New 'digital telcos' start to feel the burn

THE heat is on in Singapore's crowded telco market - and the disruptors are starting to feel the burn.

Just over three years after mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) Circles.Life stormed into the consumer market, users enjoy not just the spoils of a relentless price war, but also SIM-only and no-contract plans.

But MVNOs here could become victims of their own success, as the mobile network operators (MNOs) that they lease frequency from retain the upper hand in substantial resources.

MNOs initially struggled to re-examine legacy offerings and stem an exodus towards the attractive new products MVNOs put out, but Singtel, StarHub and M1 have now overhauled plans to meet new-generation mobile consumers where they're at.

So, since products in the market have become quite similar - regardless of provider - MVNOs face the uphill task of still appearing special.

This has led to moments of inadvertent levity, as with a set of eyebrow-raising marketing decisions in April, when Circles.Life took out a full-page ad in The Straits Times addressed "to our telco friends in red and green" - a reference to Singtel and StarHub - omitting its host MNO, M1.

Cocking a snook, Circles.Life took credit for the change in mainstream mobile offerings: "Since we came into the picture, you've followed our lead in giving the people more."

Australia-based Zero Mobile, which rides on Singtel's network here, hit back at Circles.Life with a similar "open letter" the next day.

"The one thing we can definitely agree on is that the more choice Singapore consumers have, the better it is," Zero Mobile said in a Facebook post.

Such fusillades disguise an emerging homogeneity: digital service, generous data allowances, the works.

But where all things aren't equal is - critically - the business cost structures of MNOs and MVNOs.

MVNOs depend on finding an operator to lease wholesale from - and Singapore may be moving towards a sellers' market, even as part of MVNO revenues returns to their hosts.

Phillip Securities research analyst Alvin Chia told The Business Times that incumbent network operators are not expected to run up significant capex for their 4G systems, "as its more of maintaining the network infrastructure rather than a roll-out".

And Juvanus Tjandra, technology, media and telecommunications head at KPMG, noted that, while leasing network to MVNOs "has created competition for MNOs, it has also helped them lower their network costs".

With the action in Singapore getting hotter and heavier, it may be time for MVNOs to find new markets - yet the question is where. A ship in harbour may be safe, but what about when there are no havens left?

Both Circles.Life and fibre operator MyRepublic have expressed a desire to muscle into new markets for growth. Yet regional ambitions may tread on the toes of Singtel, which has associates in India, Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines, as well as a wholly owned Australia unit, Optus.

Singtel's Singapore consumer chief, Yuen Kuan Moon, when asked about any threat from Circles.Life's plans, told an earnings briefing last month: "(In) Indonesia, there is no MVNO licence per se, so I'm not sure how an MVNO can operate in a country where there is no such licence.

"I think, in Australia, there are also a lot of MVNOs currently in play. So we'll just have to see how they can find themselves a niche."

Like the MVNOs' punchy ad campaigns, Mr Yuen may have been putting on a brave front as well: Singtel's consumer arms have come under pressure from competition in both Singapore and Australia.

Neither Circles.Life nor MyRepublic have named an MNO partner for their planned roll-outs Down Under. But Singtel could kill two birds with one stone, and get some wind under its wings, if they sign on with Optus.