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Getting A Business ISP In Central America Has Always Been Tough


ispHunting for a corporate-class Latin American ISP? Get ready to make some sacrifices. That’s the news from our first-ever survey of the region’s Internet service providers. These outfits don’t match up to their counterparts on the other side of the U.S. border.

But they do compare favorably with outfits in Asia-Pacific, another region Data Comm recently checked out (and another one that’s been slow to take to telecom reform). How can we be so sure? We’ve ranked them using the same methodology we use in our ISP Index, which appears in the Services Monitor section of Data Comm each month. That index rates ISPs in four areas: network design, application services, pricing and customer support, and performance guarantees.

And our results show most of the region’s providers are doing a pretty decent job. Each country has at least one ISP that offers business benefits. And Chile boasts two: Entel and Netline Communicaciones S.A. (both of Santiago).

But when it comes to network design, Latin American ISPs are faced with two tough problems: a lack of peering points and overpriced bandwidth.

Since real competition hasn’t arrived in most countries, PTTs have kept a stranglehold on capacity, making ISPs pay through the nose for pipes. According to Phillips Tarifica Ltd. (London), the Argentinean portion of a 2-Mbit/s leased line to the U.S. or Europe runs $72,610. Compare that to Chile, perhaps the most competitive country in the region, where the same link goes for $28,125.

At those prices, many ISPs can’t afford to provision robust national or international backbones. And corporate customers end up with inadequate lines.

Need proof? Just ask Guido Samame, IT manager for Shell Prospecting and Developing Peru B.V. (Lima), who connects to local ISP Red Cientifica Peruana (RCP, Lima, Peru). “Our 128-kbit/s link is so slow I’m pushing all of the Web traffic via a 64-kbit/s leased line to our headquarters in the Netherlands and getting better performance for it,” he says.

Number Crunching

Identifying the right ISP starts with understanding just how we evaluated these providers. First, we asked corporate users and equipment vendors for their recommendations of the leading ISPs in Latin America. We identified nearly 50, in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, Peru, Uruguay and Venezuela, and received responses from 17 providers in all of those countries except Venezuela.

We then quizzed those 17 in four core areas: network design, content hosting and applications, customer service, and performance guarantees. Each category is weighted to reflect how important it is to corporate networkers, with the total point value adding up to 100. Network design, the most important factor, measures the sophistication of the ISP’s infrastructure. Providers can receive up to 40 points in this category. The services operators deliver over that infrastructure are a close second, with a possible 30 points. Customer service issues like pricing and support, along with performance guarantees, are less important and carry 15 points apiece. The ISPs’ results in each area were added together and then each was assigned a star rating on a scale of one to five.

When the research was complete one thing was clear: None of the providers stand out. Entel, the best of the bunch, got 3.5 stars, just shy of corporate class. It squeaked by seven other ISPs that garnered three stars, meaning they’re ready for business but offer only limited benefits. The nine remaining providers earned between 31 and 46 points for 2 or 2.5 stars, which makes them risky to do business with, according to Data Comm’s scale.

But overall scores don’t tell the whole story. Corporate customers willing to sacrifice a bit can do quite well with some of the lower-ranked providers. Case in point is Avantel S.A. (Mexico City). The company focuses on delivering Internet access and doesn’t offer any application or hosting services. As such, it ranked just 12th overall, but was among the best performers in all other areas of our survey.

Identifying gems like Avantel means digging into the details that make up each of these categories, understanding our objectives, and then finding out how ISPs measured up.

Net Results

isp1First up, we evaluated each ISP on network design, looking for backbones reaching major commercial areas and at least 12 other countries, with enough redundancy for maximum uptime and multiple Internet connections. We also searched for ISPs with better peering arrangements and backbones capacious enough to offer at least 2 Mbit/s per business user.

