Indonesian telecoms industry ends tough 2014

The country's telcoms industry ended 2014 on a low note, after most mobile operators suffered financial losses during the year amid cutthroat competition.

In the first nine months of 2014, cell operators PT XL Axiata (EXCL) and PT Smartfren Telecom (FREN) kept bleeding, with total net losses of Rp 901.2 billion (S$95 million) and Rp 939.9 billion, although the two recorded 10.8 and 22.2 per cent in revenue growth, respectively.

Recording a worse performance, cell operator PT Indosat (ISAT) saw Rp 1.32 trillion in net losses and a 0.6 per cent decline in revenues during January-September last year.

Meanwhile, state telecommunications firm PT Telekomunikasi Indonesia (TLKM), which had total assets of Rp 138.3 trillion as of September, was the only telcoms company with moderate growth both in its top and bottom lines.

The national-flag company recorded a 6.9 per cent increase in its revenues and a 3.07 per cent increase in net profit.

Indosat president director Alexander Rusli, who is also chairman of the Indonesian Cellular Phone Provider Association (ATSI), said the continuing price war for Internet data packages and un-materialized expectations from elections last year had badly affected the industry.

"Prices for Internet data packages in the country are the lowest in the region, but operators are keeping their data prices low to attract customers," he said.

The rupiah's depreciation is also a challenge, especially for operators, who have a large amount of foreign debt.

XL's foreign exchange (forex) losses, for example, climbed to Rp 935.5 billion in the first nine months of the year from Rp 714.6 billion in the same period in 2013.

While the year may not have been a favourable time for growth in the telcoms industry, a number of major events in the industry brought changes in the industry's competition landscape that may have a positive effect in the future.

On April 8, PT Axis Telekom Indonesia officially merged with XL, making the industry home to six players: Telkom (including its cellular business PT Telkomsel), XL, Indosat, Smartfren, Tri and Bakrie Telecom (BTEL) from 11 operators a few years back.

In another development, code division multiple access (CDMA) services started to drop off.

In October, Telkom ended its CDMA service, Flexi, and migrated all service users to its global system for mobile communication (GSM)-based service provider PT Telekomunikasi Selular Indonesia (Telkomsel).

The move left Smartfren and BTEL as the only players in CDMA, with the two recently agreeing a network-sharing partnership.

Another major industry trend where most operators released ownership of their telcoms towers to independent tower companies for efficiency.

On March 19, Indosat sold its shares in tower operator PT Tower Bersama Infrastructure (TBIG) to reap Rp 1.39 trillion to partially pay its debts, which are due this year.

XL and Telkom signed tower deals with tower firms PT Solusi Tunas Pratama (SUPR) and TBIG, respectively, in October.

XL sold 3,500 of its towers to SUPR for Rp 5.6 trillion, which was used to pay its debts. Telkom, meanwhile, agreed with TBIG for a share swap deal, under which TBIG would wholly own a stake in Telkom's tower business - PT Dayamitra Telekomunikasi (Mitratel) - and Telkom would own around a 15 per cent stake in TBIG.

In terms of technology development, the year has become a starting point for Indonesia's drive to provide Internet access to most of its 250 million citizens under the Indonesia national broadband plan (RPI).

As part of supporting the broadband plan, Telkomsel, XL and Indosat launched their commercialized 4G in December, which can provide Internet access speeds of up to 100 megabits per second (mbps).