The long march of liberalisation | 40 years of mobile phones

“A long-term strategic goal of the Macau Special Administrative Region is to drive the development of both telecommunications and information technology. Through a liberalisation process, the government aims to provide both the business community and members of the public with a superior and cost effective telecommunications service, which supports Macau’s economy, reinforcing its international competitiveness and enhancing the standard of living. The successful liberalisation of the telecommunications market in 2001 was an important step towards realising this goal” – this was how the government spoke in 2001, following the approval of the Telecommunications Law “which outlines Macau’s telecommunications policy, including the construction, management and operation of its telecommunications network.” 

That is, from an early age the government made liberalisation its great banner for telecommunications, having begun even before approval of the law to open the market: in addition to the long established presence of Companhia de Telecomunicações de Macau (CTM), both Hutchison Telecom-Macau and SmarTone (Macau) have been offering dual-band mobile communications services in Macau since August 2001, offering freedom to mobile communications services, Internet services and value-added telecom services, and other service innovations.  

The government, it is claimed, believes that the introduction of competitive market conditions will assist in the establishment and development of a healthy telecommunications industry. 

Openness also in the Internet market: the government received an overwhelming response to its invitation in 2000 for Internet Service Provider (ISP) provisional licence applications, granting more than a dozen.  

“The granting of tentative ISP licences marked the second step of the government’s plan to open the MSAR telecommunications market, since it has become an accepted fact that the Internet plays an important role in the development of education, the economy, commerce and telecommunications,” said the government. 

Also note the opening, by mobile operators, of the number of transfer services of prepaid mobile phones, call transfer and inter-network instant messaging (SMS), respectively, in 2002, following the interconnection agreement of the mobile telecommunications operators in 2001, as well as the opening of mobile number transfer services in December of the same year. 

All this, according to the government, “ensures the establishment of an environment of fair competition as soon as possible at the beginning of the liberalisation of the mobile telecommunications market. The introduction of the competition mechanism has also led operators to reduce services.” 

From then on, and in all the ensuing years, policymakers in the telecommunications sector have never failed to emphasise the great mantra (“the objective of the MSAR’s telecommunications policy is to gradually liberalise the public telecommunications infrastructure and service provision to maximise public benefits, create investment opportunities and enhance the competitiveness and long-term development of the economy and the community”) – although not always at the speed desired. 

The years rolled on and still one company (CTM) enjoyed the exclusivity of fixed telecommunications networks and telecommunications services with the outside. In November 2009, the government and CTM signed a revised franchise contract for public telecommunications services “regarding the early opening-up of local and international network rental services, and transit services.”  

In 2012, an open tender for the provision and operation of fixed public telecommunications networks was launched. In June 2013, CTM and the new MTEL Telecommunication Company Limited were granted the licences for the provision and operation of fixed public telecommunications networks, respectively. 

And finally, “in 2012, the telecommunications market in Macau has been fully liberalised.” But this does not prevent a single company, CTM, from retaining almost the entire Internet market in Macau, with a share of 97.6 per cent, which drops to 88.3 per cent in the case of broadband customers. 

Fully liberalised? 

“The high price of local calls, the cost of the roaming service, the poor Internet service – I hardly noticed any improvements after having installed broadband – very expensive (see the cost of the same service and the monthly subscriptions in Europe), slow and with regular failures, and poor signal strength (when I get home the dominant signal is from China’s telecommunications company and I often get messages from the roaming service, as if I’m on the other side of the border) are persistent problems and for which it is not justified for years without adequate solutions,” wrote Macau lawyer Sérgio Almeida Correia in his personal blog last year – criticisms not altogether different from those made by former Legislative Assembly member Chan Meng Kam last year in an interpellation with the government.  

“Congestion of network traffic every day” 

“With regard to the two companies that have a fixed-network licence (CTM and MTel), the government has now tried to find a middle ground between the two, where both start by establishing a 100 Mbps network. It’s as if they were playing with citizens,” Director of MTel Choi Tak Meng told Portuguese language newspaper Plataforma earlier this year. “Some people are asking for a speed of 150 Mbps, other households prefer between 200 and 300 Mbps. At the very least, what both companies suggest is a 1G and 10G connection. This is truly a serious situation. There is congestion of network traffic every day.”