China's stay-at-home operators

03 Jun 2008

The pieces of China's telecom reorganization have fallen into their well-telegraphed place. But the exercise has been wholly focused on the domestic market with the aim of bringing China Mobile back to Earth. What it really misses is the chance to prep Mobile and rival China Unicom to become global carriers.

Most of the growth in the mobile business is in emerging markets - India, southeast Asia, Africa in particular.

That was the reason behind the recent attempt by Bharti Airtel - India's biggest mobile operator - to acquire MTN, Africa's largest.

The deal, which would have created a fast-growing company with 122 million customers, collapsed acrimoniously two weeks ago (although Bharti's rival Reliance may even clinch its own deal with MTN).

But clearly, the race is on to be the king of the developing world. Vodafone paid $11 billion for a stake in Essar last year and now sees a quarter of its value from emerging markets.

Telefonica has built a chain of mobile operators across Latin America under its Moviles brand with close to 100 million subs. On a much smaller scale, SingTel has put together a group of southeast Asian cellcos.

For all its size and financial strength, China Mobile has made just one foreign acquisition - Pakistan's smallest operator CMPak. China's government assets body earlier nixed its attempt to buy Millicom.

And despite the occasional rhetoric encouraging operators to "go out" of China, the recent reforms have not been about making Mobile or Unicom more effective in identifying and acquiring assets abroad. There's been no attempt to hire foreign personnel or set up an offshore unit specifically to target new acquisitions, or to make it easier for them to raise cash.

For all the pretensions of global leadership, it seems Chinese carriers would prefer to stay home.

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