The Numbers Game

[This week’s Communications column for the Vanuatu Independent.]

At a public meeting recently held in Port Vila, Digicel Pacific General Counsel David Dillon estimated that Digicel and TVL combined have about 100,000 active mobile subscriptions in Vanuatu. If that number is correct – and I believe it is – it means that the number of subscriptions has increased by a stunning 400% in less than a year.

100,000. Let’s think about that for a second.

In the big cities of the world, selling 80,000 new subscriptions is a modest achievement. But here in Vanuatu, simply finding that many is a herculean feat. Extrapolating from the 2001 census numbers, we can estimate that there are roughly 55,000 people living in Port Vila and Santo today. Pick any reasonable percentage of people actually using mobile phone services, and it quickly becomes evident that reaching the reported subscription level requires pretty significant penetration into places that had never had mobile services before.

Digicel, TVL and the government of Vanuatu have achieved a truly remarkable thing. This is nothing short of a communications revolution.

Nobody doubts that the effect of opening the telecoms market is a fundamental transformation in the way Vanuatu society interacts. But it’s difficult to characterise the exact nature and scope of the impact.

It would be nice to quote statistical chapter and verse, but we don’t have enough publicly available information to do so.

Both Digicel and TVL have a policy of keeping their cards close to their chest. Says TVL Managing Director Ian Kyle, “I will have no comments to make on speculative metrics such as these. Of course, TVL has a solid understanding of the local GSM mobile market, including detailed analysis of traffic and yields.”

In an interview during a recent visit to Vanuatu, Digicel’s Dillon made a similar statement. He demonstrated to me how closely Digicel monitored its performance metrics, but declined to go into detail concerning actual numbers. Both he and Digicel Vanuatu CEO Tanya Menzies have asserted that such information is proprietary and needs to be guarded carefully for competitive reasons.

That’s a reasonable stance, on the face of it. It’s standard practice in any business to deny any competitive advantage to other players. But on consideration, the need to keep subscription numbers secret seems less compelling than it might appear at first blush. You see, when someone with a Digicel account calls someone on TVL (or vice versa), both companies have a record of the call. Given a sufficient call volume, it quickly becomes possible to get a very clear picture of how many subscribers the other guy has.

So the only ones they’re keeping these numbers from is the public.

More to the point, though, raw subscription numbers aren’t particularly useful when it comes to analysing business performance. TVL’s Kyle discounted their importance, stating that TVL “must focus on market revenue and maintaining healthy financial [indicators] rather than the more simple act of chasing customer numbers. Money is the metric which drives the machine and in that commercial reality, TVL continues to achieve significant success.”

Both TVL and Digicel have gone on the record with subscription numbers when it suited them. Some months before Digicel’s initial rollout in Vanuatu, TVL stated publicly that they had about 20,000 subscriptions. At last month’s meeting in Vanuatu, Dillon offered the estimated total of 100,000 active accounts for both services. These numbers appear to be roughly accurate.

More interestingly, Digicel Pacific’s CEO Vanessa Slowey told Islands Business magazine in October last year that Digicel controlled 70% of Vanuatu’s mobile market.

So what do these numbers really mean?

First off, 100,000 subscriptions does not mean that 100,000 people are using mobile services. It only means that 100,000 subscriptions are in use right now. Some people have multiple active subscriptions (I have 3 myself).

A survey of social effects of mobile market liberalisation by the Pacific Institute of Public Policy (PiPP) includes a finding that many people keep two SIM cards on hand, using their TVL card to call other TVL subscribers, and a Digicel card for friends and family on the Digicel service. Preferential pricing for callers on the same network, coupled with an aggressively low cost of subscription, leads people to double up.

So how many people are using mobile phone services in Vanuatu? And more importantly, what are the effects of such a massive increase in less than a year? Analysts agree that it’s hard to speak in anything other than generalities right at the moment.

The PiPP survey was a baseline study. While it provides important insights into usage habits, it’s a snapshot taken within weeks of Digicel’s Vanuatu rollout. Things have almost certainly changed since then.

The number of households surveyed is what analysts call statistically significant, meaning that we can draw some conclusions about the general population based on the numbers contained in the report. But the survey is too limited in geographical terms to allow us to make broad assertions concerning demographics, such as the relative number of men, women, youth and adults using mobile phone services, how much each of them are spending, and how they’re using them.

Even with the limited data this initial independent study provides, it is possible to make some observations. PiPP Communications Director Derek Brien states, “in order to capitalise on the benefits of improved access to telecommunications, policy makers and the private sector need to consider options for addressing affordability, improving complimentary infrastructure, reducing gender inequalities and facilitating the transfer of resources to the rural areas.”

There is, in other words, a clear need to supplement the commendable work that the government and private sector have accomplished so far. But in order to do that, we need good data to work with. Says Brien, “Policy decisions need to be evidence based and this is why it will be an important part of PiPP’s 2009 activities to update this research in order to build on the initial findings and examine the developments in access and use.”

The draft telecoms legislation covering the role of the Regulator gives him some latitude to request information from the two telcos. While some of the data contained in these reports must necessarily – and rightly – remain confidential, it is hoped that enough will be made public that we can better understand the effects of this communications revolution on Vanuatu society.

Next year, we should have the first results of this year’s upcoming census. These too will be crucial in helping us better understand the shape and nature of Vanuatu society. More importantly, they will give us better information to extrapolate from, making our projections for future development more reliable.

A single tidbit of information is nice to have, and useful, too. But when we can plot numerous points on a graph, we can begin discussing trends. And trend analysis is critical when we’re trying to understand long-running processes like the spread of communications throughout the islands.

It’s clear that Vanuatu is undergoing a historic change where communications are concerned. Our next steps will depend largely on how we understand the effects of our actions. Everyone in Vanuatu is best served by an environment of equal and open access to information. Let’s all continue to work together to make this happen.