Panama’s maturing mobile market
While one of the smaller telecoms markets in Latin America, Panama stands out thanks to its high mobile penetration rate and the presence of four operators actively vying for shares.
The telecommunications sector is an important part of the economy, accounting for 3% of GDP, 3.7% of total tax collections and 1.2% of total direct employment (15,900 jobs), according to a 2012 study by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU). The industry’s indirect impact on the economy is even greater – the same report concluded that fixed broadband accounted for 11.3% of GDP expansion between 2005 and 2010.
It is also a rapidly shifting market. The entrance of America Movil’s Claro and Digicel Panama, in 2008 and 2009, respectively, has deepened the competitive landscape. Cable and Wireless Panama’s Mas Movil held a 54% market share in 2010, followed by Movistar’s Telefonica at 30%, with smaller roles for Digicel (16%) and Claro (0.7%), data from ITU show. Just a few years later, in June 2013 international communications research group Pyramid Research reported that Mas Movil’s share had fallen to 25%, while the remainder of the field had gained, with Telefonica at 36%, Digicel at 22% and Claro at 17%.
Some of this movement in shares may have been due to the introduction of mobile number portability in 2011, allowing customers to move freely among operators without having to change phone numbers. However, its effect appears to have been relatively modest. Between December 2011 and February 2012, a total of 112,871 customers switched operators under the programme, equivalent to 1.7% of the country 6.77m subscribers, although the threat of changing operators may have been sufficient to improve service and pricing to customers.
According to data from the ITU, the mobile penetration rate stood at 186.73 per 100 inhabitants as of the end of 2012, significantly higher than regional (109.4), global (96.2) and even developed world averages (128.2). However, 2012 represented the second consecutive year that mobile penetration had fallen, after peaking at 188.99 in 2010.
The market also features a relatively high percentage of prepaid customers, which could help explain the elevated penetration rate. According to figures from the National Authority of Public Services, the percentage of customers that are prepaid stood at 93% in 2012. Meanwhile, average revenue per user (ARPU) was $13 per month, slightly higher than the Latin American average of $12, data from the ITU and 4G Americas, a regional industry association, show.
Boosting mobile broadband penetration, which stood at 4.2% in 2011, compared to a Latin American average of 17% in 2012, could help lift the ARPU. According to the ITU, mobile broadband penetration in Panama is expected to rise rapidly, reaching 45% by 2016. With plenty of room for growth and a significantly higher value proposition, data packages are set to be an important source of revenues for operators in the future.
The sector also has the support of the government, which has prioritised telecommunications connectivity due to Panama’s heavy reliance the service sectors, which account for around three-quarters of GDP. Assuring quality and affordability of telecommunication services for growing industries such as finance, logistics and tourism is a key component for sustained economic progress.