What we got was far from that ideal. The average ISP scored just 17 out of a possible 40 points. The top performer, Entel, raked in a mere 24 followed by Avantel at 22, and Advance (Buenos Aires, Argentina) at 21. Avantel furnished 1.3 Mbit/s per user; everybody else furnished bandwidth in the kbit/s range. Unsurprisingly, the top three performers-Entel, Avantel, and Advance-are owned by carriers with their own network infrastructure (2 points). That gives them access to bigger bandwidth at cheaper rates. Avantel, for example, has three 45-Mbit/s circuits to the U.S. and aims to migrate to two 155-Mbit/s links. Avantel is also partly owned by MCI Worldcom Inc. (Jackson, Miss.), so it can tap into that carrier’s expertise to deliver more reliable connections.

Still, most net design scores were disappointing. And the main reason is high international leased-line rates set by the PTTs. They force many ISPs to do without spare capacity in their nets and heavily oversubscribe lines.

Room To Spare?

The ISPs do a bit better at meeting expectations when it comes to having spare capacity for traffic peaks in their national backbones. We wanted operators that had spare capacity of at least 25 percent (1 point) and preferred 50 percent (2 points) to reduce the likelihood that momentary traffic bursts would cause lost packets. What we found was that, on average, most operators’ backbones furnish over 30 percent spare capacity. Three ISPs-Advance, CTCInternet (Santiago, Chile), and Colomsat S.A. (Bogota, Colombia)-delivered more than 50 percent while Avantel and Telmex were at 40 percent.

Turning to coverage, all of the ISPs covered the major commercial centers in their countries (2 points), but a few also went to the outlying regions. For example, Nutec Informatica S.A. (Sao Paulo, Brazil) delivered services into 85 cities vs. the 11 provided by Global One Colombia (Bogota). As far as international service goes, only five ISPs even offered it. Three of those belonged to Global One, for which it got 2 points. The fourth, Servicios Alestra S.A. (Monterrey, Mexico), uses the backbone of AT&T, one of its parent companies. Advance earned one point for its network that reached into two bordering countries, Paraguay and Uruguay.

Pipe Dreams

As far as speeds, five ISPs went above E1 (2.048-Mbit/s), with Entel hitting 10 Mbit/s (1 point), Avantel and Telefonos de Mexico S.A. de C.V. (Telmex, Mexico City) offering 34-Mbit/s services (2 points), and CTCInternet and Advance reaching up to 155 Mbit/s (2 points). Only Avantel, Entel, and Global One Brazil claimed to handle metered bursts (2 points), which enable ISPs to pay their backbone providers just for the capacity they consume.

The area of performance guarantees was by far the weakest for Latin American ISPs. We wanted operators to give us guarantees on network delay, packet loss, provisioning time, network availability and content hosting uptime.

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Textile Industry In Latin America Slows


tmlaWhile the textile outlook for the next several months remains bleak, mills have some long-term opportunities, including moving operations south of the border and increasing their focus on garment production.

But U.S. fabric firms need to act quickly if they want to pursue these areas, because Asian competitors are evaluating similar paths.

Those were among the messages offered by speakers at the American Textile Manufacturers Institute’s 50th annual meeting, held here last week. The three-day meeting, which ran through Saturday, was titled “Global Opportunities: The Next 50 Years.”

The difficulties of the current business environment weighed on the minds of attendees. George W. Henderson 3rd, chairman and chief executive of Burlington Industries Inc., joked that in today’s market, “A coward is a textile executive who leaves his job to go to Bosnia.”

Chuck Hayes, chairman and ceo of Guilford Mills Inc., said, “The apparel end of the business is a mess.”

Seeing no sign that the flood of imported textiles and apparel is abating, he said he believes the pressures “will continue without intervention on Asia by the government.”

While acknowledging the pain caused by the Asian crisis, John Bakane, ceo of Cone Mills Corp., said he has started to see “some positive signs” for the business.

“Retail sales have been good, and that has helped clear up some inventory in the pipeline,” he said. Orders, he noted, have picked up somewhat since January. He added that he expected the denim business to be in better shape by the end of the second quarter.

However, he noted that his outlook might be a little brighter than those of other mill executives because his firm isn’t in the synthetics business, which is further squeezed by the expansion of Asian capacity.

