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Data services to drive growth as Southeast Asia's mobile market nears saturation

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Growth in Southeast Asia's (SEA) mobile services is expected to be driven by data services as mobile connections penetration surpassed 90 percent in 2009 and slowing revenue growth signal saturation.

Capping a three-year run of high growth, 2009 saw Southeast Asia's mobile connections rising 22.1 percent to 489 million (subscriptions). Total revenues however grew just 3.2 percent, reaching USD28.7 billion in the same year.

"Last year marked a tipping point for service growth drivers in Southeast Asia - and the rest of Asia - as data services revenues, reaching USD7.1 billion, drove 60 percent of Southeast Asia's total revenue growth," says Frost & Sullivan senior consultant Nicholas Khoo.

Southeast Asian operators' growth focus is shifting from customer acquisition to maintaining existing revenue streams and developing new ones.

"Plain old voice and text messaging services will no longer deliver larger revenue growth than data services, even in developing markets such as Cambodia and Vietnam," he adds.

New analysis from Frost & Sullivan finds that data usage in this market - covering seven Southeast Asian nations - will grow to account for 40.4 percent (just over USD12.4 billion) of total mobile revenues by end-2015, up from 27.8 percent in 2009.

Southeast Asia is at the beginning of another wave of mobile data services enabled by exponentially improved networks and device capabilities.

Frost & Sullivan identifies three broad data service segments - 'mobile Internet' [on existing and upgrading low- to mid-end devices delivering relevant 'thin' services and Internet service extensions]; 'mobilised Internet' [on mid- to high-end smartphones offering new services and extensions around portability of the Internet experience and services]; and mobile broadband [which adds mobility value to broadband through untethered access on a variety of portable devices].

"Mobile broadband offers the clearest new connections growth and new revenue stream opportunity for operators," says Frost & Sullivan senior industry analyst Shi Min. She adds that countries like Singapore, Vietnam and Malaysia - already with mobile penetration of 137 percent, 127 percent (although half are reportedly inactive) and 108 percent, respectively, in 2009 - present the best potential for mobile broadband given the broadband- and Internet-receptiveness of these nations.

Shi explains, "In developed markets, like Singapore, mobilised Internet and mobile broadband competition is likely to revolve around branding and value-capture based on lifestyle patterns, personalisation and convenience."

The Philippines, Indonesia and Thailand (each with mobile penetration of 80 percent and above; and low fixed-Internet and -broadband penetration), on the other hand, offer fertile environments for mobile and mobilised Internet, giving users access to an almost transparent fixed Internet experience on their devices.

"In developing markets, mobile could well become the primary narrow and broadband Internet access service," Khoo says. He however adds that the intermediate challenges for operators to navigate are end-user device affordability, and, in low Internet-readiness markets, familiarity with and usage of the Internet.

"To profitably encourage and retain service uptake and usage, managing network economics and strategic services will be key," they suggest. "Advantages are likely to accrue to operators that are able to deliver sustainable efficiencies and effectiveness in both their data networks and marketing (of services)."

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