Thursday, December 31, 2009

2009: Sad Year for Indian Telecom; 2010: Unlikely to be better

I spent the entire Oh-Ohs (00's) decade working on telecom. NTP '99 heralded the real opening up of the Indian telecom sector and every spare hand was diverted to telecom... and boy, has it been an exciting ride! More than 500million subscribers were added during this period; we have seen tariffs hit all-time lows; 8 new submarine cables connected India to the rest of the world... the achievements are endless to recount here.

However, I am saddened by the manner this decade ended. 2009 has to count as the year that promised so much but delivered almost nothing. The most talked about disappointment, of course, was the postponement of the 3G & BWA spectrum auctions. What is more disconcerting was that major decisions that would have created true customer choice - Number Portability, MVNO and Internet Telephony - were put off, on some pretext or the other. Even the one decision (this year) on Calling Cards could not be implemented because the terms and procedures are yet to be finalized.

Most people are happy about the entry of new (mobile) operators and consequent reduction in tariffs. I am not so sure, though. Adding new (facilities-based) players to a reasonably crowded market is not necessarily in the best interest of the industry or the customers. While it does result in some short-term pricing benefits, the common resource used by all of them is scarce spectrum -- the more fragmented it gets, poorer the quality of service. So while we have so-called lowest tariffs, we also have poor service levels. Instead, the Government had the opportunity to introduce new forms of competition (& customer choice) through MVNO and Internet Telephony, but dragged its feet on those decisions.

Telecom policy-making was at its worst this year, with no clarity on who was responsible and in what direction we were headed. What we needed was an NTP 2009; what we got was EGoM meetings and TRAI consultation papers.

2009 saw Bharti losing out an opportunity to become a global leader in the mobile business; in fact, none of the Indian companies could capitalize on the recession (& low valuations) in developed markets to make any large, bold moves/acquisitions. Intense tariff pressures in the domestic market dented their valuations - most analysts reacted with a Sell on the Indian telecom sector, probably for the first time in the last 5-8 years.

Will 2010 be different? I do not see much cause for cheer: the fundamental problem around policy-making is not likely to go away in a hurry. 3G & BWA auctions might happen in early 2010 (only because the Government is counting on the auction money in this financial year!), but networks/services would be available only towards the end of the year, in a limited manner. The camps on both sides of MNP, MVNO and Internet Telephony are strong and therefore, I expect status quo will prevail - for all practical purposes.

It will feel good to be proven wrong.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

DoT permits Long Distance Calling Cards in India... Finally!!

In 2000-01, I spent several months working on a business plan for - at that time - one of the largest opportunities in Indian telecom: the imminent opening up of the National Long Distance (NLD) market. It was estimated at Rs 12000 crores (~$3 Billion) in size and was a BSNL monopoly. Private operators were almost salivating at tearing away chunks of this business... while tariffs were expected to drop dramatically (60-80%), there was also expectation of significant price elasticity. Even if only 50% of the market was addressable (due to infrastructure limitations), a fair share amongst 4-5 players could result in about Rs 1000 crores revenues in 4-5 years. Towards this opportunity, a few operators were ready to pay Rs 100 crores licence fees and offer Rs 400 crores bank guarantees.

Major investments were planned on building out national fiber backbones and setting up switches and points of interconnects at all district headquarters (as per the roll-out obligations)... project cost for NLD was estimated at Rs 1000 crores at least. However, there was one highly critical assumption behind these NLD business plans...

The assumption was that private operators would be able to gain meaningful share of the NLD market, even though BSNL (&MTNL) had more than 80% of all phone connections then. This was to be made possible by a major regulatory move: implementation of Carrier Access Code or Pre-Selection within some months of the NLD market opening up. (See this very detailed article on the NLD opportunity from those times...)

