Business

North Korea's Sole 3G Operator Sees Users and Revenue Surge

North Korea's only 3G cellular operator continues to report strong demand for its service and saw record revenue and growth in subscriber numbers in 2010, its majority shareholder said Monday.

The Koryolink service ended 2010 with 431,919 subscribers, more than quadrupling its customer base over the year, said Egypt's Orascom Telecom. Orascom owns three-quarters of the cellular carrier through Cheo Technology, a joint venture with the state-run Korea Posts and Telecommunications (KPTC).

Revenue hit US$66.4 million, up 155 percent on the year.

Koryolink launched its service in the final weeks of 2008 amid some skepticism about whether North Korea's government, which keeps tight control on its people, would really permit the general populace to own cellphones.

The continuing subscription growth appears to have proven the critics wrong. Anecdotal evidence from foreigners that have visited Pyongyang also points to an increasing number of people being seen on the street with cellphones.

There remains plenty of room to grow. The current subscriber base represents less than 2 percent of the population. Koryolink offered cheaper tariffs in 2010 to put its cellphone service within reach of more people, and might have to continue lowering prices if it wants to greatly expand penetration inside what is one of Asia's poorest countries.

The service now covers 91 percent of the population including the capital, Pyongyang, 14 other cities, and 22 major highways. In addition to basic voice service, a video phone service was introduced in the third quarter. SMS and MMS messaging services and high-speed data service are available, although subscribers cannot access the Internet through their cellphones.

While subscriber numbers and revenues grow, it remains unclear if Orascom is making any money in North Korea. The company doesn't disclose net profit figures for the unit, but provides profit before accounting for interest payments, taxes, depreciation and amortization (EBITDA). Measured this way, the company posted profits of $57.8 million, up from $17.2 million in 2009.

But perhaps an indication of Koryolink's profitability, or at least its potential, can be found in Orascom's recent deal to merge most of its telecom operations with Russia's Vimpelcom. The deal includes carriers in a handful of countries in Africa, the Middle East and Asia, but excludes two: its home market of Egypt and Koryolink in North Korea.

Martyn Williams covers Japan and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Martyn on Twitter at @martyn_williams. Martyn's e-mail address is martyn_williams@idg.com

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