Russians like their data on the move

By bne IntelliNews February 1, 2013

Ben Aris in Moscow -

What was the most popular Christmas present for loved ones in Russia in 2012? Sales of smartphones jumped before the New Year holidays, according to leading handset retail chains, promising that mobile internet will be the next big thing in Russia.

Valeria Kuzmenko, spokeswoman for the country's largest mobile operator MTS, which also owns a large phone retail chain, told Vedomosti that peak sales were registered on December 29-31 as punters scrambled to find a last-minute present. Sales at MTS' branded retail outlets grew three-fold over the run-up to the holidays, while sales of smartphones were up by 50% on the year and by 300% compared with average daily sales.

Likewise sales at MTS' main rivals, Euroset and Svyaznoy, were up by nearly 60% on year in terms of value between December 15 and December 31, with Svyaznoy's smartphone sales up an even bigger 86% on the year in that period. "Sales of normal phones have continued to grow, even in the worst of the crisis years, but the fastest growth in sales is all coming from smartphones," Dennis Ludkovsky, CEO of Svyaznoy, told bne in a recent interview.

The rapid spread of smartphones is also changing the telecommunications business in Russia. Both internet penetration and the voice calls business have reached saturation points, but mobile data is still growing by leaps and bounds.

Analysts that met with VimpelCom, Russia's second largest mobile phone operator, at the start of January say the company doesn't expect to make much new money from its voice business this year. VimpelCom assumptions have its mobile voice business delivering only marginal growth in 2013, up by approximately 1% in Russia and 3% in Ukraine where it also operates. The fixed-line business is already in decline, with volumes expected to fall by 3% in Russia and 6% in Ukraine.

However, the average growth rate of mobile data over this year in Russia is forecast to be over 30%, while data sent over fixed-lines will grow at a more modest 7%. "Mobile data has become the only valuable driver for the company, as the customer base in the fixed-line segment is much smaller than the mobile segment: the company has 2.3m fixed-line Russian subscribers but 56m mobile," says Konstantin Chernyshev, a telecom analyst at Uralsib, one of those who met with VimpelCom's management.

The challenge remains how to make money from the growing tide of data traffic. Most Russian mobile companies offer fixed tariff plans for online mobile and VimpelCom's financial results over the first nine months of 2012 show a gap between the pace of mobile-data traffic growth and revenue from data-traffic growth, although this gap is narrowing, says Chernyshev.

Others are only just waking up to the potential opportunities that the growth of mobile internet offers. In the banking sector Promsvyazbank is in the lead with plans to offer a mobile internet banking platform in the first quarter of this year; other banks won't be far behind.

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