By Shakeh Avoyan
A Lebanese company that owns Armenia’s largest mobile phone network said on Thursday that it has no plans to sell its subsidiary despite what it described as a strong interest shown by other foreign investors.
An Armenian newspaper report earlier this week said that Russia’s largest mobile phone operator, MTS, has offered to purchase the VivaCell network from K-Telecom. Another Russian wireless operator, VimpelCom, already bought Armenia’s national telecommunications company, ArmenTel, for about $500 million late last year.
K-Telecom’s Lebanese-Armenian chief executive, Ralph Yirikian, declined to confirm or refute the report, saying only that many foreign firms are impressed by VivaCell’s successful operations and would like to buy it. But he insisted that K-Telecom will not sell it in the foreseeable future.
“Right now VivaCell resembles a gorgeous and wealthy young woman courted by many bachelors keen to marry her,” Yirikian told reporters. “They keep calling her, asking her to go out with them. But the girl tells them, ‘My life is only just beginning, I don’t want to get married as I have a lot of things to do and will think about that later.’”
Yirikian added that K-Telecom is only prepared to sell minority stakes in VivaCell and plans to become a public company for that purpose. “We are going to be listed on the stock exchange so that our subscribers and employees can become shareholders in VivaCell,” he said.
The owner of K-Telecom’s Lebanese parent company, the Fattouch Investment Group, similarly indicated that it has no intention to leave Armenia any time soon as he celebrated the second anniversary of VivaCell’s launch with company executives in Yerevan on Thursday. Pierre Fattouch said the group has since invested about $340 million in its Armenian wireless network and plans to further expand its operations in the country.
“The Group is quite excited about the future of this country and will be expanding its investments to cover other sectors,” he said.
Fattouch also revealed that the number of Armenian cellphone users subscribed to his VivaCell has passed the one million mark, giving his company a commanding 70 percent share of the local market for wireless services. “The one million is just the beginning and we are actively expanding our network to a capacity of 1.5 million subscribers as well as preparing the launch of third generation services,” he said.
VivaCell’s launch in July 2005 came several months after the Armenian government forced the then Greek-owned ArmenTel to abandon its legal monopoly on mobile telephony. The development led to an explosion in mobile phone use in the country as fierce competition between ArmenTel and VivaCell dramatically reduced the hitherto high cost of the service.
That competition developed into a price war last year, with the two operators accusing each other of unfair competition and seeking sanctions from a state anti-trust body. According to Yirikian, they both withdrew their applications to the Commission on Protection of Economic Competition after reaching an amicable settlement earlier this year. He did not give details of the deal.
(Photolur photo: Fattouch, left, and Yirikian hold a news conference.)