‘Top up $2 and get 30 free minutes daily for 20 days. Top up $5 and expand the same offer for a month. And, for a $10 recharge, that half-an-hour freebie lasts 50 days.”
Mobile operator Beeline, which announced the promotion in August, called it “another amazing offer to our subscribers”. But it’s an amazing offer in a market flooded with amazing offers.
Four months after the Ministry of Post and Telecommunications scrapped a publicly unpopular restriction on lucrative mobile phone promotions – the order was an attempt to stave off a price war – the battle is raging once again.
While popular among consumers, the bonuses and promotions will inevitably reduce the operator’s profit margins, analysts and market observers say. In the long run, those who can’t afford to keep up with the pace will fall by the wayside.
“Directionally, we are headed towards the last men standing,” Anthony Galliano, CEO of Cambodian Investment Management, said in a recent interview. “I am surprised at the ferocity of the promotions, which will probably accelerate the pruning process."
In January, local operator Mfone filed for bankruptcy, and analysts predict the market will shrink further to three or four players.
“Their balance sheets will get them through this phase of market development,” Galliano said. “The others will likely just burn shareholder cash for a predictable result.”
Whether on TV, online or on big posters, the advertisements, some of which seem too good to be true, speak for themselves. Just to name a couple: Cellcard advertises the $1 Thom Thom SIM Card, where subscribers get 10,000 minutes and, for every 30 of those minutes, subscribers pay 10 cents.
Under Smart’s Xchange program, $2 can buy in-network calls worth $30. Qb’s Data Xchange offers 10 cents for 70 megabytes worth 70 cents, or $1 for 1.5 gigabytes worth $15. Metfone advertises with the SIM Met4ever promotion, where subscribers get a 300 per cent bonus for the first top up.
“The SIM card is becoming equivalent to a frequent flyer or credit card loyalty program,” Galliano said.
The deals bazaar is a product of oversaturation. There are currently eight mobile phone operators in the market, which could increase to nine once Beijing-based Xinwei Telecom obtains its licence from the government.
Ministry statistics released in March show that Cambodia, which has a population of about 14.6 million, had 19 million mobile phone subscribers in 2012. Many users have more than one phone.
Viettel, parent of operator Metfone, had the largest market share, counting 9.5 million subscribers in 2012. Latelz, parent of Smart, counted 3.2 million last year.
Smart merged with Hello in February, increasing the number of subscribers to more than five million. Cellcard parent CamGSM counted three million subscribers in 2012, according to the Ministry’s statistics.
“In this kind of situation the only way to make a profit without losing market share is by providing more value to consumers than simple price-cutting,” said Kevin Der Arslanian, business analyst at China Market Research (CMR) Group.
“Phone subsidies, unlimited data or calls under certain situations, additional services such as operator app markets, can all help operators drive additional revenue or lock in consumers to long contracts.”
Some mobile phone operators defend the strategy, saying it’s just part of doing business. Smart CEO Thomas Hundt said that what’s happening in the sector is nothing unusual.
But Amsterdam-based Vimpelcom, the former parent company of Beeline, with operations in 18 countries, gave a different impression.
“In most of the markets where we operate, we try to steer away from excessive engagement in such activities,” Artem Minaev, head of media relations of Vimpelcom, said in an email when asked if the number of promotions was higher than in their other markets.
In April, Vimpelcom, the sixth-largest provider of telecommunication services in the world, announced that it had sold its entire indirect stake in the company that runs Beeline to a local partner, Cambodian tycoon Huot Vanthan, after reviewing the value of operations.
“The bonuses and promotions do reduce margins since they reduce the possible revenues that can be generated if these freebies were not offered, while costs are the same,” Minaev said. “In the short run this can be a favorable tactic to attract customers, but it has an adverse affect on a company’s profitability when it becomes constantly practised.”
Ian Watson, CEO of Cellcard, said the practice is profitable, but “it just reduces the margin, and anybody who says it doesn’t is lying, basically”.
Michael Fitzpatrick, who runs marketing for qb, said the smaller company differs slightly from the rest of the competition by focusing more on data as opposed to minutes, or “voice”.
He said building a mechanism that drives customers on spending a bit more can be profitable, but giving it away for minimum recharge, as the majority of the operators do, is not clever marketing.
“In this market, voice is very much what I would call a commodity product; it’s one of those things you give away for free but there’s hardly any value in it,” he said.