East Timor celebrates a decade of independence: expanding telecom services remains a priority.
East Timor, which has adopted the name Timor-Leste and has come to be commonly known by both versions of the name, is continuing its effort to simply maintain integrity as a nation. The country ranked number 23 in the 2011 Index of Failed States, not a promising statement on its national development status; however, this was up from 20 in the 2009 Index. So in the last few years East Timor has lifted itself out the ‘critical’ 20 category with some modest gains in the way it manages itself. The nation has been pressing ahead with the regeneration of its economy and the rebuilding of infrastructure. The effort to roll out telecommunications infrastructure in particular has been a key part of this. Despite the considerable energy that has been going into this rebuilding, the prevailing social and political environment continues to present major challenges to those seeking to improve the country.
After years of struggle and heartache East Timor gained its independence from Indonesia in 2002. The euphoria had hardly diminished when political instability and the civil unrest erupted in the country in 2006 and continued into 2007. Despite the election of a new government led by Nobel Peace Laureate Jose Ramos-Horta in 2007, opposition to the administration caused further violence and looting. A state of emergency declared in 2008 was lifted a few months later, following the surrender of most of the rebels. There has been no major political unrest since then.
To the outside observer, the country appeared to have started reasonably well in rebuilding its entire infrastructure following the turbulence that ensued after the referendum of 1999. However, the events over the 2006-2008 period caused major concerns about the direction of East Timor; it remained difficult to assess the long term impact of these events on the country’s fragile economy. It is noted that government spending has increased dramatically over the last few years in line with the country’s increased energy income.
East Timor remains one of the poorest countries in the Asia-Pacific region, despite the implementation of a National Development Plan and the considerable progress it has made since independence. The ongoing challenges are significant; the public sector administration, law and justice, and governance are all crying out for further attention, whilst a critically low skills base, high population growth and limited prospects to generate jobs combine to compound the situation further. East Timor faces a complex array of problems. It will need substantial assistance from the international community, for some time to come.
In the meantime, throughout this most difficult of political periods, the country’s telecommunications sector has been expanding with the mobile telephone sector experiencing a particularly strong and sustained surge. After recording huge annual growth rates over a number of years from 2006 onwards, by the start of 2012 the country’s mobile subscriber base had increased rapidly in a short period of time and penetration had passed the 50% mark. Fixed-line network expansion was still languishing coming into 2011, however, with fixed teledensity down around 0.3%. Although it was difficult to get accurate figures on the internet market, it was clear that growth in this sector remained highly constricted and there was little optimism about online activity in East Timor in the short term. Whilst there was a limited broadband service in the country, the number of subscribers for this type of access remained low.
East Timor’s liberalisation of its telecom sector has come about rather rapidly. Two new operators were licensed in July 2012 and were set to join Portugal Telecom’s subsidiary Timor Telecom (TT), which won a tender in 2002 to build the tiny nation’s telecom infrastructure virtually from nothing. It was granted an exclusive licence in the market until 2017. In March 2012, however, an agreement was reached between the government and TT to end its monopoly earlier than planned. In the very same month that TT’s monopoly ended, a tender was launched for two mobile licences. The government was also in the process of setting up a new independent regulatory authority for the telecom sector.
East Timor finally became a member of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) a few years ago. While the ITU does provide some statistical information on this market, it has continued to be a difficult task to obtain official statistics for the country’s telecom sector. Where official statistics are not available, BuddeComm has attempted to provide estimates.
After surging in the 2008/2009 period, the East Timor mobile market grew by around 30% in both 2010 and 2011; it was continuing at a similar pace in 2012;
Mobile subscriber numbers had reached 600,000 and penetration was at 50% by the end of 2011;
In sharp contrast with the mobile market, both fixed-line subscriptions and internet usage in its various forms remained especially low, with only modest growth likely in the short term;
On the broader national front, however, the country’s recent history of political and civil unrest continued to cause uncertainty and predictions for development were guarded;
Indeed, the political situation has been proving a major distraction for government, putting a damper on development programs and infrastructure building;
Despite this, the 10th anniversary in 2012 of the country gaining its independence from Indonesia was cause for widespread celebration;
The country ranked number 23 in the world on the 2011 Index of Failed States, not a very promising statement on national development.
The liberalisation of East Timor’s telecom sector moved rapidly into 2012;
The Timor Telecom monopoly ended in April and two new operators were licensed in July;
The government was also in the process of setting up a new independent regulatory authority for the sector.
Note: The coverage provided of East Timor’s telecoms market is relatively limited due to its early development stage.