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

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

India: cut-price tariffs squeezing margins and causing telecoms stocks to tumble

A number of articles here have wrestled with the question of optimum pricing for mobile operators in emerging markets. Some of these have focused on the case of Millicom International Cellular selling its three Asian operations, having cited, in the case of Cambodia, the challenges of maintaining healthy profitability in the face of the highly aggressive market entry strategies of new entrants.

This week a price war fought amongst telcos elsewhere in Asia has cause a slide in the value of their stocks:

The lady speaking in this clip contends that the first shots in this Indian tariff war were fired by Aircel (India's seventh largest cellco by market share) and Tata DoCoMo, the recently-launched GSM proposition from CDMA operator Tata Teleservices, arising out of its strategic alliance with Japanese mobile giant NTT DoCoMo.

In August, Tata DoCoMo made waves by becoming the first Indian mobile brand to offer per-second billing. Some media sources contend that impressive subscriber additions for the operator since then have been largely driven by the attractiveness of this innovation. Surya R Kannoth of the Economic Times, writing today, says that the most aggressive response to this yet has been from Reliance Communications, which on Monday announced a flat, cheap per-minute lifetime tariff for all calls - local, NLD, on-net, offnet, inbound/outbound roaming - made by both CDMA and GSM prepaid users. All this comes for no monthly fixed charge, but with a one-time set up fee of Rs48 (around one US Dollar).

The commentator speaking in the video clip above argues that this tariff causes the spread between cost per minute and revenue per minute to become very narrow, "and that would hurt profitability going forward." She goes on to quote analysts who say that the tariff is "disruptive" and will put pressure on major players such as Vodafone, Idea Cellular and Bharti Airtel, whose Chairman said today that prices in India have hit rock bottom. In light of the damage to share prices seen this week, investors in the various mobile operators will doubtless be hoping that this really is the case.

Bharti Airtel is getting consecutive mentions at DTW, having been the subject of the most recent article here, which was about how India's market-leading cellco has been disappointed by a second failed attempt to create a merger with the Africa and Middle East cellular powerhouse MTN of South Africa. In that article I mentioned, not for the first time, that there exists the belief that competitive pressures in its home market will continue to make the exploration of foreign investment opportunities very compelling for Bharti Airtel. I take today's news of a price war and tumbling telecoms stocks to be a pretty solid plank for that argument. I also reported the opinion that the Indian cellco might want to take a good look into acquiring some or all of the assets of Zain, the availability of which has been talked up for months now, not least here at DTW, where we ran a whole series of articles on speculation around the Kuwaiti group's possible exit from Africa.

A Business Standard article run on Saturday contends that not only is this a likely scenario, but that the Indian operator may need to take on its one-time suitor in a battle to take control of Zain. This idea seems to be drawn from the fact that last month, MTN CEO Phutuma Nhleko told journalists that his company would consider buying the African assets of Zain if the deal with Bharti Airtel did not go through.


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