Latin America Wireless

Like most of the Middle East and Africa, Latin America is skipping the 100% wired stage of telecoms. Governments in those countries were too financially unstable &/or corrupt to mandate buildouts beyond the wealthy enclaves and business districts of their major cities. The beauty of wireless is that it is so much less capital intensive. Consequently, wireless telephony penetration in LatAm now approximates 60-70%. Moore’s Law continues to reduce the cost/increase the functionality of handsets (and you can have either, but not both, as a consumer). In LatAm, prepaid service is a much bigger mode of payment for service, as it facilitates budget management. Also, calling party pays, not the one called. Finally, network convergence is driving all the margin out of the historically high margin voice telecom service (in late nineties 45% OPERATING profit was the norm), whether wired or wireless.

The Internet is in the process of aborbing wireless telephony. The constantly improving economics of optical and/or digital networking infrastructure and innovation enabled and fostered by entrepreneurs leveraging of IP (Internet protocol) internetworking technology (browsers, hyperlinked web, free email, graphic design, etc, etc,) has and will continue to drive the merging of all heretofore physically discrete analog networks (each being a separate business unto itself) into a single interconnected set of commonly structured and operated digital networks, all of which transport and connect video, voice and data applications – the “converged network”. Text/sms messaging is but one of thousands of applications that operate on and interconnect through the Internet. It is, in fact, the highest revenue /bit form of communications service for which consumers pay (by a factor of 1000), primarily because of the telecom operators end-to-end control of that network. For details see The Evolution of Price Discrimination in Transportation and its Implications for the Internet (especially Table 1 on second page of this pdf). The author, a mathematics/computing professor at U of Minnesota, is widely regarded for his fact-based approach to the economics of telecommunications networks.

Despite the convergence phenomenon, the US lags Europe and Asia in its usage of mobile telephony and mobile Internet (you can mostly thank the FCC’s bureacracy’s money-grubbing wireless spectrum lotteries for that). Nevertheless, US usage of wireless Internet will pick up dramatically in the next couple of years, as ATT/Cingular, Verizon and Sprint/Nextel have deployed their 3G (they call it broadband, but its really medium band) networks. (Europe/Asia finished theirs 3-5 years ago). Here is a chart showing Internet enabled mobile phone penetration as of a couple of years ago.

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