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A Maverick Operator is Hoping to Challenge the Status Quo in Colombia

By Tom LeinsJun 2, 2020

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With a wireless population penetration rate exceeding 120% and a competitive landscape that includes five mobile network operators and several prominent MVNOs, few people would consider Columbia an enticing target market.

One intrepid telco disagrees.

Today we look at the enigmatic newcomer looking to shake up the status quo.

In December 2019, it was revealed that Novator Partners—the Icelandic-owned, London-based owner of Chilean operator WOM—had acquired bidding documents ahead of Colombia’s long-delayed multi-band spectrum auction. Novator acquired Nextel Chile back in January 2015 and rebranded it as WOM. It’s enjoyed phenomenal success in the Chilean mobile market and its potential entry into the Colombian market quickly generated interest among industry insiders.

Novator acquired Nextel Chile back in January 2015 and rebranded it as WOM. It’s enjoyed phenomenal success in the Chilean mobile market and its potential entry into the Colombian market quickly generated interest among industry insiders.

The reports proved accurate. Novator—bidding as Partners—took its place alongside mobile giants Claro and Tigo as the auction commenced. With fellow Colombian MNOs Movistar, ETB, and Avantel all sitting out, there was an ample supply of spectrum on offer.

Partners successfully bid on 20MHz of spectrum in the 700MHz band and 30MHz (10MHz+20MHz) in the 2500MHz band.

The 700MHz spectrum licenses include obligations to bring 4G connectivity to 3,658 rural locations across 32 departments of the country, including the San Andres archipelago. All rural 4G networks must be operational in less than five years.

In an unusual twist, post-auction, Partners asked for its bid for the 10MHz 2.5GHz block to be retracted. An administrative gaffe saw it accidentally enter a bid 10 times higher than the going rate.

In an unusual twist, post-auction, Partners asked for its bid for the 10MHz 2.5GHz block to be retracted. An administrative gaffe saw it accidentally enter a bid 10 times higher than the going rate. As per Ministry of Information Technologies and Communications bidding documents, the newcomer mistakenly entered a bid of COP1.748 trillion ($534.2 million) for Block 2 in the 2500MHz band, well ahead of its bids for Block 5 (COP293.2 billion) and Block 6 (COP173.5 billion).

The watchdog eventually acquiesced to the request but charged Partners a COP42 billion penalty for withdrawing the bid. Partners took receipt of its 20MHz 2.5GHz license in May 2020, one month after the 700MHz concessions became available.

Intriguingly, in May, Chris “Uncle WOM” Bannister—the flamboyant former WOM CEO who shook up the Chilean mobile market with his lurid promotional strategies and rival-baiting advertising—confirmed that he would spearhead the group’s business in Colombia.

It emerged that since stepping down at the Chilean cellco in August 2018, Bannister quietly relocated to Bogota where he’d been studying local market conditions. In a local interview, Bannister noted that he was in negotiations with a number of international vendors over a network deployment contract, and is optimistic that the newcomer will be in a position to stage a commercial launch by the second quarter of 2021.

The idea of entering a market as brutally competitive as Colombia—where Claro comfortably dominates the wireless sector with more subscribers than all of its mobile rivals combined—would be anathema to most operators. But Bannister and his backers relish the challenge. After his successes in Chile, few would bet against him succeeding.

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Tom Leins

Tom Leins

Tom Leins is a Senior Research Analyst for TeleGeography’s GlobalComms Database. Based out of the company’s UK office, he also contributes to the company’s daily CommsUpdate newsletter, which includes his popular weekly MVNO Monday round-up. MVNO industry aside, Tom has developed a strong specialization in the U.S., Latin America, and the Caribbean, tracking mergers and acquisitions, spectrum auctions, regulatory developments, market opportunities, and growth trends.