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

Thursday, 22 April 2010

India: operator space to consolidate while handset market gets more fragmented?

Maarten Pieters: Vodafone India CEO predicts market consolidation

Last week, a broad range of news outlets were carrying the claim that just 31% of the population of India were known to have access to a toilet and 'improved sanitation' in 2008. This is clearly a regrettable state of affairs, with dire consequences for public health, life expectancy and economic development.

Ordinarily, however, it does not follow that the seriousness of an issue always correlates strongly with the willingness of the global media to give it coverage. It was a welcome surprise, then, to see this particular issue given some space even by the website of the thin, brightly coloured newspaper given free at UK railway stations to daily commuters such as myself. After all, this is an organ whose print version dedicates just a few pages to what I would really call 'news' - far more space is given over to celebrity tittletattle and TV listings.

How, then, did this story successfully compete for space even in that kind of context?

The key seems to have been handing the global media an compelling, ready-written headline. The person responsible for doing so in this case appears to be Zafar Adeel, Director of the United Nations University’s Canada-based think-tank, the Institute for Water, Environment and Health.

So how did Dr. Adeel manage to craft a headline sufficiently eye-catching so as to propel this important but unglamorous issue up the news agenda last week? He did so by building it around the assertion that more Indians have access to a mobile phone than to a working toilet. Presumably, the desired effect on readers in Europe and North America was to stimulate a thought process along the following lines: 'More cellphones than toilets? That's crazy! Toilets have been around forever and are one of the most basic facilities expected for a civilised life -  but the mobile phone is a recently invented luxury item.'

Such a characterisation of the mobile device would be understandable when articulated by someone who ticks the following boxes:
  • lives in a wealthy, developed country and has not had the opportunity to see mobile phones being used on the city streets or in the villages of (for example) Kenya, India or Bangladesh
  • is old enough to remember when mobile phones were seen as an expensive status symbol used only by wealthy executives
  • has not thought about how access to communications services can improve the lives of poor people by connecting them with time-saving information and services
Regular readers of this blog, and anyone working in or around the telecoms sector in emerging markets/developing countries, however, would be much less likely to think of mobile phones in this way. They would probably be inclined to realise that is precisely because developing countries have weak infrastructure that the mobile phone has rapidly become a truly vital part of the lives of even very poor people in such nations. Numerous examples of this have been decribed in DTW posts passim. Rather than trawl through all of those, readers might like to look at a nicely succinct round up of observations on this topic, made recently Anand Giridharadas, writing for the New York Times.

Giridharadas observes that there is "a global flowering of innovation on the simple cellphone" and that "from Brazil to India to South Korea and even Afghanistan, people are seeking work via text message; borrowing, lending, and receiving salaries on cellphones; employing their phones as flashlights, televisions and radios." He goes on to assert that "many do all this for peanuts", noting that "in India, Reliance Communications sells handsets for less than [USD] 25, with one-cent-a-minute phone calls across India and one-cent text messages and no monthly charge — while earning fat profits."

Readers of this blog, particularly any working in India's mobile sector, might on one hand take pride in seeing such achievements talked up but may, on the other hand, not fully recognise the idea of an industry revelling in 'fat' profits.

Certainly, the feeling in India may be that at the very low tariff levels referred to by Giridharadas, not all operators may continue to be viable. Sypmathetic to this view is Maarten Pieters, CEO Of Vodafone India. Speaking to the Economic Times last week, Pieters observed: "It’s all about scale because we have very low tariffs here. If you compared the tariffs here, it’s about 10% or what we get in Europe in the Vodafone Group as an average tariff. So, how can you survive as an operator on those low tariffs that is by creating scale and it is very clear that it will not be able for 10 people or 10 operators to create that scale, which means there needs to be some form of consolidation".

Pieters does not expect this consolidation of the mobile market to happen overnight, however, because it would not be facilitated by India's current M&A rules. "So, we first need to see some changes of the rules and then you will probably see consolidation."

Indian mobile operators, then, have to strive for profitability in an extremely tough environment. Quite often, I have heard industry watchers articulate the view that this should equip the country's cellcos very well for meeting the challenges of extracting a profit from developing countries elsewhere in the world. Also out there is the feeling that any Indian MNOs with international ambitions will need to be mindful of quite different challenges they may face.

Writing last month for about the purchase of Zain's African opcos by Bharti Airtel, for example, Matthew Reed observes that "Bharti will be looking to reinvent Zain Africa by introducing the low-cost business model that it has pioneered successfully in India" and "will also be hoping to achieve economies of scale across its Asian and African operations, which together will make it the fifth-largest mobile operator in the world".

Reed does offer words of caution, however, arguing that "operating in Africa does present particular challenges, some of which will be new to Bharti, despite its credentials as an emerging-market operator."

"The takeover of Zain Africa", writes Reed, "will give Bharti operations in 15 different countries, each of which has its own political and regulatory conditions, and some of which present some political risk. The diversity alone will be something new for Bharti, which only had mobile operations in India until it made recent moves into Sri Lanka and Bangladesh."

Reed also observes that while tariffs in Africa have traditonally been rather higher than those Bharti Airtel has to live with on home soil, the giant Indian cellco is entering many African markets at a time when higher levels of competition have more recently been pushing down prices. "In much of sub-Saharan Africa", Reed adds, "the infrastructure is poor and distribution is difficult."

Maarten Pieters of Vodafone India, meanwhile, is almost uniquely well qualified to make predictions about how his company's major competitor is likely to fare as it embarks on its African adventure - between 2003 and 2005, he was the CEO of Celtel International, the collection of African operators acquired by Zain and subsequently sold on to Bharti Airtel. Pieters has also served on the board of Millicom International Cellular, the multinational mobile group whose African assets currently include opcos in Chad, DRC, Ghana, Mauritius, Rwanda, Senegal and Tanzania.

Pieters offers words of encouragement: "Bharti is a very fantastic company. I really admire them. They have done a very good job in India. They have a very good management. If anyone can make a success out of the old Celtel assets, then it’s them. So, I am very happy that they are in good hands."

While, as Pieters argues, consolidation of the Indian mobile operator space may be inevitable, the handset market, conversely, seems to be becoming more fragmented. Priyanka Joshi of the Business Standard writes that "the segment has seen entry of one mobile vendor every month." For the year 2009, Joshi asserts, "new vendors registered a combined market share of 12.3% of the total 101.54 million mobile handset sales."

Examples of new market entrants offered by Joshi include Wynn Telecom. "Starting May this year, writes Joshi, "the company will launch seven dual SIM handsets priced under Rs 5000 and will also get ready to manufacture handsets in India."

Some new entrants, explains Joshi, will build a business around devices tailored to meet the needs of users in India's vast rural areas. Olive Telecommunications  is one example of a company with this strategy.

It will be interesting to observe, then, whether the mobile services and mobile handsets markets do indeed move in these opposite directions - with the former consolidating down to a smaller number of operators of scale and the latter continuing to offer opportunities for innovative new entrants.

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