Gene McBride, chairman and ceo of Dyersburg Corp., said that he too had seen some “encouraging signs,” as orders for jersey fabrics begin to pick up, but wondered if that was no more than a typical seasonal lift.

He said the fleece business, which accounts for half of Dyersburg’s revenue, is “still awful.”

As mills try to negotiate today’s challenging textile environment, he added, “the biggest problem is the loss of the ability to plan.” With apparel makers delaying orders, fabric firms are left to gamble on production.

atmsBut despite tough market conditions, textile companies cannot afford to lose focus on one fundamental change affecting the U.S. apparel industry — the ongoing shift of production to Mexico, said Mary O’Rourke, managing director of the recently formed consulting firm Jassin-O’Rourke Group.

“The Asian crisis has put a significant damper on our efforts” to move production to Mexico and Latin America, she said. “We were really in a very pro-active position of taking back market share” at the time of the Asian economic melt-down in the summer of 1997.

But while the flood of fire-sale apparel and fabrics out of the Far East has made it tougher for goods of Latin American origin to compete, O’Rourke reasoned that as Asian economies stabilize, the speed advantage of having factories closer to the U.S. market will pay off.

She said that she expects Latin America to continue to grow in importance as a garment-making region, and urged textile companies to get into the game by investing in cut-and-sew facilities in the region, because it currently is home to few “financially sound” makers.

She said that many apparel resources are unwilling or unable to invest their money in building new facilities. She estimated that it currently costs about $5 million to build a garment factory in Latin America.

“For most textile mills, that is seen as a spare-parts investment, while for apparel companies, that’s a significant investment,” she said.

And textile companies who want to set up shop in the region need to act quickly, because Asian competitors are already turning their eyes to the area.

“At the end of the day, we only need so much capacity down there. The question is who will get there first,” she said. “The Asians are coming. They are not continuing to sit back and ship products out of Asia as they have in the past.”

She explained that, before the financial crisis, Asian apparel companies were uninterested in expanding their operations into Latin America because they expected to generate most of their sales growth in local Asian markets. But while O’Rourke expects the supply side of the Asian economic situation to stabilize within the next two years, she said she didn’t expect Asian demand to pick up substantially for the next seven or eight years.

That has turned their attention back to the U.S., which is seen as the healthiest consumer market left.

Right now, she said, about 70 percent of the apparel industry in Guatemala is owned or controlled by Korean interests, and Thailand- based concerns also have a large presence in that country. Asian control of the rest of the Latin American garment industry is not as high; across the whole of Central America, O’Rourke estimated that 35 percent of manufacturing capacity is controlled by Asian firms and investors; in Mexico, 15 to 20 percent of facilities are owned or backed by Asians.

While there is room for more apparel and fabric factories to be built, she noted, “That’s what the Asians are doing. The Asians will respond….We can’t wait until the Asian crisis is over to see how we are going to get a piece of that action,” she said, because by then overseas competitors will have boxed out U.S. firms.

She also suggested that American firms wanting to set up shop in the area seek out joint ventures or alliances with Asian competitors.

Peter Jacobi, currently president and chief operating officer of Levi Strauss & Co., urged textile executives to evaluate their businesses quickly and to be prepared to change to keep up with market conditions.

Jacobi and Levi’s have had their own recent experiences with change; in January, the 54-year-old executive announced that he would be retiring from his post. Also, the firm recently announced it is closing half of its U.S. factories and moving production to foreign contractors.

Jacobi said that Levi’s biggest mistake in five years was allowing itself to lose track of changing consumer demands. “The alarm was going off, but frankly we pushed the snooze button a few too many times,” he said.

Apparel marketing firms and their suppliers — including textile mills who are getting into the business of garment production — need to improve their communication so that they can react to market changes more quickly, he said.

“It is no longer good enough to wait to hear what your customers want,” Jacobi said, explaining that vendors and customers need to work so closely that knowledge of upcoming trends and needs comes to both simultaneously.

