Companies complain that too many mobile-phone licences means excessive competition as mobile advertising campaigns gear up to win over customers
Photo by: HENG CHIVOAN
A billboard advertises the Cellcard Mobitel network in Phnom Penh.
FROM free airtime to multimillion riel cash prizes and sales staff clad in bee costumes, Cambodia is being inundated with mobile-phone promotions as the nine operators struggle to carve out a share of the country's 14 million potential customers.
Up for grabs is one of the world's few unsaturated markets, offering double-digit growth where more than two-thirds of the population still does not own a mobile phone. Operators are turning to price cuts, glitzy publicity campaigns and generous prizes to lure customers and build client loyalty.
But while customers cash in on some of the best mobile phone offers around, companies complain that too many operators are competing for too few customers.
"Cambodia is ridiculously competitive. It's like the Olympic Games, but even the Olympic [sprint] has eight tracks - Cambodia has nine players competing," said Pasi Koistinen, CEO of Star-Cell, which has 100,000 users.
Star-Cell cut its prices and is offering 500 extra minutes with every US$5 prepaid phone card, with additional campaigns planned.
"There are too many players in Cambodia. It is normal to have three, perhaps four [phone companies]. But nine? It's too many," said Koistinen. "The government has issued too many licenses ... the prices are driven too low [for companies]. Everybody in the industry will suffer," said Koistinen.
The government has issued too many licenses … the prices are driven too low.
Thailand, for example, has three major mobile phone companies, as does Vietnam.
Industry experts say that Cambodia's low mobile penetration rate is a major attraction. "Everyone wants to see their stake in the market grow - Cambodia's penetration rate is still low," said Koistinen.
Cambodia's mobile phone sector grew by around 50 percent in 2007 and 2008, according to industry figures. Thailand is expected to pass 100 percent mobile penetration in 2009 up from 91 percent as of September 2008, according to the Bangkok Post, and operators expect slow growth.
In Cambodia's largely untapped market, companies are offering special benefits to their clients.
The assistant brand manager of Hello said her company is giving away 1 million riels ($242.37) every day to customers that top up. "We would like to repay our existing customers as well as gain more market share," said Solitaire Mok.
She concedes that her company is feeling the heat in Cambodia's crowded mobile market. "Yes, it is very competitive.... There are too many [mobile phone] companies," she said.
The most recent big player, Metphone, owned by the Vietnamese military-run company Viettel, has given away thousands of free SIM cards, and is offering mobile services to Cambodia's military.
With so many companies fighting for market share, brand building and cost-cutting have become key, said an advertising expert.
"Every mobile company is offering some sort of advertising or promotion - either to retain customers or add to their customer base," said a source at Riverorchid advertising company who requested anonymity.
"When you have nine companies in the market, then price and strategy becomes very important," said the spokesman. "If you look at the size of the market and the penetration rate, you really have to be out there - it's a very active market."
But the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications says that fierce competition only benefits customers. "Competition is making services cheaper for normal people. A lot of people are starting to use mobile phones," said Mao Chakrya, director general at the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications.
He added that the sector continues to grow, despite the economic crisis, which makes Cambodia a good place for mobile-phone companies to invest. "The market is getting much bigger here and the crisis has not impacted us at all," said Mao Chakrya.