Indian Supreme Court takes another step towards telco duopoly

The Indian Supreme Court has rejected a plea from Vodafone Idea and Bharti Airtel to defer disputed spectrum licence fee payments, making the collapse of Vodafone Idea a realistic outcome.

While the dispute has been on-going for more than a decade, it has intensified considerably over the last few months. Vodafone Idea and Bharti Airtel are liable for roughly $7 billion each in payments, thanks to penalty fees and interests, and have been attempting to negotiate better terms.

The plea to the India Supreme Court, where the telcos asked for interest fees to be dropped and the sum to be payable over a ten-year period, has now been officially rejected. Vodafone Idea and Bharti Airtel now have until March 13 to make the payments to the Indian Government in full.

The question which now remains is whether the death of the Vodafone Idea business is anything more than a matter of time.

The dispute in question concerns license fees which the telcos are liable for. As part of the licence, the India Government is entitled to a slice of the profits, though what this percentage is and what it is a percentage of is the centre of the argument. As this disagreement has been on-going for more than a decade, the penalty and interest fees have been adding up to an eye-watering amount.

Despite pleas to ease the financial burden of these penalties, the Indian Government and regulator have remained stubbornly resolute. Now it appears in might be a case of ‘cutting off the nose to spite the face’.

The Indian Government has always looked quite self-serving when it comes to working alongside the telecommunications industry. It has seemingly looked at the market as a short-term money-tree, as opposed to a long-term stimulant to the greater economy. Spectrum auctions are another example of this, with the valuable, scarce and limited resource often going unsold at auctions as the telcos complain of the financial commitments.

Now the greediness of the Indian Government is seemingly coming back to haunt it as the threat of competition being dwindled to a duopoly, a very dangerous position to be in, becomes much more realistic.

At the time of writing, shares in Vodafone Idea were down 22%. Vodafone Group CEO Nick Reid has already suggested the business would not be prepared to invest anymore capital in India without assistance from the Government, with the latest ruling adding another nail in the coffin. The financial liabilities being placed on Vodafone Idea could very realistically cause the firm to shut up shop in the near future.

For the Indian telecommunications industry, this would be a disaster.

Telco Market share
Reliance Jio 32%
Vodafone Idea 29%
Bharti Airtel 28%
BSNL 10%
MBNL 0.2%

BSNL and MBNL are effectively being propped up by the Government currently, meaning the market has in-effect three mobile players. There of course used to be much more competition, but thanks to the Reliance Jio pricing disruption, Telenor, Tata and Reliance Communications exited the market, while Vodafone and Idea Cellular merged into a single entity in 2018. Competition is at a very weak point, and it now looks like it will become even more feeble.

If Vodafone was to cash in its chips, Idea Cellular will unlikely be able to revive its business. The merger was driven by survival after all, meaning the collapse of the third major MNO. A market duopoly is not healthy, especially when one of the competitors is already battered and bruised and facing the same monstrous fine as Vodafone Idea.

Bharti Airtel has suffered as much as any other telco since the arrival of Reliance Jio. As India is the domestic market of the telco, it is highly unlikely doors will close, but the Supreme Court decision will also hold Bharti Airtel to payments of roughly $7 billion. As the market heads towards an informal duopoly, the former-market leader could be weaker than ever.

On the other hand, as Reliance Jio only entered the market in 2016 its own spectrum fee bill is considerably less. It is still an uncomfortable amount, though the firm managed to sell off its tower assets to settle the amount. It might be a bit poorer for the saga, but it is in a considerably healthier position than any of its rivals.

The Indian authorities have done what can only be described an atrocious, amateur and absent-minded job of managing its telecommunications industry over the last few years. It seemingly favoured Reliance Jio to the long-term detriment of competition, was unable to price spectrum appropriately for decades, and in this example, is stubbornly demanding its dues. The authorities cannot be held to ransom by a diva-like demands of telcos, but the risk of a Vodafone Idea collapse is very high.

Vodafone Idea looks to be at breaking point, Bharti Airtel doesn’t have two rupees to rub together and Reliance Jio is laughing. The Indian Government is proving to be incompetent at managing a healthy and sustainable telco market.

Reliance Jio offloads towers to settle Government bill

Telecoms disruptor Reliance Jio has been forced to sell its tower assets to Brookfield Infrastructure Partners for approximately $3.55 billion.

