My God, it talks!

(Peter II, Emperor of Brazil, while testing the newly invented device, the telephone at the Philadelphia World Fair in 1876)

At last, everybody appears to be bullish about the telecom market in emerging countries: Governments from any part of the political spectrum, the state-run monopolies, legislators and corporations of any size that have products and services for telecommunications seem to agree: the time is now.

The reasons for that abound: Ideology is no longer big issue; governments are having trouble to finance the basic services it is supposed to deliver, let alone invest in areas like telecom; the global market has come of age, and economic frontiers are getting blurred; the market for telecom products and services in developed countries is experiencing slower growth as it replaces / enhances much more than it gets new clients; finally, capital is available to invest in hot-growth markets.

What could possibly go wrong? Good old Murphy looms over there to predict where and how it can go wrong.

The initial assumptions only reflect the cozy nest.. To fully understand what lies ahead, let’s do a brief tour to the past, back in the mid 60’s.

Back then, the developing nations had almost no telecommunication services. Long distance was still done via operators and analog radio. Waiting 8 hours to place a call was part of the game.

The local telephone operators were often private. Almost all were multinational companies, unwilling or unable to invest. They had better markets at home and the tariffs in these distant countries did not provide adequate revenues, let alone returns on investments. Actually, some of these companies pulled out, while others were forced out.

At that time, financing was available to governments. The post WW II nationalism and the Cold War moved from doctrine to affirmation as easy money began to be pumped into government coffers. That was the beginning of the golden age for the state-run PTT’s.

The oil shock of 1973 literally switched the balance to the OPEC cartel, whose governments were flooded with cash. Besides buying into cheap real estate in the developed nations, it started to lend heavily to developing nations. To just about any type of project.

Countries like Brazil benefited from this situation, building state-of-the-art, state-owned telecom system. It was not ideology alone that drove the telecom industry to government hands. It was real money.

Back to 1996: Real money is now available to private companies, not to governments anymore. Ideology will no longer be sustained by empty pockets.
It is fairly reasonable to assume that privatization will be an unstoppable trend, for the foreseeable future. Questions: will telecom services remain in the hands of private companies?

Will telecom density and traffic really increase?

The answer is a plain, simple “yes”, provided we learn from past mistakes. Let us pay attention to an actor who is often left behind the scenes, the consumer. It is reasonable to affirm that past telecom policies and corporate actions in developing markets never had the consumer in mind. If this is changing, then maybe we have a sustainable model. Long-term commitment to the client, that’s the winning formula.

Stable democracies, a more “civilized” inflation, and the urgent need to leave back the dreadful 80’s are the backbone to the revolution that is taking place in most South American Countries.

The Continent is undergoing major changes, and telecom infrastructure is the single most important item to indicate where economic activity will take place, after political and economical stability have been achieved.

The good part of the story is that, while almost any nation is going in the same direction, and that is the direction of modernization, the models, speeds and current stages are strikingly different.

Chile has a state-of-the-art telecom system, competition there is fierce and much more aggressive than even here in the U.S. Others are in the middle of the road, and Brazil, the Continent’s largest market, is just now beginning to take concrete actions to bring investments and technology into the telecom market.

One important factor to be considered is that consumers in South America, may not be looking for replications of the developed world’s telecom networks.

To stress this point, let us imagine that, overnight, the entire U.S. telecom network vanished, through a massive action of a special breed of bugs from outer space that would do the job in a few hours and then would go home.

The next hypothesis would be that enough capital would be available to rebuild the network in a very short period of time, and that all the manufacturers had surplus inventories of cable, switches, computers, software, handsets, routers, satellites, you name it…

One of the probable scenarios in the aftermath of this “New America Network” would be one (a) most, if not all of the wired backbone would be made of fiber; (b) the ratio of wireless / wireline terminals would greatly bend towards wireless; (c) the network would be 100% digital and (d) if insurance companies paid for the losses, the return on investments would occur much sooner.

It looks like South America is pretty much the land to build this “dream network”. Alien bugs did not destroy our networks. Other types of bugs prevented us from building a decent one.

It will only be a natural choice for South American countries to have a 21st century network in place. This makes up for lower costs, smaller deployment times and, best of all, much more flexibility that wireless services offers for most of an individual’s day-to-day telecom needs.

The costs per terminal of almost any wireless service will drop much faster than the wireline ones. This is one key factor to be considered when planning South America. Another point is that wireless services are, in general, less regulated.

Now for the opportunities. Today, the overall telecom market in South America is close to irrelevant, with few exceptions. Take Brazil: In 1994, the whole Telebrás system had a little over US$ 10 billion in revenues, which was less then 2% of our Gross Domestic Product. Telecom density is still closer to the desert than to the rain forest.

In developed countries, telecom products and services can and will top 10% of GNP, with telecom density moving to virtual universality.

In developed markets, telecom became a dominant industry only after it was accessible to almost any citizen; on the other hand, network traffic grew at a significantly higher pace than did the availability of a better, faster backbone and the number of terminals.

As the economics of telecom changed, unit costs come down sharply, market penetration went up sharply, and per capita use also increased dramatically.

Technology Futures Brasil figures out that the 1:10:100 rule-of-thumb applies well to these hot-growth markets in South America: from the current installed base (1), you have a traffic growth potential of 100 times, while making the overall sales grow 10 fold. Unit prices will, on average, decrease 10 fold.

Past technologies forced us to associate a telephone with wires and, therefore, to a physical site. In countries where telecom density began to grow in this decade, wireless devices are being and will continue to be put into operation faster than wireline ones. The “telephone” is regarded as a valuable personal possession, unlike the pervasive concept in developed countries that will consider a telephone as household or office appliances.

That is why wireless communication services will grow much faster in South America than in the U.S.. As the industry matures, market penetration for wireless will be significantly higher.

About 120 years ago, our emperor, Peter II, visited the World Fair in Philadelphia. It was then that the wired telephone was being demonstrated by Alexander Graham Bell. The emperor, while test-driving the revolutionary invention, said, very candidly: “My God, it talks!” Today, he probably would probably not be able to have the same reaction if he tried to use most of installed telephones in the Continent, including cellular ones.

Back to the future, it is harvest time. And the telephone had better talk!

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