Mobile internet prices in Papua New Guinea: still no downward movement

A Digicel billboard in Goroka (Richard Eves)

This blog post updates ongoing monitoring of mobile internet prices in Papua New Guinea (PNG) by presenting data for the second half of 2020. For background, see an earlier post at the start of 2020 that suggested an overall decrease in prices from mid-2016 to late 2019, and a post in mid-2020 that showed no change in the first half of 2020. 

Since the start of 2020, price offerings have been noted each Monday using menus in mobile telephones. This method captures pricing changes within one week of them being made available to consumers. The main motivation for this research has been to monitor whether there is any noticeable change since the Coral Sea Cable System was officially launched in December 2019

Throughout 2020, pricing negotiations were underway between the regulator, the wholesaler and various parties. Wholesale prices have now been set by the regulator for access to internet cables, with expected decreases on 1 April 2021 and at the start of each of the next two years. Paul Komboi, head of the wholesaler DataCo, has said that they accept the new pricing structure. Our research will monitor whether regulated reductions in wholesale prices have any bearing on the available retail prices.

During the second half of 2020, there was no change in the mobile internet (or ‘data bundle’) prices offered by bmobile and Telikom. These two entities are in the process of merging, and their prices match. We continue to check the prices on two different mobile telephones and the offerings remain consistent between the two devices. 

The merger is progressing, with expected completion by June 2021, at a cost of approximately 17 million kina. Former State Enterprises Minister Sasindran Muthuvel was quoted as saying that Telikom had an existing loan of over 100 million kina and bmobile had a separate loan of 100 million kina. Analyst Jeffrey Wall has suggested that liabilities are in fact much larger, with PNG owing China around three billion kina in communication sector debts. He has also indicated that Telikom is “running up heavy operating losses”.

Digicel introduced price changes that were detected by our team on Monday 19 October 2020. While many offerings remained unchanged, some revised data bundles offered cheaper data per megabyte and some changes represented slight increases in the cost per megabyte. For detailed analysis and graphs, click here.

Some Digicel plans offered bonus data for use of social media platforms while others did not (and bmobile/Telikom pricing structures did not offer such ‘social bundles’). In October 2020, Digicel removed the 7-day middle option social plan that had included dedicated data for Facebook and YouTube. A 3-day data option remains unchanged at ten kina for 300 megabytes plus 700 megabytes of data for use with Facebook. Similarly, a 7-day option is 600 megabytes for twenty kina plus 2000 megabytes of Facebook.

Whereas bmobile and Telikom customers lose unused data at the end of purchase periods, Digicel introduced rollover data plans in 2019. These apply to the day categories and not other time-based plans (hour and night plans). The catch is that a customer must make a purchase within the same data plan within 24 hours in order to retain unused data. If a customer does not make a purchase within 24 hours of the expiry of a data plan, unused data is lost

Digicel’s time-based plans for 1 hour, 3 hours or 6 hours (midnight to 6am) may be appealing for some customers but there is no rollover. 1-day plans represent the same value as the time-based plans but at low data volume. 

Time-based plans may be appealing for customers who have limited funds but high data needs and are prepared to use the plan in a short validity period. The 1-day plan may be appealing for customers with limited funds but low data needs. The 3-day, 7-day and 30-day plans would suit customers who can pay a larger amount of money upfront for a sizeable data package and long term usage, with the option to rollover unused data at the same price. 

In summary, there were no changes in the mobile internet prices offered to bmobile/Telikom’s retail customers in the second half of 2020. By contrast, Digicel’s pricing options changed during the period. Many options remained the same, in terms of value, measured as the cost per megabyte. Some options decreased in value and a number of options presented improved value for customers.

Overall, our assessment is that there has been no perceptible decrease in mobile internet prices in PNG since the Coral Sea Cable System was launched in December 2019. The authors will continue to monitor mobile internet prices and provide updates every six months, in order to ascertain trends over time.

