Current global mobile maps reflect their telegraph heritage: Baker

Industry Voices Simon Baker

European players had a head start in global mobile expansion and moved into former colonies early on, leaving the cellular map today in a time of consolidation much a reflection of the telegraph age of the late 19th Century.

At a third attempt, an undersea cable across the Atlantic came into regular use in 1866. Over the next few decades the laying of more long distance cables brought about the first great age of international telecommunications, linking continents and in particular colonies in the heyday of empire.

The cellular industry is a product of the modern era. But telecom is a conservative business in many ways.

Despite the century-and-half time gap, the current global coverage map of international cellular groups closely resembles the political map of that telegraph age of the late 19th Century.

Rekindling of old links

Europe was a center of the mobile world in its early years in the 1990s, and a common theme for the expanding European operator was a focus on historical relationships, which for many countries meant former colonies.

Vodafone established operations across much of Africa with its affiliate company Vodacom from South Africa. Vodafone also moved into the biggest former British colony of all, India, in 2007.

France Telecom, now Orange, set up operations across French-speaking Africa.

Telefonica turned to Spain's former dominions in Central and Latin America.

The fall of Communism in Central and much of Eastern Europe at the end of the 1980s added more opportunities for operators to expand abroad. It was a golden age for launching cellular operations, where the launch of new technologies coincided with political openings.

Even here historical and cultural links often came to the fore — Telekom Austria, now A1 — gained licenses in the Balkans in what were once Austro-Hapsburg dominions.

A change of theme

The 1990s saw a new wave of cellular investment from emerging markets now with capital resources of their own.

Here the theme was more commonly links with older trading partners or countries, such as the capital from the Gulf, which propelled operators such as Ooredoo, Zain and Etisalat to invest around the Arab world.

RELATED: Global mobile subscriber adds are slowing, but use is accelerating — Baker

In Asia, the back-to-old-territories theme holds less true, as local business interests are behind a lot of cellular operations, and the region's telcos have often not expanded abroad through licenses, but have invested in license holders. Singapore Telecom, among the most prominent, is a good example, and SoftBank in Japan, the most extreme, where the investment company gave the mobile operator its name.  

The Americans and the Chinese have stayed at home

Nevertheless, the old map theme often holds not just in who is present, but who is not there. The 19th Century telegraph boom came before the U.S. reached its imperial moment after it defeated Spain in the war of 1898. China was at this time semi-colonized itself on its coastline with foreign-controlled treaty ports.

Neither power has much of an overseas cellular footprint today. American telecom players are notably absent, even in the U.S. backyard of Central and Latin America. Though some American cable companies like Liberty Global have ventured into mobile beyond the U.S., large-scale American investment in telecommunications abroad had to wait until the internet era and the U.S. companies it spawned.

China's big three mobile operators, China Mobile, China Unicom and China Telecom, are firmly focused on home ground.

All three are state-linked enterprises. But while the state-supported telco gear suppliers Huawei and ZTE expanded fast around world, these operators did not.

RELATED: China Mobile snubs Ericsson, Nokia on 5G core

China Mobile, the biggest, did make a move in 2006 to take over Millicom, but the deal foundered, and China Mobile bought just the Millicom operation in Pakistan.

Conservative approach may have paid off - but not exclusively

Looking back, the big European operators can claim that the focus on historical links has served them well. They have rarely been thrown out of former colonies, although old ties have not stopped for example Vodafone running into big tax issues in India.

RELATED: Indian government throws a lifeline to Vodafone and other telcos

That does not mean that taking a less historically hidebound approach could not work. Millicom is a prime example of boundary-less capital; based in Luxembourg, backed initially from Sweden. Early in the cellular business and known as a "license hunter," it successfully built up a portfolio in the smaller countries of Africa and Central and Latin America.

Another example is Vietnam's Viettel, having chosen countries with no obvious link with home, it has mobile licenses in Africa and Peru as well as in Myanmar and other parts of Southeast Asia.

The age of adventure is over

Foreign adventures in mobile are no longer in fashion in cellular as they once were.

The industry is older and wiser, and has learned some hard lessons. State-owned telcos with lots of public supervision such as those in the Nordic countries don't want to be caught again in the sort of high-profile graft scandals which ensnared them in Uzbekistan, and cost a lot of management scalps.

MTN, one of the most adventurous regional players, has run into problems with its venture in Iran, to say nothing of that in Syria, which it is abandoning, and it now has to work with the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Consolidation is taking its place

Today is a period of consolidation.

The Nordic telcos have progressively pulled out of Eastern Europe, which has left Russia's big three mobile operators — MTS, Vimpelcom and Megafon — controlling much of mobile operations across the CIS — another harking back to old political boundaries.

Millicom has decided to focus on Central and Latin America.

Even some recent openings are turning sour, with Telenor selling off its venture in Myanmar.

Frontier markets are mostly no longer that. Ethiopia is a rare current opportunity.

The technology has moved on. Mobile market entry through 5G is now a huge challenge even in a rich country, so there is no big hunt for 5G licenses from would-be market entrants.

The international operator map is not likely to change much in the next few years, and will continue to reflect political colors from a bygone age.

Simon Baker is program director for mobile phones and consumer devices at IDC EMEA and a coordinator of IDC global forecasting for the 5G smartphone market. He is a long-time analyst in the mobile phone arena. Please contact him at [email protected]

Industry Voices are opinion columns written by outside contributors—often industry experts or analysts—who are invited to the conversation by FierceWireless staff. They do not represent the opinions of FierceWireless.