‘Tai ko tai’ or ‘sau tai’ | 40 Years of Mobile Phones

We Love Mobile Phones

It has now been 40 years since Macau licensed the first analogue mobile phone network to CTM (what today would be called 1G). The instruments were so heavy and expensive that few could anticipate what has now become a reality: in Macau we love our mobile phones *. 

And even if per capita penetration rates (the world’s largest) are inflated by the stored-value SIM cards bought by tourists, this is an intense relationship – which we describe in a number of ways in this special report. 

The arrival of mobile phones brought with it the discovery of telecommunications, a sector on which the MSAR made a big bet in its early years, but that has been lagging behind. 

Some four decades on, CTM is no longer alone, but in some areas – despite liberalisation efforts – this seems to be the case: it is enough to see the problems that MTel has yet to attract 5,000 customers or the fact that CTM dominates almost the entire Internet market (with a share of 97.6 per cent). 

That’s why the future of telecommunications in Macau is another topic of this special report. 

* We like them so much that we cosset them at home, even when they have no economic value and we are contributing to an environmental problem. We keep them because no-one likes to be without a great love . . .

Whoever looks at the statistics thinks that the inhabitants of Macau are loonies for mobile phones. It is not so much after all. The passion for tai ko tai exists, but the numbers have to be better interpreted . . . 

In April, the Joint Admission Examinations were held for the first time in Macau’s four universities. According to a local professor’s report, most students did not switch off their cell phone after entering the examination room. Whenever the phone rang they answered. You could also see some people playing on these machines. Some of the students spoke to friends via WeChat or other applications despite the examination sheet being in front of them and at the risk of being disqualified and prevented from sitting the exam. 

Is the reader surprised by this revelation? Only if you are not aware of the mobile phone penetration in Macau, the highest in the world when analysing the number of subscriptions per 100 population – please see chart below. 

The numbers are overwhelming and, as you can see, they are not to be found anywhere else in this big wide world. 

Are the inhabitants of Macau fools for mobile phones? 

“Figures rise over 100 per cent due to users having more than one mobile device,” reveals a report on Asia Mobile Network Operators by market research database ResearchMoz. “Nearly everyone has one or more mobile phone(s). The competition in Macau’s telecommunications industry is keen although CTM is the only telecommunications company offering fixed line and mobile telecommunications services, while another three companies – China Telecom, ‘3’, and Smartone – offer mobile telecommunications services only. As a part of the Deloitte global mobile consumer survey, Deloitte (2013) reported that Chinese mobile consumers including those in Macau and Hong Kong purchase new phones and switch their telecommunications service providers very frequently, particularly for those young adults,’ we can read in The effect of consumer perceived service quality on consumer satisfaction in Macau’s telecommunications industry by Polytechnic Institute Professors Tang and To.  

As one can conclude from the portrait of Macau students on exam day and how the numbers underscore Macau residents’ very strong relationship with mobile phones. But this passion alone does not explain the absurdity of mobile phone penetration. 

As Professor To explains to Macau Business, based upon the latest report from the Macau Statistics and Census Service – in which it stated that “as at the end of June 2018 . . . the number of mobile phone subscribers rose by 18.1 per cent to 2,383,285, of which stored-value GSM card subscribers (1,625,117) accounted for 68.2 per cent” – “many of Macau’s mobile phone subscribers (over 68 per cent) are GSM card subscribers (i.e.) temporary users that can be visitors to Macau. Without knowing exactly how many mobile phone subscribers are ‘real’ residents that 300 per cent-plus ratio – 2,383,285 divided by roughly 650,000 inhabitants – can be a bit misleading.”  

And as pointed out by the Macau Telecoms, Mobile, Broadband and Digital Media Statistics and Analyses 2017 report, “Demand for telecom services is significantly driven by the millions of visitors that visit the tiny enclave every year . . . [of whom] . . . 87 per cent are classified as residents of Mainland China or Hong Kong.” 

“Demand for telecom services is significantly driven by the millions of visitors that visit the tiny enclave every year” – Macau Telecoms, Mobile, Broadband and Digital Media Statistics and Analyses 2017 

Under any scenario, few would say that in 2018 Macau would be the paradise of ‘tai ko tai’ (大哥大) as the first portable phones were known in Macau. (It is said that the name comes from the fact that the first martial artist to use this type of mobile phone was allegedly Hung Kam Bo, known by the public as ‘Tai Ko Tai’). Some 40 years ago, when Macau launched Analogue Mobile Phone Services used TACS technology, there were only 337 subscribers. At that time, a mobile phone cost MOP30,000 and was, naturally enough, considered a status symbol. 

Today, ‘tai ko tai’ is forgotten and everyone talks about ‘sau tai’ (handphone). But the passion is the same. 

Call me 

(Subscribers per 100 population 2016) 

Macau 322 
Hong Kong 241 
United Arab Emirates 215 
Bahrain 210 
Antigua and Barbuda 178 
Thailand 174 
Costa Rica 172 
Austria 164 
Seychelles 161 
Montenegro 166 
Russia 159 
Cayman Islands 157 

(Source: World Bank) 

Apple to the core 

In Hong Kong, Apple has 51.8 per cent market share, while Samsung has 24.6 per cent (August numbers). 

Very different from what occurred in the same period in Macau, where the US brand crushes the competition: 77.3 per cent opted for Apple, with 11 per cent using Samsung. 

In both markets, the two main Chinese brands, Huawei and Xiaomi, occupy around 5 per cent, although in Macau Xiaomi has not reached 3 per cent. LG and Sony have values close to zero here. 

Overall, the numbers are very different. 

Samsung leads the world at 30.8 per cent, while Apple has 20.3 per cent, and the two Chinese brands have secured around 7 per cent (source: Globalstats). 

Another number: between January and August of this year imports of mobile telephones rose 82.5 per cent, worth MOP4.28 billion.