Written by: Petr Vykoukal
EUROTEL REMAINS the leading mobile operator, with its four million customers amounting to more than those of its parent fixed-line operator, Český Telecom. T-Mobile is the second largest, with 3.6 million customers, while the youngest competitor, Oskar, has further reinforced its position, with 1.3 million. The entire market thus grew by almost 15% year-on-year.
The main question now is: can the number of users continue to rise? All of the operators acknowledge that growth cannot equal that of the past, but they still see space for themselves. According to Garrison Macri, Eurotel’s executive marketing director, mobile phone penetration in the 18-49 year-old segment is nearly 100%, so teenagers and seniors are the focus of their interest. Igor Přerovský, Oskar’s brand and communications vice-president, sees corporate clients as a promising segment as well. “New firms are being established constantly, and entrepreneurs aren’t afraid of switching to other operators for better services or prices.”
T-Mobile sees a different path to further growth. According to Jiří Hájek, the company’s spokesman, greater segmentation is the way to go. Examples of the company following this policy include the launch of the Student tariff (markedly lower monthly fees for college students) and Twist Home (inexpensive calls to selected countries). Hájek notes that based on these two products’ results, T-Mobile will keep looking for other segments with good prospects. “If we considered machines as users as well, growth in the number of active SIM cards is essentially unlimited,” Hájek says. It’s already possible to find various GSM applications in beverage vending machines, and T-Mobile mediates gas meter readings in industrial companies, a service that could be used in large apartment buildings as well.
Show me the data
There are certainly more sources of revenue growth to be explored. Besides new clients, operators see opportunity in new services and the wider use of existing ones. The key word here is data. “Data and high value-added services should be the main growth factor for mobile operators,” says Jan Slabý, an analyst at Wood & Company. This opinion is echoed by John Gole, program manager in the telecommunications division at IDC CEMA, a market research firm in the field of technology. Gole expects that at the end of this year the share of data services (primarily SMS, as well as MMS, WAP, GPRS, etc.) of total revenues from end users (excluding connection fees, etc.) will reach 18%, and probably 30% by 2005. Another sign that the market is already heading in this direction is the sharp rise of GPRS data transmission volume. After Eurotel launched its Data Nonstop tariff, which offers unlimited data transfers for a flat fee, the volume of transmitted data increased thirty-fold in a few months.
Beyond the handset market, the growing number of laptop sales also bodes well for an increased demand in mobile data. “Currently, around 30% of all computers sold are laptops, and this number is growing quarter by quarter,” says Vladimír Dvořák, director of the personal systems division at Hewlett-Packard. “We see a significant movement in customer preferences from desktop PCs to laptops,” he adds. Vít Šubert, marketing director of competing firm Dell, confirms this development: “The main factor for this change is decreasing laptop prices, which are approaching those of desktop models. For SMEs mobility is especially important; it’s more suitable to their style of doing business.”
Others join the GSM network foray
Operators aren’t basing their battle in the data transfer market only on GSM networks – one of the technologies at the center of attention is Wi-Fi. This wireless technology, which works in license-free zones, allows line-of-sight data transfers at up to 11.2 Mb/s with a range of hundreds of meters (thousands of meters when antennas are used). However, even the mobile operators are seizing upon this opportunity, and are beginning to offer Wi-Fi internet access. “In the future we would like to offer our clients software that will check the available connections and, according to the user’s preferences, connects them to a network. If Wi-Fi is available it will be the best choice, otherwise GPRS will be used. In the future, UMTS (third-generation mobile networks) will be also an option,” says T-Mobile’s Hájek.
Not surprisingly, the proliferation of Wi-Fi will also be supported by new laptop models with the requisite software. Vladimír Dvořák estimates that “next year 80% of laptops will be standardly equiped with Wi-Fi, and by 2005 that should be close to 100%.” Although the number of locations with Wi-Fi coverage is currently small, accessible mainly in commercial spaces and hotels, it is rising rapidly. The consulting firm Gartner Dataquest offered a prediction that area coverage will double by 2005.
The first Czech operator to offer Wi-Fi was Eurotel, which provided coverage at the Congress Center and its environs during last year’s NATO summit. But Eurotel’s competitors wasted no time cutting into its head start. T-Mobile launched its HotSpot network soon after, and it is now accessible free of charge while trial operations are underway. Eventually a paid system in two versions will be offered: one for the operator’s clients (paid for as part of the monthly bill) and the second for other users.
Stagnating cell phones
While services seem to be undergoing steady expansion, local representatives of vendors are not overly optimistic about product sales in the near future. Roman Vaňko, marketing manager for Siemens mobile phones division expects to see a period of stagnation, because new buyers on the market are few, and current customers are only exchanging their old phones for newer ones. Another marketing manager, who asked not to be named, also believes that next year’s sales levels will be about the same as this year. Moreover, he is not optimistic about the market being significantly boosted by new services (such as MMS) that demand specially-equipped phones.
As no one wants to disclose precise numbers about the overall market, it is difficult to estimate coming sales levels based on last year’s figures. The existence of a significant gray market also detracts from the accuracy of any such estimates. “According to statements by individual handset importers, mobile phone sales last year are very roughly two million,” estimates Jan Matura, editor of the specialized web site Mobil.cz. “You have to add about one fifth to this number to account for the gray market,” he adds. Around the same numbers can be derived from Siemens statements – they sold 755,000 handsets in the last 12 months, just behind Nokia’s figures. If their (unconfirmed) market share is approximately 36%, that puts the entire Czech market at around 2.1 milion phones a year. Manufacturers would certainly like this situation to improve, as would operators, who want to see the greatest possible dissemination of handsets that can make use of such touted new services as MMS. This year’s Christmas sales will show if their hopes are too high.
|How popular are the new technologies?
NOVELTIES LIKE MMS are finding users among the masses very slowly. Garrison Macri, Eurotel’s executive marketing director, claims that what we call modern technologies should include expanded functionality of services that most mobile phone users are already using, like voice services and SMS messages. As far as voice services are concerned, this can involve the supplementation of voice mail boxes with the option of immediate connections with the caller, etc. As opposed to MMS, these services have substantially greater chances of finding users among the masses, as they generally don’t require new handsets.
|Corporate market offers prime battlefield
While recently a customer was still essentially a customer, there is now a perceptible shift among all the operators, with the greatest turmoil mainly in the corporate client segment. As illustrated in the graph below, the share of Oskar is rising, while the other two, Eurotel and T-Mobile, are focusing primarily on keeping the corporate clients they have. T-Mobile spokesman Jiří Hájek notes that it costs less to keep existing customers than it does to acquire new ones. Small firms justifiably deserve primary attention – because they have only a small number of SIM cards it’s much easier for them to change service providers than it is for large companies.
Each month prepaid customers spend over two billion crowns on services provided by mobile operators. This is a good chunk of money, not only for the operators, but also for firms that provide recharging of prepaid cards. Credit can be recharged from ATMs, Sazka terminals, from current accounts by means of permanent or one-time payment orders, via GSM or on-line banking, with payment cards, via SMS messages, etc. These variants are simpler than the original coupons, and they are also more efficient for the operators, as they can result in considerable savings. According to Jiří Hájek, T-Mobile’s spokesman, the importance of alternative channels is also borne out by the fact that they currently represent 60% of all recharges.