News, views and commentary from the telecoms sector across emerging markets and developing countries worldwide

Friday, 13 February 2009

Mobile price wars in the downturn: time to do battle?

Still reeling from the roaming bill I racked up on my last trip to the UAE in December, I was interested to see the Dubai Chronicle reporting a big cut in international calling prices on the part of Emirates Integrated Telecommunications Company, better known as Du.

For the first time, Du's prepaid customers can now use a AED 200 recharge card and receive AED 320 credit to towards international calling. Other Du recharge card denominations of AED 100, AED 50 and AED 20 will provide instant credits of AED 150, AED 70 and AED 26 respectively, to be used towards international calling.

Farid Faraidooni, EVP Commercial at Du says: "Every dirham counts, and more so in the case of the UAE, with a large expatriate population with the need to stay in touch with their loved ones back home."

This might make me think more seriously about getting myself a prepaid Du SIM for future trips to the Emirates. However, my situation is similar to that of Dean Bubley of Disruptive Wireless, who, in an amusing blog post this week, describes himself a frequent traveller, but to lots of different countries. Writing this Wednesday, Dean bemoaned the costs and complications of staying in touch with work contacts, friends and family while attending next week's Mobile World Congress. "One thing that's immediately apparent," writes Dean, "is that despite all the talk of VoIP, SIM-swapping and the like, I'm going to end up with a large bill for voice and SMS roaming. I've got dozens of meetings, loads of people I'll need to contact (or be contacted by), inevitable changes to schedules and venues, plus all the usual work and personal call traffic I'd normally get in the UK. I'll be paying for both inbound and outbound roaming calls."

"It's clearly not an option just to get a local SIM card - most of the people I need to contact will be outside Spain and there are too many people likely to contact me to inform everyone of a new number." Given that, as Dean says, keeping a Spanish SIM year-round would not work because it would expire after a few months without use, I had to sympathise when I read his remarks about WiFi not being an option due the likely (he says notorious!) congestion on the network provided at the Barcelona Fira (MWC venue). Dean also criticises VoWLAN service providers for having "haphazard support of SMS, which is absolutely mandatory at trade shows where you have back-to-back meetings."

Dean's suggested remedy for international travellers? "What would be good would be a way to get a local SIM or account/number - ideally without physically having to buy one - and for this to automatically propagated to all your contacts when you were in-country. Or for it to somehow be linked to your existing home account in the network."

That sounds useful. Let's see. In the meantime, after reading about Du's reduced international call charges, I noticed a couple more stories about operators slashing prices. Both relate to markets from where a large number of the UAE's expatriate workers originate.

According to an article last week on the Bangladesh news portal, the CDMA operator CityCell is "struggling to remain in business... with operating losses escalating to almost double in the first quarter." The company, of which SingTel is the largest shareholder, has apparently suffered as a result of having to subsidise handsets. The article asserts that only market-leading
Grameenphone is profitable, "with other players bleeding for years."

While device subsidies are said to be hurting CityCell, greater pain is apparently being caused by an intense price war. Says Zia Uddin, an analyst with New York-based asset management company LR Global: "Intense competition has led to [an] unhealthy price war in [the] Bangladesh mobile phone market. Most of the companies have to subsidise handset prices to woo clients," he said. "In addition, the ARPU and [tariffs] in Bangladesh are possibly the lowest in the world".

CityCell, the country's first ever MNO, seems poorly positioned to grind it out in this kind of environment, having steadily lost market share to rival GSM operators since Grameenphone, Banglalink (then called Sheba Telecom) and AKTEL entered the market in 1997. The CDMA carrier now has just 4.03% of the subscriptions in Bangladesh.

Meanwhile in India, according to an story carried by Global Mobile Daily last month, the entry of CDMA operator Reliance Communications onto the GSM scene has already triggered rivals Airtel, Vodafone and Idea Cellular into price cutting mode.

This is not surprising if, as reported by the Economic Times yesterday, Reliance plans to slash its GSM rates by 50%. However, the same article cites a recent study by Lirneasia which deduces that such a move is not likely to make a significant dent in telcos' existing subscriber base.

Lirneasia, a not-for-profit ICT policy and regulation capacity building organisation working in nine South Asian countries, conducted a survey on mobile users at the bottom of the socioeconomic pyramid which shows that even the most cost sensitive subscriber segment has reached a stage where it is driven more by service offering, brand loyalty and number retention than by price discounts.

T.V. Ramachandran, head of India GSM operators' trade association the COAI supports the findings of the Lirneasia study. This seems like a sensible response from a body whose members could suffer badly if a price war is escalated and sustained.

It will be interesting to watch developed and emerging markets worldwide to see how many operators feel this economic downturn compels them to cut prices heavily and how many take the view outlined in the Lirneasia report - that it makes more sense to compete on quality and brand value.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Thanks for your comment. I choose to moderate comments, but only remove obvious spam and content I deem to be needlessly inflammatory.