Last year, the telecommunications market, particularly cellular communications, was characterized by both “incoming” and “outgoing” transactions as regards mergers and acquisitions (M&A) of companies. At the same time, political constituents played quite an important role in those processes.
As per the assessment of Ernst & Young, a consultancy, last year the total volume of the M&A market in Kazakhstan increased by ten times, and was valued at US$9 mln. To be honest, due to one peculiarity of our economy, most of the growth was attributable to the oil and gas sector (90%). Distant runners-up include the metallurgical, mining and financial industries.
In comparison to them, the telecommunications sector, as regards M&A, looks quite small, both as regards the quantity and the volume of transactions. However, even here there have been some mergers and acquisitions. As per the assurances of experts, there will be many more interesting and significant transactions in this industry within the near future.
Call Me, Please Call Me…
The attractiveness in this industry for M&A relates to its quite dynamic growth, which has been observable over the past five years. At the same time, the rate of increase in the volume of the telecommunications market is exceeding that of GDP (on the average by 25-35% annually). Increases in the consumption of telecommunications services is related to the good macroeconomic situation, development of the business environment, and increases in the average income, all of which eventually place too much demand on the then existing system. Case in point, last year in-country long distance usage increased by 3.1%, while international long distance calls jumped up by 21.5%, especially those to CIS countries, which leapt by 30.5%.
As per estimates by the RK Agency for Information and Communications (AIC), should the current rate of economic growth continue, the local population will have the opportunity to purchase more durable goods, particularly those for cellular communications and internet access, among others, resulting in an increased demand for services.
In Kazakhstan at present, the following major segments of the telecommunications market have been established: cellular, local calling, in-country long distance, international long distance, data transfer, and telematic services (including internet).
According to the RK State Statistics Agency, in 2005 telecommunications companies provided services amounting to KZT216.7 bln. In comparison, this is 27.7% up on the previous year.
Last year, the most dynamically developing telecommunications services were those of data transfer and telematics (growth of 21.7%), particularly internet access (up by 61.8%). Revenues from wireless services jumped by 63.3%, out of which those for cellular communications rose by 65.3%. As well, revenues for international long distance grew by 24.7%, while other telecommunications services available to the population rocketed by 106.5%.
As regards the favorable growth in the telecommunications industry, the market for cellular communications looks to be the most attractive. The demand for these services is increasing on an annual basis. As per official statistics, over the first three months of the current year telecommunication firms provided services for the amount of KZT40.8 bln. Of this, cellular services comprise 44.6%. Cellular communications has developed most, the revenues from which have increased by 74.4% in comparison with the same period of last year.
At present, four operators in the area of cellular are present on the market, which together almost doubled the total number of subscribers over 2005, exceeding the 5 mln user benchmark. At the same time, most of the market share is held by two operators, each utilizing the GSM standard – GSM Kazakhstan LLP/Kazakhtelecom JSC (with the trademarks of Kcell and Activ) and Kar-tel LLP (K-Mobile, Excess and Beeline). The third place is given to Altel JSC (Dalacom and Pathworld), which uses the CDMA standard. And lastly, Mobile Telecom-Service LLP (Zharshy – with less than 900 users) has until recently represented the out-of-date AMPS standard, but is beginning to transfer to the more progressive CDMA standard like Altel.
The level of market penetration for cellular communications exceeded 30% as of last year. Experts noted that the figure of 20% denotes the starting point for a sharp increase in the market, which should run up to 60%. As per the estimates of the AIC, under the conditions of dynamic growth and median-level competition, the potential for development of the telecommunications industry remains high. At the same time, the small number of players in this market is dictated by the high barrier to entry, the reason for which is the limited availability of bandwidth.
Taking into account the prospects of the market, which is growing like mad, many domestic and foreign investors have seen their appetite whetted. The confirmation of this is the purchase by Russian Vimpelcom of 100% of the shares in the second largest cellular operator in Kazakhstan, Kar-tel, for US$350 mln (plus the assumption of US$75 mln in existing debt) in August 2004. When explaining the reasons behind the deal, Constantine Markov, general director of Kar-tel, noted, “Kazakhstan has the largest per capita GDP [in the CIS] after Russia, while penetration of cellular communications is only 13%. In the future, this could reach 60%.” In the opinion of Yerlan Bulgarin, managing director of Centras Securities JSC, “In Kazakhstan, two motives for M&A have become popular among industries – either strategic expansion or achievement of synergies. This transaction is a bright example of strategic expansion into foreign markets.”
However, already at the beginning of 2005, in addition to the US$75 mln in existing debt, another liability of US$5.5 bln appeared, which related to payments to a savings insurance fund in Turkey. This news negatively affected the value of Vimpelcom’s share price on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) for a short time. However, all the claims regarding this “liability” were later settled.
The best-known M&A transaction of last year became Vimpelcom’s sale in April of 50%, excepting one share, of its stock in Kar-tel (of which it held 100%) for US$175 mln to Limnotex, a Cyprus-registered subsidiary of Crowell Investment Ltd., behind which are a number of ATF Bank shareholders. “We are happy that we managed to conclude this agreement with our new partner, whose support and knowledge of the peculiarities of the local market will add much value to our business. Together, we have great chances of becoming the number one operator in Kazakhstan,” stated Alexander Izosimov, general director of Vimpelcom, regarding the transaction.
In 2005, a lot of interest was generated by M&A in-out transactions, which is to say foreign acquisitions by domestic investors. The brightest in-out deal also took place in April. Alliance Capital acquired 100% of the shares in Kyrgyz Mobile Tel Ltd., Flaxendale Holdings Ltd. and George Resources Ltd. All of these companies together control all the shares in the Kyrgyz GSM operator Bitel.
Local investors have for a long time been eyeing Kyrgyz assets. Simply put, Kazakhstani capital already resides in many medium-sized and large Kyrgyz companies. And, representatives of the financial sector, particularly banks, are actively searching the neighboring market for new clients. The mass media sector also has an appetite for investment. Last June, it became known that Channel 31, operating both in the radio and television markets, took over the Independent Bishkek Television Channel (NBT), a Kyrgyz operator. The price on this transaction is still unknown. According to Nazyma Mollaudova, director of NBT, “The acquisition process occurred over six years. The local market had been closed until those events about which we all know happened.” In reality, the regime change in Kyrgyzstan contributed to the increase of Kazakhstani expansion into this neighboring country. The telecommunications industry is not an exception to this case. Bitel looked to be the most attractive on this market.
Dinara Akmatbekova, PR manager for Bitel, told exclusive, “By the end of 2005 the number of Bitel subscribers was 470,000. The company’s market share equaled 87%. Bitel, with the trademarks of Bitel and MobiCard, was the only cellular communications operator in the republic working with the GSM standard (its licenses are valid until 2018). Another two operators working in the republic use the D-AMPS and CDMA standards. 70% of Kyrgyzstan’s population resides on territory covered by the Bitel network. Over the first six months of 2005, Bitel’s earnings were US$22.8 mln. The monthly average revenue per user (ARPU) equaled US$11. Penetration of cellular communications in the republic is 9%, while that of fixed landlines is 8%. As a result, this prospective asset has for a long time been under consideration by Russian capitalists, as represented by Alfa Group, which is the telecommunications