Mexico: Turbulent times for telecoms
Despite registering strong growth during the past decade, Mexico’s telecoms industry is still struggling to match the market penetration of its regional peers.
Mexico has the second-largest telecoms market in Latin America after Brazil and, according to figures from the World Bank, a significantly higher per-capita GDP than Peru, Ecuador or Colombia. Yet, it still trailed all three countries in mobile penetration at the end of 2011, according to data from the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), and its telecoms industry remains dogged by criticism of inefficiencies, monopolistic practices and anti-competitive pricing.
The telecoms market is dominated by América Movil, which operates in the country through its brands Telcel and Teléfonos de México (Telmex). Telcel currently has 70% of the country’s mobile market, while Telmex maintains 79.6% of fixed-line telephony. Mexico’s second largest operator is Spain’s Movistar, which boasts 22% of the mobile market and 2.4% of fixed-line business.
A highly critical review of Mexico’s telecoms market commissioned by the government and carried out by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) sent ripples through the industry when its findings were published at the beginning of 2012.
The OECD’s Review of Telecommunication Policy and Regulation highlighted the industry’s low market penetration and lack of competition. It also pointed out that Mexico had some of the highest consumer prices in the OECD.
In a clear reference to América Movil, the study said Mexico’s telecoms market was performing unsatisfactorily due to “the failure of an effective policy and regulatory framework and the behaviour of an incumbent operator with significant market power”. The review concluded that inefficiencies within Mexico’s telecoms sector cost the wider economy approximately $129.2bn, or 1.8% of GDP, between 2005 and 2009.
América Movil was quick to deny the charges levelled against it by the OECD, with CFO Carlos García-Moreno telling the press in May that the company had confirmation the report was based on inaccurate and erroneous data.
The telecoms giant repeatedly called for the OECD to retract its findings and also commissioned Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) professor Jerry Hausman, the director of the facility’s Telecommunications Economics Research Programme, to review the report and publish a separate study.
In his findings, Hausman refuted almost all of the OECD’s conclusions and said the original study’s findings were based on the incorrect use of facts and data and the application of faulty economic analysis. He told the international press, “The OECD report would receive a failing grade in my course at MIT”.
The OECD was quick to respond with a statement saying it stood by its report in full. While acknowledging that there had been minor fluctuations in the market, it said the report had used the most up-to-date data available at the time, including full-year figures for 2009. In conclusion, the OECD voiced its confidence that any market adjustments would not have significantly impacted its analysis.
In April 2011, before the OECD report was commissioned, Mexico’s competition regulator, the Federal Anti-Trust Commission (Cofeco), imposed the maximum penalty of $925m on Telcel for anti-competitive pricing, although it dropped the fine in May of this year after the company appealed the decision and agreed to alter its pricing practices.
The agreement was reached on the back of a 2011 move by the Federal Telecommunications Commission (COFETEL) to revise interconnection rates, which Telcel had previously been fighting through the courts. It brought an end to Telcel’s practice of offering discounts to customers for calls within its own network, while also reducing interconnection rates for calls made by customers outside its network through to 2014. Cofeco had accused Telcel of capitalising on its market dominance to gain an unfair advantage against competitors through the use of interconnection fees.
While the stalemate between OECD and América Movil remains unresolved, there is widespread agreement among observers that Mexico needs to build competition within the telecoms sector if it is to increase mobile penetration and catch up with its peers.
Mexico’s mobile penetration rose from 14.1% in 2000 to 82.4% in 2011, according to the ITU. However, the Union’s figures show that the country was out-performed last year by Peru, Ecuador and Colombia where market penetration reached 110.4%, 104.5% and 98.5% respectively.
A competitive market is also likely to be instrumental in driving long-term growth across the industry, helping to raise its contribution to Mexico’s economy, and attracting new users who may at present be put off by high prices.