Friday, April 11, 2008

Poland - mobile competition

How an upstart took on Poland's big mobile operators

Chris Bannister does have something of the raffish look of a buccaneer about him - an effect heightened by the Jolly Roger hanging behind his desk - but it helps to look like a pirate if you are looking to break into a comfortable and profitable oligopoly.

The ships-of-the-line forming the oligopoly are the three big operators in Poland's mobile phone market: PTK Centertel, owned by France Telecom, which operates the Orange network; Polkomtel, part of the Vodafone group, with the Plus GSM network; and Polska Telefonia Cyfrowa, owned by Deutsche Telekom, with the Era network.

Mr Bannister is the British chief executive of P4, oper-ator of Play, the smallest and newest mobile phone operator in Poland, who joined as launch director from Hutchison. In its first year P4 has acquired about 1m customers, twice as many as management had predicted during the company's roll-out.

Tomasz Kulisiewicz, a telecoms analyst at the consultancy Audytel, says: "They came on to the market fairly late. In other coun-tries the second round of licences usually happened three to four years after the first. Here it was more than a decade later and the cards here had long been handed out. But getting a million users in such a difficult market is a success."

The key to that achievement was to shake up the existing market - divided more or less evenly between the big three providers - and to find partners willing to take unconventional risks or to get involved in a scrap, says Mr Bannister, who eschews the suit and tie that are the normal attire of his counterparts in the bigger operators.

"When you've got a status quo, you can create some disruption and make room for yourself on the market," he says, sitting in his small and cluttered Warsaw office, which looks out on dozens of young telephone operators taking service calls.

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