Messaging is Asia's top data revenue earner

Text and picture messages remain the cash cow for mobile operators in the region, though there's effort to boost consumption of music and video services, analyst says.

SINGAPORE--Despite the promises of 3G mobile content in boosting telco profits, messaging services remain the top data revenue earner in the Asia-Pacific region last year.

According to Janice Chong, industry manager of telecoms research at Frost & Sullivan Asia Pacific, messaging services--which include SMS (short message service) and MMS (multimedia messaging service)--contributed 41.2 percent of the region's total mobile data revenues in 2005.

This market was worth US$36.7 million last year, and is expected to enjoy a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 16.4 percent between 2005 and 2010, Chong said, during a conference call last week.

In the Philippines, for instance, messaging contributed close to 90 percent of data revenues and 40 percent of total mobile revenues, she said. That also means the country's mobile operators have the lowest average revenues per user (ARPU)--at US$5.80--in the region, driven largely by the immense popularity of SMS and low voice usage among Filipinos.

To offset the reliance on messaging services and increase ARPU, Asian mobile operators have been driving the uptake of premium content such as ringback tones, as well as music and video applications. So far, mobile operators have seen some success, with premium content contributing 29.4 percent of data revenues last year, Chong said.

In fact, revenues garnered from premium content across the Asia-Pacific totaled US$9.5 billion in 2005, compared to slightly over US$5 billion in 2004, according to figures from Frost & Sullivan.

"Ringback tones are finding [user] appeal in China, Taiwan and Southeast Asia, [where] China has the largest ringback tone market in the region," Chong said. Ringback tone services contributed RMB4.2 billion (US$525 million) to China's total mobile revenues in 2005, a four-fold increase in market size within a year, she noted.

"The popularity of these applications stem from their personalization features, renewing consumer interest in ringtones which have been increasingly commoditized," she added.

Music and video applications in the region have also grown into a market worth US$1.2 billion in 2005, largely driven by the popularity of music portals in Japan and South Korea, Chong said. "This market is expected to be the fastest growing, with a CAGR of 76.1 percent from 2005 to 2010," she said.

Chong pointed that in South Korea, for example, SK Telecom's Melon music portal has already attracted 600,000 subscribers at the end of June 2006. The portal offers users a selection of 700,000 songs for a flat monthly fee of US$5. Similarly in Japan, the Chaku-Uta Full music download service currently records some 3.3 million downloads per month.

Frost & Sullivan expects music and video applications to surpass ringtones, wallpaper and icon downloads as the biggest revenue contributor of data revenues in Japan and South Korea, Chong noted. Although the mobile video and music download markets in other Asian countries are comparatively smaller, a strong preference for local content in those markets is expected to bolster demand for mobile content, she added.

When crafting a strategy to provide music and video download services, Chong advised operators to take a leaf from the success of Apple's iPod digital music player and its iTunes music download service.

She explained that although Singapore's Creative Technology had an 18-month headstart in the MP3 player market, it was the power of Apple's marketing and branding strategy that gave the iPod its iconic status. In addition, Apple provided record companies with an opportunity to combat piracy and benefit from sales of their intellectual property, she added.

"Increasingly, we are seeing more mobile operators moving in a similar direction, by developing an ecosystem through partnerships that reduce time-to-market and help operators establish instant branding for their content," she said.

For instance, U.K.-based Hutchison 3 has partnered with Sony BMG and EMI Music to supply full-length audio track downloads to users, while Japan's KDDI has established an alliance with Qualcomm to provide mobile TV services.

Apart from partnerships, the availability of flat-rate price plans is also crucial if operators want their mobile content offerings to prosper, Chong said. Given the huge data traffic generated by users in South Korea and Japan, operators in those countries have begun offering unlimited data access for a monthly fee, she noted.

"This can encourage greater network browsing and content purchase, particularly the downloading of bandwidth-heavy applications," she said.

In April this year, Singapore-based operator MobileOne slashed the price of its unlimited 3G data plan by 65 percent to S$68 (US$42) a month, in a bid to spur mobile broadband adoption in the island-state. Company CEO Neil Montefiore hopes this will drive data usage and increase 3G adoption among cellphone users.