It’s possible that there could be a new player in the PNG market in the near future. The Asian Development Bank has announced funding for Amalgamated Telecom Holdings (ATH) to set up a new mobile telephone network in PNG. ATH is a public company listed on the South Pacific Stock Exchange in Fiji. It has mobile networks in American Samoa, Cook Islands, Fiji, Kiribati, Samoa and Vanuatu. This could be a potentially significant development and the authors will monitor the new entrant’s data pricing options, if it commences operations.

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Disclosure

This research was supported by the Pacific Research Program, with funding from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. The views are those of the authors only.

Amanda H A Watson

Dr Amanda H A Watson is a Research Fellow with the Department of Pacific Affairs, Australian National University. From January 2017 to August 2019, she taught at the University of Papua New Guinea’s School of Business and Public Policy under the ANU-UPNG Partnership.

Picky Airi

Picky Airi is a lecturer at the Divine Word University’s Faculty of Business & Informatics.

Moses Sakai

Moses Sakai is a tutor at the University of Papua New Guinea’s School of Business and Public Policy.

7 Comments

  • Thanks Dr. Amanda and Team.

    I had commented on your previous post on the same matter and you advised to provide another update in 6 months time and so it is nice to provide this update.

    For ease of reference, my previous comment on 6th Aug 2020 is reposted below which I believe the regulatory and the market conditions have not changed.

    +++Comment on 6th Aug 2020
    A good study which the regulator and Policy makers need to note. It should be noted that the study was undertaken when the CS2 was completed while the KSCN was still under construction.

    This is critical as the impact of CS2 is mainly in Port Moresby as the redistribution by the Mobile operator across the country will depend on Microwave or Satellite (no change from last time). Further, Digicel has advocated that cost of international connectivity IP transit only accounts for 5% to 10% of their total cost of delivery. One of the conclusions of the study is “including the need to recover costs from the new domestic cable”. One would ask how much does the price of wholesale Internet needs to drop by before we can see real drops in the retail Internet prices.

    Such a study needs to be redone after the KSCN is completed and in operation as it does meet some of the high domestic transmission costs in the market today.

    Having said that, the cables I believe will have a direct impact on the Wholesale segment of the market with more reliable and reduced prices, however, the issues around high retail Internet prices is is a retail competition issue. The study has highlighted an important fact that Digicel controls about 92% of the retail mobile market.

    Issues, around retail competition need to be addressed like, planning and allocation of mobile spectrum, Mobile number Portability and Co-Location and infrastructure sharing and maybe domestic roaming.

    Having said that, the new cables under the National Transmission Network (which includes the CS2, KSCN, etc..) under DataCo if DataCo is able to continue its single wholesale Internet pricing across the country irrespective of the province of location, WILL BRING NEW POSSIBILITIES AND OPPORTUNITIES FOR NEW REGIONAL ISPs that can provide the competition to the Big 3 operators.

    Addressing retail competition is keen to see reduction in retail Internet prices.

    EBU GOMANA
    +++

    I would agree that at the publication of update, there has being little to no movement in the retail data rates. However, with the treat of the entry of a new player since the announcement by Minister Masiu, there seems to be a number of promotions which I believe is aimed at consolidating market share and position before the real war begins.

    As I had stated earlier, the wholesale internet cost (which CS2 has had a part in reducing) based on Digicel only accounts for 5-10% of its cost of delivering retail internet. The Question is has the Government and its institutions (policy makers, regulators, utility suppliers, law enforcers) taken action to reduce the other costs of doing business in PNG (the 80-90%) including but not limited to: Cost of Power, high domestic travel tariffs, security costs, regulatory and licensing fees and other regulatory interventions in the retail space.

    I had shared that following the bringing into use of the KSCN and the move by the MNO to move in-country transmission to Fibre to reduce their transmission costs.

    Further, the barriers for market entry and effective competition in the retail space (Spectrum controlled by only a few operators, no Mobile Number Portability (MNP), no mandatory infrastructure sharing, etc..) still exists today. The Regulator, NICTA concluded in its previous study on MNP to only review MNP if and when Digicel’s market share dropped or if another player entered the market. I think it is no secret based on the Minister’s announcement of a new entrant which your publication in its conclusion has clearly acknowledged. To Me, this is the KEY DRIVER for RETAIL PRICE REDUCTION. MORE COMPETITION. I think the wholesale supply in terms of pricing interventions and accessibility is ready to support the growth and demand that the retail market will require if the competition barriers are dealt with.

