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Hello waves on growth

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An employee of Hello fills out paperwork at the company's service centre in Phnom Penh's Chamkarmon district. Photo by: Will Baxter

EMPHASIS on organic growth in Cambodia’s overcrowded mobile market may have waned as consolidation is increasingly viewed as the best path to growth, according to one industry insider.

While Axiata-owned Hello has launched a spate of promotions to attract customers since February, few of its competitors followed suit, its Chief Executive Officer Simon Perkins said.

“I think what we’ve seen is the appetite for the fight weakening,” he said.

“So we’ve come up into this number-three position fairly strongly because the others haven’t responded.”

Hello’s fight for customer attention – in a market that comprises eight operators – has been largely focused on price cuts and the introduction of new phones, Perkins said.

Handsets have become “very effective as an acquisition mechanism,” he said, especially dual SIM phones. The firm has also introduced fixed line phones, aiming at a rural and SME demographic.

However,  Hello has also successfully marketed high-end models like the Blackberry Torch.

The company is promoting services such as roaming for prepaid and data subscribers, in addition to adding more and more post-paid corporate customers, Perkins said. Hello now counts ACLEDA, Naga and Microsoft, and a number of Chinese mining companies, among its enterprise clients.

Perkins chalked up the relative silence in the mobile market to several factors. He said Metfone, the sector’s largest player by subscriber numbers, would see a noticeable drop in its revenues if the company were to offer the same level of price cutting given by Hello.

The Ministry of Post and Telecommunications’ figures for April showed Viettel’s Metfone as having 5.7 million active subscribers, versus 2.9 million for Mobitel’s Cellcard and 1.18 million for Hello. As a result, Perkins said his promotions have a smaller impact on revenues.

“It’s a bit less of an issue for us,” he said. “I can do it as a challenger.”

However, some in the industry questioned whether deep discounting would prove successful.

Smart Mobile Chief Executive Officer Thomas Hundt yesterday acknowledged that Hello had held promotions since February, but said “the sustainability of some of these promotions is however very much questionable.”

Smart held a number of promotions and activities fostering continuous growth in recent months, he said, adding the firm had exceeded one million subscribers.

Meanwhile, Perkins said Royal Group’s attempts to sell a majority stake in Cellcard hadotherwise distracted the company from growing its business, adding that would change if a deal was completed.

However, Mobitel General Manager David Spriggs yesterday pushed back against those statements, saying the firm actively worked to strengthen its market position.

“We continue to market very aggressively within the regulations set by the MPTC. We’re offering competitive services to all our customers,” he said, adding Cellcard has seen no drop in its customer base.

Hello would need to make a sizable acquisition to overtake Mobitel and the industry’s number-two spot, Perkins claimed, saying his firm couldn’t grow enough organically to do so.

He said he hadn’t ruled out a possible purchase of Mobitel, but “criteria about corporate governance must meet all the requirements for a listed business” before that happens.

Among the mobile sector, Perkins pointed to Thaicom-held Mfone as an “ideal fit” for Hello, though he doubted the company was properly valued right now. He said he would take another look at Mfone after Thailand’s elections in early July.

Cambodia should have only three or four telecom firms given the country’s small population, according to Perkins.

Going forward, consolidation – or closing shop entirely – may be the only option for some of Cambodia’s mobile companies, as he doubted they were generating a profit, he said.

“What’s stopping them doing that? It’s difficult for people to concede defeat.”

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