“Why do you think manufacturers like Levi Strauss are buying more packages instead of piece goods today?” he asked rhetorically. His answer: quicker turns and reduced costs.

He said that companies need to constantly re-evaluate themselves to make sure they are not losing touch with their consumers — the problem that led to Levi’s hard times and recently manifested itself in 13 percent revenue decline in 1998.

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The Latin American Diet Gets Better And Better


ladThe rise in value-added products in Latin America has been phenomenal, sparked by the dwindling time that Latin American women have to spend in the kitchen preparing labor-intensive, traditional meals. Products that previously were not readily accepted in the region, such as frozen, dehydrated vegetables (e.g., Rango brand of dehydrated beans sold by Nestle of Brazil) and lowfat products (e.g., 99.5% fat-free, aseptically packaged milk launched by Colombia’s Alpina), are experiencing rapid market growth.

Traditionally, Latin American families buy bread everyday. Due to the demands of modern life, this custom is slowly changing as those families learn to eat packaged, pre-sliced bread which has a longer shelf life and saves housewives valuable time by cutting down on trips to the market. Another example is the growing acceptance of frozen vegetables, which negate a daily trip to the supermarket to buy fresh vegetables.

In Brazil, consumers have embraced products such as Sadia’s Nuggets de Legumes brand of frozen, crunchy-coated vegetables and Qualimax’s Express instant soup with chunks of meat and/or vegetables. Also popular now are pre-cut meats, such as a round-shaped bacon launched by Brazil’s Perdigao, made especially to top a round burger on a bun, and prepared meals that only need to be heated, such as the Comidas Listas Light brand of heat-and-serve, shelf-stable meals by Larga Vida in Colombia.

Attractive Price Points

lad1Because cost is a significant factor in the Latin American purchasing decision, many of the products on supermarkets shelves would be amiss if food processing companies were not able to produce an affordable, yet attractive, product.

The task of distinguishing one product from the rest is an important sales challenge, resulting in aggressive and creative marketing campaigns geared toward capturing the Latin American peso.

Especially in the candy and dairy sectors, packaging has become more of a focus, with marketers using brighter colors, easy-open closures and extended shelf life options. In Brazil, Kid’s renovated its sweets packaging line, while Santista Alimentos redesigned the presentation of its gelatin line. Candy processor Noel in Colombia recently launched a line of chocolates and candies in bright, attention-grabbing colors, as did Arcor of Argentina and Brazil’s Garoto.

No matter how attractive the packaging is, its functionality and ease of use are a dominant selling factor. As a result, items such as beverages, ketchup and mayonnaise are doing well in Tetra Brik aseptic packaging. “The fact that they do not need to be refrigerated is appealing to the consumer. There is no urgency in using them,” reports Jose Vargas Vargas, chief editor, Alimentos Procesados, the leading magazine serving the Latin American food processing industry. “Latin America still has places where refrigeration is scarce, so these items can be very useful.” Shelf-stable items will continue to sell well, he predicts.

Bright Lite

Consumers also are attracted to products that are light and healthy, evidenced by Nestle of Argentina’s Mendicrim Cero, a no-fat, low-calorie white cheese, and its Dream ice cream bar, a no-fat, no-sugar, low-calorie treat. In Colombia, Alpina introduced Leche Finesse, a skim milk with fiber that is 99.5% fat-free. Argentina’s SanCor launched a new line of Bio brand probiotic milks, which help promote healthy intestinal flora. In Chile, Soprole is enjoying the successful launch of “Future Mother” brand milk, a highly fortified product that includes folic acid, a nutrient critical in the correct formation of the fetus’ neural tube. “Consumers are interested in dairy products flavored with fruit that are healthy, low-calorie and lowfat. They are looking for healthy products that will allow them to control their cholesterol levels,” notes Vargas Vargas.