The TRAI did issue the appropriate order to implement the technical changes that would permit customers to choose their NLD (and ILD - international long distance) operator, and not be bound by their access provider's choice. However, for several years, most of the operators refused to implement this order under various pretexts, usually raising technical objections and creating the scare that customers would have to "pay a lot" for it. TRAI tried following up, but soon gave up. A couple of years later (about a year ago), it formally dropped the plans for implementing CAC/Pre-Selection but permitted the use of Calling Cards by long distance operators to access customers directly. A year later, after doing the rounds of the DoT, this has now finally been implemented as an amendment to the NLD and ILD licences.

Why is this at all important?

First, from a customer perspective, NLD and ILD services are still a monopoly of the mobile operator. While it is true that customers have choice of several mobile operators, that is not the same as providing choice for long distance services. In particular, in the absence of Number Portability, no customer is going to give up the phone number to get a better long distance tariff plan. Given that spend on NLD and ILD is a considerable proportion of the total call spend, customers have the right to choose their operator. It is a well-established practice world-over, and it is even a surprise that it took seven years for this to be resolved in India.

Secondly, from a pure contractual perspective, operators acquired NLD and ILD licences and made huge investments on the basis of a regulatory structure that would have enabled them to access the market in a particular manner. By changing the regulation post-facto (or by not implementing it for years), the regulator and the Government have adversely affected the investment decisions. On a stand-alone basis, most of those business plans are nowhere close to realization; of course, growth of captive subscriber base - much more than that anticipated in 2002 - has compensated integrated operators, but policies and investments cannot be based on anticipation of accidents or good luck.

What will be the impact?

For customers, the impact on NLD call rates might not be dramatic since tariffs have fallen quite a bit and are almost on par with local rates. But, competition from calling card operators might give rise to some innovation in bundling and customization, beyond just pure price cuts. In ILD, the impact is likely to be much more. Access providers have typically premium-priced international call rates, even though the wholesale cost of carrying the call is much less. There is a high likelihood of ISD call rates dropping with the advent of calling cards, particularly to competitive destinations like the USA. Business customers can also look forward to interesting packages and bundles in the near future.

So, later, much later, than we had anticipated, and in a partial manner (no CAC, only calling cards), Indian customers will have choice of long distance providers... soon. I hope.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Is Indian Broadband Overpriced?

New World of Communications: India Broadband: Under-fulfilled Potential

Price of Broadband services, it appears from the poll & comments I heard from various people, is the biggest inhibitor to adoption of the service in India. So, let's examine the pricing issue here.

Since pricing is directly linked to what is being purchased, we need to make some assumptions.

Mr. Novice has recently purchased a computer and wants to figure out what the Internet is all about. He is quite OK with 256 Kbps onwards speeds and does not need more than 2Gig downloads per month. On the other hand, Ms. Savvy has been on the Net for long and has recently got a office laptop that she wants to connect from home. In addition to work stuff (email mostly), she is also looking forward to improving her online social networking, as well as getting some latest content for her iPod. She would like at least 512 Kbps (perhaps more) and expects her data transfer to be about 5Gig a month. Finally, Master Gamer has just convinced his father to get the home PC connected to the Net, and can now avoid those trips to the cybercafe for his dose of WoW. He knows all about Internet speeds and service levels, and prefers an unlimited connection of at least 1 Mbps; his only concern is that he lives in a distant suburb of a mini-metro.

Based on my evaluation of various service providers and tariff plans, I would recommend the following choices:

1. Mr. Novice is better off taking a 256K DSL connection on his landline at an additional cost of Rs 500 (total about Rs 600 with voice). If DSL were not available, the next best alternative would be a data card (not 3G) with a plan cost of about Rs 700 per month, but an upfront CPE cost of about Rs 1500.

2. Ms. Savvy could take a 512K DSL connection or a fixed WiMax connection (if DSL were unavailable) at about Rs 1000 to 1300 per month; alternatively a 3G data card would have an upfront cost of about Rs 2000 to 3000, and a monthly charge of about Rs 1000 with the added advantage of mobility for the laptop.

