New blow to competition in Ghana’s telecom industry

Last week, Ghana’s general public were taken by complete surprise by the revelation to Parliament by Minister-designate for Communications and Digitalization, Ursula Owusu-Ekunful, that the majority shareholders of AirtelTigo have decided to disinvest from their Ghana operations, less than four years after a merger between the erstwhile Airtel Ghana and Tigo Ghana had created a single entity with the second largest market share in the country’s telecommunications industry.

Now Ghana faces one of the biggest disinvestments since it liberalized its economy back in the mid-1980s and subsequently evolved into one of the most attractive destinations for foreign direct investment in Africa.

Instructively, Bharti Airtel and Millicom, the Indian and Luxemburg respectively headquartered majority shareholders of AirtelTigo Ghana are not pulling out because of any disappointments they may have with Ghana as an investment destination; rather their concerns are specific to the country’s telecoms industry.

Simply put they are not making enough profits to justify their investments in an industry whose leader, MTN Ghana, has achieved overwhelming dominance and is putting this to great advantage with regards to pricing.

Indeed, the disinvestment decision by Bharti Airtel and Millicom is now being seen as a major justification of the National Communications Authority’s stance towards MTN – which it declared a Significant Market Player last year, enabling it to intervene in its tariff structure setting – and the industry regulator is seeing the situation as one that would allow it to tighten its regulatory grip on the overwhelming industry leader even further.

This will mean higher tariffs on telecom services by all the networks in order to enable MTNs competitors also make profits, but the impending exit of Airtel Tigo’s majority shareholders suggests that this will be for the ultimate long term benefit of telecom service users and the economy as a whole; even erstwhile critics of the NCA’s regulatory stance with regards to MTN are now having a rethink, as they fret that unchecked, a monopoly situation could evolve.

Airtel Tigo is the second largest telecom company in Ghana – a position attained by the merger between the erstwhile Airtel Ghana and Tigo Ghana in 2017 – but like all MTN Ghana’s other competitors has been struggling to achieve sustained profitability because MTN, with its overall 58 percent market share in Ghana – which is still rising – has been able to use its vastly superior economies of scale and what the NCA calls “predatory pricing” to force its competitors into applying tariff structures that leave them without significant profits.

Consequently, the NCA took the controversial decision of declaring MTN a Significant Market Player (SMP) in 2020, thus enabling it to intervene in that company’s price setting.

However, because the interventions require MTN to increase, rather than lower its tariffs – in order to allow its competitors to increase their own too and thus make profits – the NCA has come under widespread criticism from industry analysts and public policy commentators who argue that this amounts to a misuse of its regulatory powers in that its authority to intervene in price setting was given it so as to force dominant industry players to lower their tariffs rather than increase them, which does not immediately benefit consumers.

The NCA on its part however has argued that its intervention aims to prevent MTN from using predatory pricing to force its competitors out of business – or at least reduce their respective market shares to levels where they cannot influence industry price setting.

The intended dis-investment by Airtel Tigo thus supports the NCA’s assertion and consequent regulatory stance and expectedly will give it the impetus to intervene even more decisively in forcing MTN to apply tariffs that its competitors can match to enhance their own profitability.

Effectively, the impending disinvestment could leave only Vodafone Ghana standing between MTN and a monopoly situation. Vodafone is resilient, being the subsidiary of the world’s biggest telecom company.

Furthermore, being the current incarnation of what used to be the state-owned telco, Ghana Telecom, it has lots of public goodwill, especially in the hinterlands where for many years it operated the only network available to communities there.

However, its returns on investment in Ghana are not competitive compared with those it earns in many other countries where it operates.

It is instructive that while Globacom has been able to match MTN in the former’s home country, Nigeria, it has hardly got its foot in the door in Ghana; its market share remains insignificant despite heavy initial expenditure on marketing and publicity and indeed, it is its wholesale data provision services, offered through its Glo 1 cable linking West Africa to Europe, that is keeping it in business in Ghana.

Consequently, the government has taken a strategic decision to buy Airtel Tigo itself and re-sell it when an acceptable buyer emerges with an acceptable bid price, rather than let MTN use the situation to drastically increase its market share even further.

The government’s genuine concern is that left unchecked MTN could grow its market share to a level where it could dictate tariffs as a near monopoly, a situation which clearly would be detrimental to both consumers and the Ghanaian economy as a whole.

Government is already a minority shareholder in Airtel Tigo, a situation arising out of its shareholding in the pre-merger Airtel network. Interestingly, the government’s insistence on retaining that equity interest in the merged entity nearly scuttled the transaction altogether, although the government stuck to its guns and called the bluff of the two majority shareholders. This is what has now positioned it well to ensure that the impending disinvestment does not result in the closure of the network itself.

