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Norway to get more competitive as Ice steps up

Norway’s smallest mobile operator has launched 5G services and unveiled a new business plan designed to accelerate growth in the coming years.

Alongside its third-quarter results presentation, Ice Group this week shared a new strategy that will see it introduce a new brand to target the price sensitive end of the market, a move it believes will help it to grow its customer base, making it a stronger competitor to incumbent Telenor and Nordic big gun Telia.

The firm launched NiceMobil on Monday, a digital-only sub-brand that will offer “very aggressive pricing” on no frills packages, according to chief executive Eivind Helgaker.

“We believe [having two brands] will accelerate our subscriber growth going forward,” he said, speaking at the Q3 numbers announcement.

Three days later the telco formally switched on its commercial 5G service in Oslo. As it stands, the network covers around 10% of the population in the Greater Oslo area, but Ice says its short-term goal is to offer 5G in Norway’s four or five largest cities, while in the long term it aims to bring the technology to 75% of the population. It did not give any further detail on what short or long-term might actually mean though.

Pushing on with 5G is a costly business, especially for a smaller player, and coming alongside the new two-pronged business strategy, it means Ice needs to raise some cash.

“We do have a lot of 5G-ready equipment, but it’s also a meaningful investment for us to get to the 75% population coverage with 5G,” Helgaker said.

Specifically, the telco needs to invest 1 billion kroner (or about US$114 million) in its new strategy, including 5G rollout, boosting capacity in its existing networks, adding value-added services and so forth, and that means some financial juggling. It has brokered a deal to resolve a fairly longstanding dispute with lenders and has engaged advisers to start working on an equity raising plan of up to NOK2.5 billion ($285 million).

This is a sensible time for Ice to make a bigger push to become a more significant competitor in the Norwegian mobile market.

It is almost a decade since Ice gained entry to the Norwegian mobile market with the acquisition of its first frequencies, but it spent a number of years operating as a data-only player. However, it has begun to make its mark.

Ice picked up 700 MHz and 2.1 GHz frequencies at Norway’s first 5G auction in 2019, taking advantage of spectrum caps imposed on the big two; its Oslo 5G network is based on those frequencies. It added 3.6 GHz to its portfolio about six weeks ago when the country sold off more airwaves.

Its Q3 numbers – which included strong topline and earnings growth, by the way – show that it had 677,000 smartphone subscribers (as distinct from mobile broadband customers) at the end of September, having added 14,000 in three months. That leaves it some way behind Telenor, with 2.8 million mobile customers at the same date, and to a lesser extent Telia, with 1.2 million. However, it’s worth noting that its larger rivals’ figures include M2M connections.

Ice is certainly playing catch-up, but it has a great opportunity to do just that, with 5G services just getting underway in Norway, a new low-end brand, and plans to fund its growth ambitions. If all goes to plan, consumers can look forward to a more competitive environment in the very near future.

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