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Vodafone shakes up Qatari mobile market

Vodafone Qatar builds 25% market share in 18 months as Qtel’s monopoly comes to an end

Vodafone Qatar has made a better-than-expected start to its operations in the Gulf state and is now building substantial market share at the expense of Qtel, the market-leader and former monopoly operator. Vodafone launched commercial services in mid-2009 and had built a mobile customer base of over 600,000 by Q3 2010 (see table). According to the latest GSMA Intelligence data, this gave Vodafone a 22 percent share of the market in Q3 and we forecast that its market share could reach 40 percent by next year. Vodafone's strong start has inevitably had a negative impact on Qtel, which has seen its mobile customer base remain relatively flat for the last year and decline by 20,000 in Q3.

UK-based Vodafone and the state-backed Qatar Foundation own a dominant 45 percent share of Vodafone Qatar with 15 percent held by local minority investors and the remaining 40 percent sold via an IPO. The new entrant has been able to quickly build market share on the back of attractive prepay mobile tariffs ('Freedom' and 'Red') and a range of desirable handsets, including the iPhone 4 and the latest BlackBerry devices. As a consequence, prepay accounts for 95 percent of customers at Vodafone, compared to 86 percent at Qtel. However, there is now little difference in ARPU between the two rivals: Vodafone's ARPU rose steadily throughout 2010, but Qtel registered a decline in ARPU in eight of the previous nine quarters as it lowered prices to react to the new competition.

Due to Qatar's relatively small geographic area, Vodafone has been able to quickly bring its network up to par with its rival, achieving 100 percent 2G coverage and 98 percent 3G coverage by Q3 2010. It also has a fixed-line licence and launched its first commercial fixed-line broadband services serving The Pearl (Qatar's artificial island complex) in July 2010. On the financial side, the operator said it was on track to achieve its first quarter of positive EBITDA in Q4 2010 and forecasts it will be EBITDA positive on a cumulative basis by mid-2012 (three years after launch). Revenues reached QAR210 million (US$58 million) in Q3, the highest level since launch and up 19 percent from the prior quarter.

For Qtel, the breaking of its monopoly in Qatar has served to intensify its efforts to expand into less saturated markets overseas. Qtel's Qatari customer base (fixed and mobile) accounted for just 3.5 percent of its total group customers (68.9 million) in Q3, but the domestic market remains vital for the group's bottom line. In the first nine months of 2010, Qatar accounted for 20 percent of group revenue (QAR20 billion) and 23 percent of EBITDA (QAR9.5 billion). This was despite the fact that Qtel's domestic revenue fell by 6 percent and EBITDA by 16 percent over the same period as it felt the effects of Vodafone's entry into the market.

Qtel claims that while its domestic subscriber market share has eroded it has managed to sustain its revenue market share via its focus on next-generation services. Since the arrival of Vodafone, Qtel has made successive upgrades to its 3G network culminating in the launch of 21Mb/s HSPA+ in August 2010. With Vodafone yet to follow suit, Qtel is effectively the monopoly provider of mobile broadband services in the country and concentrated on rolling-out new packages and deals in 2010. However, as evidenced by its alarming decline in ARPU, mobile broadband revenue has yet to compensate for price declines elsewhere. Qtel has also been careful not to cannibalise its existing fixed-line broadband businesses where it is continuing to invest in areas such as triple-play ('Mosaic') and fibre (FTTH). It is also exploring sub-brands as a way to target different customer segments, notably via the launch of a Virgin Mobile-branded mobile service.

Mobile penetration in Qatar officially stands at around 160 percent yet is difficult to define due to the country’s large expatriate community – which is estimated to account for as much as 80 percent of the population. The international nature of the country is reflected in many of the services offered by the two operators, which include long-distance calling plans and international mobile money transfer. Both operators also offer extensive mobile business services.

Matt Ablott, Analyst, GSMA Intelligence:

The breaking of Qtel's monopoly in Qatar has broadly followed the trends seen in other Middle Eastern markets such as the UAE, Yeman and Oman, which have all seen new market entrants rapidly capture market share from former monopoly operators. In the UAE, for example, the launch of du in 2007 signalled the end of Etisalat's dominance and the new player now controls over a third of the market. Nevertheless, the fact that Vodafone Qatar ended 2010 with an estimated 25 percent market share after launching only 18 months previously means the operator is doing better-than-expected. The ability to quickly build market share via an attractive prepay strategy is a common method used by new market players and it is one that has served Vodafone particularly well in Qatar. Because the market was relatively highly priced to begin with, Vodafone has been able to undercut Qtel's tariffs while maintaining decent margins. However, while the network reported its first ever cash positive EBITDA quarter at the end of last year, it may be some time before the Vodafone Qatar consortium sees a full ROI (it paid US$1 billion for its original licence in late 2007). Meanwhile, Qtel's defensive strategy of focusing on higher-value services is also sound, though it has been cagey to date on mobile broadband uptake (despite making a lot of noise about its network upgrades). It is almost certain to raise the stakes via the launch of LTE in the country in the very near future and last year signed up Nokia Siemens Networks to build the new network.

Qtel Vodafone  
Connections 2,134,024 600,890 2,734,914
Net Additions -20,316 66,393 46,077
% Contract 14.4 5.5 12.4
% Prepaid 85.7 94.5 87.6
% 2G 85.2 81.4 84.4
% 3G 14.8 18.6 15.6
Market Share (%) 78.0 22.0 100.0
ARPU (US$) 31.5 30.8 31.4
Revenue (US$ million) 237.8 57.7 -
Net Profit (US$ million) 99.0 -45.2 -

Qatar Mobile Connections, Q3 2010
Source: Company reports, GSMA Intelligence

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