Lessons from the land of cheap broadband

November 13, 2009: 7:02 AM ET

What happens when telcos practically give it away ($13 for 100 megs!)?

NiQ Lai, chief financial officer of Hong Kong's City Telecom (CTEL), stopped by FORTUNE's San Francisco offices this week while on an investor tour. I had one question for him: Short of moving to Hong Kong, how can I get some of what he's selling?

I pay $25 to AT&T (T) every month for DSL that tops out at 1.5 megabits per second downstream, and 384Kbps for uploads. It's not always as fast as advertised. Sometimes it doesn't work at all. Cable offers faster speeds in my neighborhood, but the service also costs more, so I just try to remember the days of dial-up modems and convince myself that DSL is good enough.

But if we had a US version of City Telecom, I'd switch in a heartbeat – which is precisely what the residents of Hong Kong have been doing lately.

City Telecom's 400,000 customers pay $13 a month for 100 megabit synchronous broadband. And they get a money-back guarantee: If they don't clock 80% of the promised speed, the company pays them twice their monthly fee.

"We have a big hairy audacious goal," says Lai, referring to the term popularized by "Good to Great" author Jim Collins. "We want to be the largest IP service provider in Hong Kong by 2016. And three years into our strategy, we're well on our way to doing it."

If you live within coverage area of Verizon's FiOS service (VZ), you pay as much as $150 a month for up to 50 megs downstream and 20 upstream.

How can City Telecom possibly offer service that's more than twice as fast at less than 10% of the price?

Density is a blessing

It's partly geography and partly vision. While Hong Kong has 7 million inhabitants, only a small fraction of the island's mountainous terrain is developed, which means everyone basically lives on top of each other. The population density is 16,380 people per square mile - versus 640 in Japan and 80 in the US. That makes every customer far cheaper to serve. "We have a phenomenal network built at $200 per home. Verizon is talking about a cost of north of $1,000 per home," Lai says. "We built ours at one-fifth the cost."

Of course building the network in the first place required vision. City Telecom was founded 17 years ago as an international calling-card company by two cousins who plowed in 100,000 Canadian dollars to get started. They could have leased lines to get into Internet-service business the way many carriers do, but that would have meant encountering the same last-mile bottleneck. So, they built their own $400 million network over a decade.

And now the company is on a tear. The largest IP service provider on Hong Kong, PCCW, has about 1 million customers, according to Lai, but is growing at a fraction of the pace. It added only 3,000 in the last six months, compared to 41,000 for City Telecom. PCCW recently slashed its prices to match City Telecom, but still can't come near the speeds. But can City Telecom really make a business out of cheap broadband?

Innovation trumps incumbency

Lai insists the company already has. "The network is cash flow positive since 07. We're debt free with 10% revenue growth and 30% EBITDA growth," he says. "Our stock is up 200% in 12 months, and the market is starting to realize what we're doing."

All that success, Lia adds, is a result of having a Big Hairy Audacious Goal and doing everything possible to achieve it. "The telecom industry tends to commoditize people. Our strategy is to commoditize bandwidth, to make 100 megabits the industry norm in Hong Kong," he says. "Our plan is to win by offering the best service at the lowest possible cost structure. Thirteen dollars is not a lot, but if you scale it and drive your cost base down, it's a beautiful business to be in."

If only some US telecom executives felt likewise.

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About This Author
Jeffery O'Brien
Jeffery O'Brien

Jeffrey O'Brien joined the San Francisco bureau of FORTUNE in June 2006 as a senior editor covering the intersection of science, technology, culture, and business. From 1999-2006, he was a senior editor at Wired magazine. As a writer, his work has been anthologized in The Best of Technology Writing 2007 and in The Best Science and Nature Writing 2005. As an editor, his features have been featured in The Best American Science Writing 2006, The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2006, and The Best Technology Writing 2006. He is also the recipient of a Jesse H. Neal Award for editing best single issue, which he earned in 1998 as the editor of Marketing Computers (Adweek). O'Brien is a graduate of the SI Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University and was a 2006 Templeton fellow in science & religion at the University of Cambridge (UK).

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