    However, I have not seen NICTA reopening up the MNP study or revisiting Infrastructure sharing which would remove the barriers to entry and allow effective competition in the market.

    It seems that we all want a DIFFERENT OUTPUT but do not want to change the INPUT.

    I am hoping to see the next update as we gear up for the introduction of services by the new entrant as well as the how the new KTH merged operator is positioned as a better and bigger competitor to Digicel. Guys I think there is a price war looming.

    Ebu Gomana

    • Thank you very much for taking an ongoing and active interest in this research. We are continuing the research and will submit a new blog post for the consideration of the Devpolicy editors every six months. As we wrote at the end of this post, we will monitor the new entrant’s data pricing options, if it commences operations.

      Thank you for raising numerous interesting issues. I have read through your comments carefully.

      You were right to alert readers to the various other costs involved in the provision of internet service by telecommunication companies, aside from the cost of buying the data itself. I recall that Colin Stone, CEO of Digicel PNG, made this point during a panel discussion we both participated in during events in Port Moresby to mark World Telecommunication Day in 2019. As you rightly pointed out, mobile network operators need to pay for rent, electricity, staff and security personnel at retail outlets. They also need to pay for staff to answer telephone calls at their customer care centre, and so on. There are many costs that they need to work out how to recoup when determining the prices that they will charge customers.

      Thanks again,

      Dr Amanda H A Watson
      (on behalf of our team of three researchers)

  • Thank you for the article. Following on from Rod’s comment, from a casual observation it would seem the costs in carrying the service from where the cable lands to the end consumer, especially in rural locations, will still be significant and reflected in the pricing. With that in mind I wonder if policy makers are giving any thought to sharing the existing internal infrastructure – namely towers – between telcos. Surely that would make a more efficient and cost effective model rather than each telco building their own expensive network of towers – sometimes with public funds from a local member’s DSIP. Perhaps DataCo could assume ownership of towers and lease space on them to all telcos and ISPs – including some of the smaller ones beginning to emerge in provinces. Or alternatively, legislation that requires tower owners to do the same – lease space on their towers – in the national interest. Just a thought.

    • Thank you for the query.

      A public consultation was held by the regulator in 2019 about tower sharing, but this related only to towers constructed with funds from the universal access scheme. It did not address other towers, such as any tower constructed by an individual telecommunication company. The determination was that UAS-funded towers should be accessible to parties as needed and that “charges imposed on access seekers shall reflect the costs incurred by the access provider in providing the service”. See here for more details: https://www.nicta.gov.pg/2019/04/cp-0-5/

      This week, communication minister Hon. Timothy Masiu MP said that ATH will be operating by the end of this year. He said that they will construct about 1,100 towers. He also mentioned the possibility of regulated tower sharing in the future. For more, see here: https://postcourier.com.pg/png-to-welcome-third-mobile-network-operator/

      Thanks again for your contribution to the discussion,

      Amanda

      • Hi Amanda and thanks for the response and information.

        To me, it seems a shame that a parallel network will be developed at great cost rather than thinking of ways of harmonizing transmission networks as a national asset. Especially if donor funds are involved.

        It has taken Digicel since 2007 to build just over 1000 towers – I believe at around US$850 million – so the new proposal of 1050 towers is certainly significant.

        https://postcourier.com.pg/mcpherson-300-towers-subsidised-digicel/

        Regulated tower sharing sounds like a positive initiative. It will be interesting to see how that works.

        Thanks again to you and the team for keeping us updated on trends and developments.

  • Congratulations to the authors of this interesting piece. Tracking and comparing regular price data on internet costs is an excellent approach.

    One question: Are you sure you will be able to attribute any eventual cost decreases (supposing they occur) to the Coral Sea Cable as opposed to any other factors?

    • This is a very good question. It is difficult for us to control for other factors.

      Nonetheless, given the pronouncements about the expected impacts of the cable as it was being laid and then launched, we felt it was important to start this research. We will continue to monitor retail prices and any other relevant data that is available.

      Amanda

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