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Vietnam mobile carriers go from critics to players in free-texting app market

Thursday, April 23, 2015, 10:56 GMT+7
Vietnam mobile carriers go from critics to players in free-texting app market
A user texts with Mocha Messenger on her smartphone in this photo provied by Viettel.

Two leading mobile network operators in Vietnam have officially launched their own free-messaging and calling applications, two years after they bemoaned such apps were taking away part of their earnings.

>> An audio version of the story is available here

Vietnamese mobile network carriers repeatedly complained in 2013 that such apps as Viber or WhatsApp, which allow smartphone users to send text messages, make phone calls, and share photos or files for free via the Internet, were eating into their data revenue.

This week saw Viettel, the country’s leading mobile carrier, and third-ranked Vinaphone both introduce their own Viber-rivaling apps, namely Mocha Messenger and Viettalk, respectively.

In April 2013, the two increased 3G prices by 25 percent along with the second-largest network operator MobiFone in an apparent effort to make up for the revenue losses from selling prepaid cards, which charge subscribers for normal SMS and phone calls.

Apps such as Viber, WhatsApp, Line, Skype, Hangouts, Facebook Messenger, or Zalo which was developed by Vietnamese tech giant VNG are available for free for all platforms from iOS, Android to Windows Phone, allowing them to garner millions of downloads in Vietnam and the world alike.

With subscribers able to contact friends and family overseas for free via the Internet using such apps, companies like Viettel, MobiFone, and Vinaphone have been deprived of the revenue from international calls and texts.

Even though local mobile network operators at first appeared hostile to such apps, they apparently knew these new communication tools would bring both challenges and chances, particularly at a time when the smartphone market is booming in Vietnam.

Vietnam topped the list of Southeast Asian countries with the highest smartphone growth rate in 2014, according to the Asia/Pacific Quarterly Mobile Phone Tracker report released on March 30 by market research firm IDC.

Smartphone shipments to Vietnam totaled 11.6 million units last year, reflecting a year-over-year growth rate of 57 percent, according to IDC. Smartphones also represented 41 percent of all mobile phones exported to Vietnam last year and are expected to eclipse feature phones in 2015.

In the first half of last year, the number of 3G subscribers in Vietnam surged to 19.7 million, a 25.4 percent increase compared to the same period a year earlier, according to the Department of Information Technology.

Viettel has piloted its Mocha Messenger since late last year and is now confident its app can win over subscribers after four months of testing, the military-run firm said at a launch conference in Hanoi on Monday.

Mocha Messenger, available for both Android and iOS, obviously allows users to text, call and share files free of charge with an Internet connection, besides what Viettel says are exclusive features such as “Voice Sticker” or “Listen Together.”

Mocha Messenger users can invite their friends to listen to the same song they are enjoying on Keeng, a music sharing site powered by Viettel.

The telecom firm will exempt subscribers from 3G data cost for this service for two months since their installation.

Vinaphone’s Viettalk, meanwhile, tries to impress users with its SMS Out and Call Out features, allowing them to text or call even those who do not install the app on their smartphones, or who do but are not connected to the Internet at the time of contacting.

Text messages and phone calls delivered this way will be charged “40 percent cheaper” than normal, according to Vinaphone.

It remains to be seen whether Mocha Massenger and Viettalk can grab a share in the market where Viber boasts 20 million users and domestic player Zalo has accumulated 25 million, according to various reports.

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