3. Master Gamer would be lucky to get a DSL or Fiber connection at his home; his only option is likely to be a fixed WiMax 1Mbps connection (a 3G data card could work but may not give him the assured high speeds that he requires for gaming). This would cost nearly Rs 2000 per month for unlimited data transfers.

First of all, it is not at all easy to determine what is the appropriate pricing / plan available from service providers. While there is value in choice, too much of it can also lead to confusion.

Now, let's compare the price-points with other benchmarks. I first checked Singapore and USA, but most operators in those markets had plans of several Mbps... ahem, not easy to compare our 256K plans. I looked towards China next (our favorite comparison) but I had to go back a couple of years to a period when 512kbps was the most popular connectivity there. A typical 512Kbps unlimited plan cost about Rs 1000; current prices are at similar levels but for more bandwidth.

In 2007, according to this article, average prices in North America & Western Europe for 4Mbps speeds were about Rs 2500 per month; while tariffs are not necessarily proportional to bandwidth, this should translate to about Rs 600 per 1Mbps. Eastern Europe had prices of about Rs 2000 per 2Mbps, or Rs 1000 per 1Mbps.

(Note: these are are just rough calculations using public info for benchmarking, directionally correct, I believe.)

From the above, it is clear that tariffs in India are more than what many other markets have, but there is one big difference: all these markets have either a very strong DSL market or have a competitive cable industry (in some cases like USA, both). If we look at a market like South Africa that has very high mobile/wireless penetration and low fixed line coverage, we find that price-points for 3G data cards are at about Rs 1500 per month, which are not dissimilar to the India plans.

Prices in India are perhaps somewhat higher than what they ought to be, but not by a large margin, given where we are on the adoption curve/scale and infrastructure availability. So, while price is stated by most as the inhibitor to adoption, the real issue must lie elsewhere. Otherwise, every market that started with high tariffs (including Indian mobile) should have stalled like Indian Broadband has...

We will continue looking for answers...

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

India Broadband: Under-fulfilled Potential

For years, we have been talking about the upcoming Broadband revolution in India, yet it remains an elusive dream. We, of course, find fault with Government policies on fiber roll-out and spectrum auctions yet it is not clear what is inhibiting customers from adopting Broadband. There are instances where Broadband is available (from one or more operators), however, network fill-factors are quite low, abysmally low in some cases. "Availability of last mile" cannot be the issue in such circumstances... there has to be something more.

Over the next few posts, I will try to uncover the customer perspective towards Broadband services, service providers and adoption-related issues. I will use a few snap polls to answer specific questions as well as conduct a few focused discussions with existing and potential customers to get their perspectives. Your inputs through comments would, of course, be most welcome.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Telepresence is evolving; Mass availability still eludes

Nine months ago, I had written about this new Aha! technology that had the potential to be the killer app for business communication services. It is heartening to note that Telepresence has developed considerably during this period. In particular, the last couple of weeks have seen a flurry of announcements: more public rooms at business centers and hotel chains, demo of inter-carrier connectivity of Cisco telepresence rooms and the promise of cheaper telepresence equipment.

Yet, Telepresence remains a premium service, in spite of Cisco's protestations, available to a few hundred enterprises worldwide, and even at these early adopters, it is usually restricted to a few locations each. A 3-4 room in-house implementation will set an enterprise back by about a million bucks, hard to come by in these hard times. While the business case for the investment is quite robust, most CFOs don't want to wait for 3 years for payback.

What can change this, and what can we learn from other technologies that have succeeded in the hockey-stick phenomenon of adoption?

1. Interconnection
Interconnection is at the heart of communications, yet Telepresence is only now beginning to get interconnected. Inter-vendor interconnection is still some time away. It's a shame if you have implemented TP across five of your offices but cannot connect to your customer, supplier or partner locations. OK, you might be able to connect to other rooms that use the same equipment vendor as yours, but there are at least 3 major vendors and many other emerging ones. Until such time the major TP vendors like Cisco, Polycom and HP do not get together to enable interconnection, the value of TP will be limited.

