Hong Kong investors have been significant players in Australia's telecommunications sector, but their ventures are still struggling for profitability despite years of perseverance and many millions of dollars spent. Firms linked to tycoon Li Ka-shing have been the most prominent but neither Hutchison Telecommunications Australia nor the newly formed Silk Telecom have yet fulfilled their high expectations. Meanwhile, the other major Hong Kong investor - private equity operation Telecom Ventures Group (TVG) - has been an active player in the consolidation of the third-tier telecommunications industry but is still scrapping it out in small takeover battles as it strives to complete its vision. The main story of Hong Kong telecommunications investment in Australia is of course Hutchison Australia. But after more than 15 years of operation and six years after its listing on the stock market, the company, 58 per cent owned by parent Hutchison Whampoa, is yet to attain profitability. Most recently, Hutchison Australia reported a A$547 million ($3.21 billion) loss for last year, slightly better than the A$690 million lost in 2004 but much higher than the company's A$175 million market capitalisation which is only a fraction of its debt level. Shares sold for A$2 in the 1999 float now hover only slightly higher than 20 cents. Despite all this red ink, Hutchison has persevered and is continuing with its bold strategy of tying its future to the uptake of 3G mobile services in Australia where it has first-mover advantage. On an operational level at least, it is showing growth. Revenue rose 18 per cent last year to A$916 million as its 3G subscriber base hit 806,000 - up from 654,000 customers a year earlier. The company is in the process of migrating its 250,000 CDMA Orange brand customers across to 3G by August, tipping its 3G subscriber base over the one-million mark, equivalent to almost 6 per cent of the Australian mobile market. For a firm with such a strong pedigree that has promised so much but delivered so little, the market has been surprisingly forgiving. 'We believe Hutchison's value will be restored over time,' says a research note this month from brokerage Fat Prophets. 'Hutchison has the potential to grow profitability and margins through the benefits of scale, hence margins and profitability grow. 'Investors are not currently recognising Hutchison's potential and the share price remains in the doldrums and although it is likely that investors will require further patience, we believe the company's strategy is sound.' One shareholder which has been blessed with 15 years of patience so far is the parent, Hutchison Whampoa which in May denied rumours it planned to take Hutchison Australia private in response to its share price doldrums. 'The opportunity enjoyed by a greenfield player in a mature mobile market like Australia is fundamentally different from that available to incumbents,' said Canning Fok Kin-ning, who also chairs Hutchison Australia, at the beginning of last year. 'Maximising this opportunity has been the cornerstone of our group's strategy as a first mover in 3G markets around the world and we believe it is starting to bear fruit in Australia.' So, while Hutchison seems determined to persist with its 3G strategy in Australia, another part of Li Ka-shing's empire, Cheung Kong Infrastructure, has also dipped its toes into the Australian telecommunications market with a new venture called Silk Telecom. At the end of last year, Silk was formed out of the telecommunications assets owned CKI-controlled power operators, Powercor in Victoria and Etsa in South Australia. Both utilities were operating their own small telecommunications ventures wholesaling fibre-optic broadband capacity but they have now been combined as Silk under the leadership of former British Telecommunications executive Simon Perkins. Now, in addition to providing broadband connectivity back to the utilities, Silk wholesales capacity to mobile operators and internet service providers and is investigating the feasibility of the broadband-over-powerline (BPL) technology that CKI provides to about 40,000 customers in Hong Kong. 'This BPL technology is going from concept stage to reality and it's at the stage now where we are considering moving into it [commercially],' says Mr Perkins. 'I see three ways of getting to the customer. One is Telstra's copper network - still the most prevalent and practical - and then there is wireless and then there is BPL which has a much higher speed but is currently too expensive.' Much of the problem stems from the high costs of the BPL modems - about A$200 each - and the expertise needed to connect them. But Mr Perkins says it 'only needs one provider in China' to start using BPL for those prices to come down considerably. And he is prepared to wait and concentrate on the broadband wholesaling business in the interim. 'The Cheung Kong group has high ambitions for the telecommunications market in Australia and that gives me great comfort,' says Mr Perkins. 'They've seen all this that the Australian market is going through, and they see that the growth of broadband in Australia will drive the need for services like ours and I think that's fundamentally true.' The third Hong Kong player in Australian telecommunications has been venture capital group TVG Capital Partners, which has folded several small regional broadband companies under the banner of PowerTel, which it now controls with a 58 per cent stake. In building up PowerTel, it has subsumed companies such as TransACT in Canberra and Neighbourhood Cable and Request DSL. PowerTel, which has a market value of about A$170 million, has a 10 per cent stake in another third-tier player, Macquarie Telecom and was rebuffed in its A$400 million bid for Telecom New Zealand's troubled Australian unit, AAPT. PowerTel is in another battle for control of internet service provider iiNet and this month applied to the Foreign Investment Review Board to lift its stake in the company beyond the 15 per cent threshold. It is, however, facing strong competition from a local company, Amcom Telecommunications, a subsidiary of corporate raider Futuris. TVG's strategy is dependant on its success in these minor takeover battles as it strives to build up PowerTel through acquisition. After building a presence in Australia over this decade, it is yet to arrive at its goal. 'TVG is cashed up and I think the common figure bandied about is that it has some A$250 million to spend in Australia,' says one analyst. 'But they have a way to go and PowerTel has to be prepared to scrap it out at the lower end of the market if if it going to get there.' Hutchison Telecommunications (Australia) Formed in 1989 as a joint venture with the Roberts-Thomson family, it listed in 1999 after a A$280m float. Despite a net loss of A$547m last year, the company ? 58pc owned by Hutchison Whampoa ? is credited for its first-mover advantage in Australia?s 3G market. Telecom Ventures Group (TVG) Using PowerTel as its takeover vehicle, the company has been an aggressive investor in the second- and third-tier telecoms sector. It is fighting for control of iiNet, Australia?s thirdlargest internet service provider. Silk Telecom Fully owned by Cheung Kong Infrastructure, it was formed at end-2005 from the telecom assets of power firms Etsa and PowerCor. The broadband wholesaler is hoping to commercialise the broadband-over-powerline technology in Australia.