New telecoms player grows fast, turns heads in conservative Chile

SANTIAGO (Reuters) - Chris Bannister, an eccentric 56-year-old British entrepreneur with tattooed arms and a pointed beard, is shaking up Chile’s telecommunications sector and making quite a few enemies along the way.

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The chief executive of mobile provider WOM, formed when venture capital firm Novator Partners acquired Nextel Chile and rebranded it in July 2015, kicked off the endeavor with an edgy advertising campaign that has scandalized many in the conservative nation.

Some commercials have featured half-naked youths sensuously dancing while covered in paint. Others have poked fun at Chile’s politicians.

Cumulatively, they have provoked criticism from competitors and lawmakers, some of whom have deemed the spots sexist.

“It wouldn’t have stopped us, but I wasn’t expecting the reaction to be as strong as it was,” Bannister told Reuters on Tuesday at WOM’s offices in a bohemian Santiago neighborhood.

In any case, he says, the campaign has been a commercial success.

In February, WOM surpassed 1 million mobile subscribers, putting its Chilean market share well over 4 percent, up from 1.3 percent in July.

He said the company spent about $200 million last year, and plans the same investment this year, mostly on 4G expansion. He declined to detail earnings.

WOM is also talking with Futuretel over a potential partnership to bring 4G into Peru, and Bannister contends that markets are ripe throughout the region - including in Brazil, Argentina, and Mexico - for a disruptive telecoms player.

He credits WOM’s rapid expansion to what he calls a “cozy” Chilean market, which is dominated by Telefonica, ex-state operator Entel, and America Movil’s Claro.

He admits, however, that WOM has had growing pains. Many mobile devices, the company found last year, did not function on WOM’s spectrum.

While some device manufacturers have fixed the issue and new government regulations require compatible spectra to be transparently labeled on phones, WOM is pushing for rules requiring devices to function on all providers’ spectra.

A potential deal to lower roaming rates with Argentina is still several years away, he added.

But Bannister, who sports a WOM-inspired tattoo on his arm and helped run telecoms start-ups in other countries, contends that the company’s hot image outweighs regulatory hurdles.

“When I’m on the metro,” he said, “I’ll often get someone who wants to take a selfie with me...they want to say, ‘Guess who I was on the tube with!’”

Reporting and writing by Gram Slattery; Additional reporting by Felipe Iturrieta; Editing by Marguerita Choy