2. Open / Standards
The last thing that Telepresence needs is exclusive tie-ups and restrictions. For the technology to proliferate and fulfill the promise that video-conferencing failed to deliver, we need the same open standards approach that has helped, for instance, GSM to emerge as the global mobile system. Vendors holding technology / feature roadmap cards to their chests or favoring one operator over the other are sure recipes for failure. We need open dialog on the future of telepresence.

3. Scale and Pricing
Few enterprises will want to shell out $1 million or more to get onto the TP bandwagon; even for sufficient public rooms to take off, the industry would need an investment of at least $100 million over the next couple of years. Broadband and Mobile industries have shown us the virtuous cycle of affordable pricing - increase the addressable market, get more users on the network, use scale to further reduce costs and thus lower tariffs. Another technique that has worked in the past to encourage mass adoption is smaller pack size (think shampoo sachets, 25c mobile recharge vouchers, etc.). Single screen and/or desktop variants as well as web-enabled rooms are required to reduce entry barriers and encourage trial. Vendors and carriers need to re-engineer the TP cost structure and commercial models. Think Tata Nano.

The next 12 months will tell us if telepresence can truly hurt the aviation industry and redefine how businesses and consumers communicate with each other.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Whither 3G and Broadband?

There have been several opinions, including a couple of editorials in the Mint , that have supported the doubling the reserve price in the 3G and BWA spectrum auctions in India. While the objective of maximizing Government revenues is generally admirable, this last minute googly and consequent confusion in the auction process will only reinforce the image of India as an uncertain investment destination.

It is indeed surprising that the issue of reserve price has been brought up now, after the auction Information Memorandum was released and the time-table announced. That the 3G reserve price would be about Rs 2000 crores was known for several months; indeed, the guidelines for auction of spectrum were announced over five months ago on 1 August 2008. Has the Ministry of Finance become aware of the "low" reserve price only now? In fact, it might be argued that since August 2008 the global (and Indian) economic environment has worsened, telecom valuations have taken a beating (down 30-50% during this period) and liquidity - even for good projects / investments has considerably dried up - therefore, the reserve price should be reduced in order to attract more bidders for the spectrum. Hong Kong did just that, and cut their BWA reserve price by 50% between October and November 2008!

Policy decisions in the telecom sector are being taken on the fly. New licences announced, terms & conditions changed, and scarce resources awarded without any sense of predictability. The number of players involved in this process are numerous, often leading to myopic and locally optimized decisions. The industry regulator has been relegated to a 'recommendator', whose opinions are occasionally sought and frequently rejected or modified. And, operators and investors indulge in guess-work and waste precious resources on creating regulatory arbitrage instead of focusing on developing new services or technologies.  

Coming back to the issue of the reserve price, what is the basis for somebody in the Government seeking a 100% increase? Why not 125% or 150% or 75%? It is the job of the regulator to study the economics of the business, analyze international benchmarks and assess current market conditions to determine the base price for a scarce asset. When was the last time TRAI was consulted to make such an assessment? What basis does someone else use to change the assessment made by an independent industry regulator? 

It would be an easy and safe decision to double the reserve price and / or delay the auction process by a couple of months. After all, nobody in the Government will lose their jobs or sleep over that. What it does to the business case of rolling out Broadband in India and consequently, overall value to the country is forgotten in the process. The tougher option is to find ways to encourage greater level of participation in the auction. A fair, transparent and well-managed auction will ensure that an appropriate market value for spectrum is determined for the first time in nearly 5 years. Opening up more spectrum slots for auction would have a multiplying effect on Government revenues as well as Broadband penetration. Clarifying some of the long pending (at DoT) regulatory issues like number portability, Internet Telephony, MVNO and calling cards would further enhance the "value" of the spectrum, particularly to new entrants and foreign operators.