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Vitamins Take Latin America By Storm


vmsThroughout Latin America, vitamin and mineral supplements are commonly registered as prescription drugs, OTC drugs or food supplements. In Brazil, products classified as non-Rx-bound can be sold with or without prescriptions. Nicholas Hall & Co estimates that prescription sales of non-Rx-bound vitamins, minerals and tonics account for just over 20% of total sales. In January 1998, new legislation reclassified formerly Rx-bound vitamin E as non-prescription, which is evidence that the market is becoming more consumer-oriented.

In Mexico, several vitamin and mineral brands have been switched in terms of classification from either food supplement to OTC, or Rx to OTC. This has created a dynamic advertising/education climate, as marketers can make claims for OTC drugs that would not be allowed for foods, and they can invest in advertising not allowed for Rx drugs. In addition, the dietary supplements market will expand as more herbal products are launched.

In 1995, a separate phytomedicines office was established to oversee registration of two new categories – herbal medicines and herbal remedies. Herbal medicines are supported by technical and scientific data and can make claims, whereas herbal remedies are not supported by such data and cannot make therapeutic claims. This policy should promote growth of mass-market distribution of branded herbal and natural products.

Colombia offers fewer options, with products classified as Rx or OTC. Products in the latter category can be distributed though non-pharmacy outlets and advertised to consumers.

vtlabsIn contrast, until very recently, the multivitamins category in Argentina was almost exclusively the domain of prescription products. Most single vitamins and minerals in Argentina remain registered as Rx drugs, and since the cost of these products is often reimbursed, there is little incentive for marketers to switch them to OTC. Argentina also has a food supplements category for low-dose vitamin and mineral supplements, but these products cannot make therapeutic claims.

Additionally, in May 1998, the government laid down a framework for the importation, manufacture and advertising of herbal products. Natural and herbal products are now defined as belonging to either “phytotherapeutic medicine” or “herbal remedies.” Similar to food supplements, products in both groups are prohibited from making therapeutic claims.

Regional branding

Certain brands are becoming a true force across the region as multinational marketers adopt regional brand management initiatives. Most notable is Whitehall’s multivitamin Centrum, a global brand in its own right. It takes second place in the multivitamins category in Brazil, behind Whitehall’s Stresstabs. In the important vitamin C category, Roche’s Redoxon is the leading brand, followed by E Merck’s Cebion.

The Mexican Ministry of Health reclassified Centrum from food supplement to OTC drug in June 1997, enabling the marketer to make therapeutic claims for the first time.

Centrum takes second place in Mexico, after Boehringer Ingelheim’s Pharmaton, a premium-priced brand. Whitehall launched Centrum Silver in mid-1997, and supported the

entire brand with a generous investment in advertising, using the international “A al Zin” (A to Zinc) tagline. Redoxon is an important brand here, although it is not holding the market share Roche enjoys in some other Latin American markets.

In Colombia, Centrum dominates the multivitamins category, and Centrum Silver was launched as recently as mid-1997. Whitehall also markets the number-two brand, Z-Bec Granulado for children. Redoxon and Cebion are the leading single vitamins in Colombia.

In Argentina, Centrum was launched as a prescription product in 1997. Bayer launched One-A-Day as an OTC product in the mid-90s, and it now leads the category. Redoxon is the leading single vitamin in the OTC market, while Cebion is classified as a prescription product. It is important to note that in Latin America, Rx classification can be less restrictive than in more mature markets. Under-the-counter (UTC) sales, although illegal, are a significant factor. UTC sales occur when Rx products are recommended and sold to consumers by pharmacists, with no physician intervention at any point.

Inadequate health care systems, and limited access to physicians, contributes to consumer reliance on pharmacists, who consequently wield significant power in the marketplace. In the past, because of these factors, authorities have more or less ignored UTC sales of Rx drugs.

However, the dangers of allowing this practice are now being recognized, and many countries are starting to fight UTC sales more aggressively. Simultaneously, the mass market distribution of health care products is slowly extending beyond the pharmacy into food and other retail outlets, a trend which is promising for marketers.

