Telecom Company (Itelecom), for example, has agreed a deal with carrier VinaPhone, mobile subsidiary of telecoms giant VNPT. Itelecom is reported to be focusing its initial service offerings on industrial workers in nine provinces and cities. Malaysia’s redONE, meanwhile, has plans to become the country’s second virtual operator by October this year.
The country also has a young, tech-savvy population, with high rates of smartphone penetration backed up by a fast, extensive 4G network. This, naturally, bodes well for hopeful MVNOs. Whilst the big carriers, Viettel, VNPT (through is Vinaphone brand) and MobiFone operate in a saturated market which has experienced flat growth for the past five years, the kind of service innovation and differentiation brought by MVNOs looks the main route to returning the mobile sector to growth.