NCA has already issued directives to MTN to revise certain tariffs upwards – specifically those for its on-net services which it had set significantly below inter-network tariffs.

This has been key because most telecom activities involve MTN whether wholly or as one of the two counter-party networks in an internetwork activity.

Thus MTN has been able to increase its market share through its superior tariff price competitiveness for on-net services, which customers can only benefit from if both they and their activity counterparties are on the MTN network.

With the government about to become a major shareholder in an industry it regulates through the NCA, it will have an even bigger incentive to rein in MTN’s industry dominance in favour of its competitors.

However it will have to be cautious how it goes about it; too aggressive regulatory action could easily be interpreted as a conflict of interest, if not in the law courts, at least in the minds of potential foreign investors who could count it against Ghana as a preferred direct foreign investment destination.

MTN itself will not take all this passively. The company protested the NCA’s classification as an SMP in the courts, albeit unsuccessfully, but with the government owning Airtel Tigo, even if only temporary, its arguments of being unfairly treated would carry far more weight both legally and among the international investment community.

The inevitable ire of consumers, as they are made to pay higher tariffs as a result of new regulation – would swing public sentiment in favour of MTN too.

It is still unclear how the government wants to go about the process of buying Airtel Tigo fully and then reselling a majority stake. Considering the huge value of the company, an Initial Public Offer is a likely option as telecom network operators, being household brand names, will be attractive to millions of retail investors.

If the NCA significantly curbs MTN’s capacity to grow its market share by making its competitors offer tariffs that are economically unviable over the long term, institutional investors will be equally attracted to a share offer too.

Instructively MTN Ghana’s IPO in 2018 was by far the largest in the history of the Ghana Stock Exchange attracting well over GHc1 billion in equity investment, three times the previous record of less than GHc400 million generated from Agricultural Development Bank’s IPO some two years previously.

What is certain however is that the company will not be sold to a single foreign buyer, for strategic reasons; private enterprise, households, the government itself, and the economy as a whole have become too reliant on digital telecom services for the industry to be entirely foreign-owned.

Indeed this is why the government insisted on retaining an equity interest in Airtel Tigo itself at the time of the merger, despite its lack of strong profitability.

It is also in part why the government insisted that MTN Ghana sell shares through the Ghana Stock Exchange as a condition for being granted a 4 G license after its initial strategy of restricting those licenses to indigenous companies resulted in inadequate capacity installation.

No single indigenous investor has the capacity to buy it – the biggest institutional investors such as SSNIT could, but this would result in over-concentration of its investment portfolio which is a bad investment strategy so it would not – but a consortium of buyers may be considered for a private sale especially if that consortium includes significant indigenous investment,

But what is certain is that government will sell it as quickly as prudently possible. Negotiating the purchase will be complex; it will most likely involve borrowing the requisite funds on commercial terms using a special purpose vehicle so as not to add on heavily to the already inordinately high public debt.

But the government will have to weigh the desire to resell it quickly to avoid interest costs on the borrowed financing from piling up, against the need to allow NCA to complete its pricing interventions with regards to MTN so as to create a potential for sufficient profitability to attract buyers at a good purchase price.

This means the NCA will intensify its efforts to compel MTN to raise its tariffs – especially on its on-net services – so that Airtel Tigo, along with Vodafone and Glo can do likewise and thus become more profitable.

Because of the nature of the telecom business, the government should be able to negotiate favorable acquisition terms from Bharti Airtel and Millicom, on the basis that they cannot take most of their heavy capital investment away with them. On the other hand, though, those investors could threaten to sell their assets in a piecemeal fashion, if the government’s offer is not good enough for them.

Already, as with other telecom companies, Airtel Tigo outsources the provision of key infrastructures, such as towers, to dedicated companies that provide them for the entire industry using the cost-efficient strategy of co-location sharing among user networks.

But even with the best efforts of the NCA, retrieving significant market share from MTN will be a very difficult task. The critical mass which it has been leveraging on to win sharply increasing market share from its competitors is the result of bigger investment in infrastructure, bigger spending on brand visibility and marketing, and superior product and service innovation than what its competitors have put up and the NCA cannot change any of that even with the extra regulatory powers available to it by classifying MTN as an SMP.

It is instructive that the conventional wisdom assumed that the introduction of mobile money interoperability would strip it of the advantages that had given it an overwhelmingly dominant market share of over 90 percent in that particular service sector. Instead, though, MTN’s market share has grown even bigger; simply put it has proved more competitive than its competitors.

Indeed, NCA, even with the full backing of the government must be seen to distinguish between the inordinate use of MTN’s superior market share and inherent superior competitiveness. But even as it does this, it still has to ensure, for long-term strategic reasons, that MTN’s superiority, however it is derived, is not used to replace competition with a (near) monopoly in Ghana’s telecoms industry.

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