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Cashmere Now Punitive Duty Free


Cashmere is no longer a hostage in the Banana War.

cmsThe U.S. Trade Representative said Friday it had removed cashmere sweaters from a list of products made in European Union nations that are subject to retaliatory duties of 100 percent.

Various gourmet food products were also dropped, but cotton bed linens, bath preparations other than bath salts, plastic handbags and the small plastic cases normally in these bags remain on the list.

Cashmere had first appeared on a U.S. “hit list” in December as one of the products against which retaliatory penalties might be imposed because of the EU stance on bananas. Europe was giving tariff advantages to bananas imported from selected former colonies in Central America and the Caribbean. The U.S. said this hurt U.S. companies that export bananas from other Latin American nations.

On Monday, the World Trade Organization authorized sanctions on $191.4 million worth of products, a level far below the $520 million worth of EU products the U.S. had been threatening with penalty duties since December. U.S. trade officials said Monday they would scale back the list and then immediately direct the U.S. Customs Service to collect penalty duties on the targeted European products.

In addition to cashmere, among the other products removed from the list were Pecorino cheese, biscuits and crackers.

Since March 3, importers of cashmere sweaters and clothing, as well as the other sanctioned products, were required to post a bond equaling the 100 percent ad valorem value of these goods. These bonds should be returned to importers, but the costs for securing the bonds from brokers may not be refundable, depending on the terms of specific bonding agreements.

Cashmere apparel imports, with a customs value of about $60 million annually, were slated for 100 percent duties on the previous U.S. retaliation lists. Most of that apparel is imported from Italy, Scotland and France and is considered the world’s best.

Consequently, retailers and importers were concerned about no longer being able to sell already high-priced cashmere, since the penalty duties would have forced them to double their prices. Other makers of these goods, mainly in Hong Kong, could have been tapped, but this would have required them to import the extra-fine cashmere fabric from Western Europe and retool their production lines.

Retailers and importers were understandably relieved by the U.S. decision to spare cashmere.

“We dodged a bullet on this one, but it did create havoc for many retailers, ranging from the big department stores, such as Neiman Marcus, Bloomingdale’s and Saks, to small boutiques,” said Erik Autor, the National Retail Federation’s vice president and international trade counsel.

Autor said the four months of uncertainty since the U.S. first announced cashmere apparel might be targeted for high duties forced some retailers to put purchase contracts on hold, lest they find themselves liable to pay the duties. It also created difficulties “with business relationships among our suppliers,” he said, since some stores might have tried to cancel contracts and others put off for months huge and small contracting orders with long-time European resources.

cms1Julia Hughes, a Washington vice president for the U.S. Association of Importers of Textiles and Apparel, said at least some member companies had already suffered financial hardships due to the long-pending cashmere apparel trade sanctions.

“We continue to maintain that apparel products should not appear on any of these sanctions lists at any time,” Hughes said. “So long as there are quotas on alternative sources of apparel products and high duties on all such imports, it is not appropriate to target them.”

She said unless the banana dispute is soon resolved and the sanctions dropped “consumers will be the ones hurt when buying bed linens and all the other products on the hit list.”

The EU, meanwhile, issued a statement late last week decrying the U.S. sanctions and promising to appeal yet again to the WTO. This raised yet another bone of contention between the two huge trading powers, since the U.S. maintains last week’s WTO ruling is final and cannot be appealed.

For Finn Murphy, president of The Cashmere Group, a retailer and wholesale importer, the U.S. threat to hit EU-made cashmere sweaters already has exacted “a monumental toll.”

“We are the exclusive agent for Johnstons of Elgin, Scotland’s oldest cashmere firm, and the uncertainty of the [sanctions] meant we couldn’t take a chance importing for the fall and winter seasons for our wholesale business,” said Murphy, whose company is on Nantucket Island, Mass. “As a result, our wholesale business is off by up to one-third from what it should have been.”

We were hit especially hard on our catalog business, which includes Nordstrom and others such as Appleseed’s, Gorsuch and Garnet Hill, since they could not print their catalogs many months in advance of a season, not knowing whether the cashmere products would be available.”