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Asia

Desperately Seeking Investors

2:45 PM -- Thai integrated service provider True Corp. plc is on the hunt for an international investment partner prior to the introduction of 3G by its mobile subsidiary, True Move, but could find takers thin on the ground.

On the face of it, it's a great investment opportunity, and True would have had a less than orderly queue forming at its door a couple of years ago.

But with mobile penetration close to 100 percent, political unrest, and an economy that's been hit harder than most, the Thai telecom environment is more than a little unsettled.

The regulator has already admitted that 3G auctions could be delayed from the fourth quarter this year into next if political violence escalates. More on the local telecom environment in this report.

So where will investment come from? A quick scan of the usual suspects leaves few options.

We can discount those already in Thailand. Singapore Telecommunications Ltd. (SingTel) (OTC: SGTJY) has a 21 percent share in AIS in the country and is looking to increase stakes in existing partners rather than to new investments, especially in penetrated markets.

Similarly, Telenor Group (Nasdaq: TELN)'s control of Total Access Communication plc counts it out.

Of those with 3G experience in penetrated markets, South Korea's SK Telecom (Nasdaq: SKM) would be a great choice, and it has a cash fund. It has a Southeast Asian investment in Vietnam's S-Phone and wants a greater international presence, but recently stated that China and the U.S. were its priorities. (See SKT Plans $2.2B Spending Spree).

From Japan, NTT DoCoMo Inc. (NYSE: DCM) has drawn in its horns, and SoftBank Corp. has said its major investment phase is over as it concentrates on operations.

China Mobile Ltd. (NYSE: CHL), which has expressed the desire to invest outside its borders, took a minority stake in Far EasTone Telecommunications Co. Ltd. but was looking to gain from the Taiwanese operator's 3G experience itself.

Looking farther afield, Orascom Telecom has slowed its activities and tends to concentrate on investments that can provide market share. With AIS responsible for 43 percent of the market, True, trailing in third with 24 percent, does not fit Orascom's usual target profile. Bahrain Telecommunications Co. (Batelco) took a share in one of India's new entrants, S-Tel, and today the Sahara Group is reported to have secured a minority share in the same operator, but these are investors looking for the high growth markets. For more, check out this Economic Times report.

Investors looking for high growth might well be more interested in taking up the Cambodian government's call for more foreign investors. See this Reuters report for more.

— Catherine Haslam, Asia Editor, Light Reading

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