While Reliance Jio is not feeling the pinch as painfully as its competitors, the business is facing a significant financial outlay to settle a spectrum fees dispute which has been on-going for more than a decade. With 25,215 crore Rupees (c.$3.551 billion) in compensation for the tower infrastructure business, Reliance Jio should be in a healthier position, albeit a bit lighter on assets.

“We are pleased to enter into this long and strategic relationship with Brookfield, which is one of the largest and most respected managers of infrastructure assets globally,” said Mukesh Ambani, MD of the Reliance Industries group.

“We are confident of Brookfield’s abilities to manage this large portfolio of high-quality infrastructure assets and further enhancing value creation opportunities. This transaction demonstrates the belief of global investors in the potential of India’s digital opportunity.”

Although the disposal of assets, or at least 100% ownership of said assets, is not an entirely comfortable position for the telcos to be in, it is becoming increasingly commonplace around the world, for a variety of reasons.

Telefonica has been playing with the idea of an IPO or partial sale of its tower infrastructure business unit, Altice has recently sold off 49.99% of its newly separated wholesale business and Vodafone created its own standalone tower business mid-way through the year. These are examples of asset divestment, though it is to fuel the expensive jobs of 5G and fibre broadband. The India situation is of course slightly different, though it has the telcos frantically searching for additional cash.

An argument over the total amount telcos owed for spectrum fees came to a conclusion in recent weeks, with the courts ruling in favour of the Government. Unfortunately for the telcos, this means over a decade of licence fees, interest and missed payment penalties will now have to be settled. For Bharti Airtel it has meant asking the Government for relief, Vodafone Idea have threatened to shut the whole business down and Reliance Jio is offloading its tower business to Brookfield.

While annual licence fees for spectrum are common place, such lengthy legal cases to dispute them are not. In a healthy regulatory environment, the telcos complain but generally accept the prodding and poking of authorities. Considering the friction which is being witnessed between the telcos and authorities in India, this is anything but a healthy situation. Whether it is charging too much for spectrum, favouring certain telcos or mis-managing termination regulation, the Indian landscape is quickly turning into a farce.

The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) and the Indian Government are slowly killing off competition and sleep-walking the country towards a monopoly.

Consumers won’t be happy, but an Indian price hike is necessary

Reliance Jio is the latest Indian telco to announce an increase in mobile prices, but considering the precarious position the market is in, it is probably much needed.

Vodafone Idea and Bharti Airtel were the first to suggest a price hike was on the horizon, perhaps due to the $13 billion spectrum bill the government offered them, but Reliance Jio is not far behind. According to the Economic Times of India, the increased tariffs are necessary to fuel fresh network and technology investments.

This move might mean the constant flow of subscribers for Reliance Jio slows, and it may have a dampening impact on the aggressive expansion of the digital economy in the country. But these are short-term compromises which might have to be made for the long-term health of the industry.

Country ARPU ($)* Av. price per GB ($)** Av. monthly income ($)*** Percentage of income
United Kingdom 21 6.66 3,445 0.193%
India 1.6 0.26 168 0.155%
USA 32 12.37 5,238 0.236%
South Africa 6 7.19 479 1.501%
South Korea 27 15.12 2,550 0.592%
France 20 2.99 3,423 0.087%
China 7 9.89 789 1.253%
Finland 20.2 1.16 3,979 0.029%

* Figures from Ovum World Cellular Information Service

** Figures from Cable.co.uk

*** Figures from Worlddata.info

While the Indian consumer might not be thrilled by the increase in monthly costs for connectivity, it perhaps should not come as a surprise. As a percentage of monthly income, India does have some of the lowest mobile connectivity costs, price per GB, worldwide and as has been seen from the quarterly financials, the telcos cannot tolerate these tariffs for too much longer.

Over the last twelve months, quarterly revenues at Vodafone Idea have been slowly declining. It is difficult to come year-on-year financials, the combined entity isn’t old enough, but in the last quarterly earnings call the quarter-on-quarter results saw revenue decrease by roughly 4%. At Bharti Airtel, the story is very similar. Since Reliance Jio’s entry full-year revenues are only heading one direction, down, though it does seem to be picking up slightly for the second-half of 2019.

In 2016, India needed a disruption and it got it with the introduction of Reliance Jio. This is a market which was falling woefully behind international trends when it came to connectivity accessibility, but perhaps the current situation is an overcorrection. The price per GB is very low, offering more accessibility to the digital economy, but this is clearly not sustainable.

Vodafone and Idea merged to make a single service provider, Telenor exited the market because of pricing pressures, Reliance Communications fought but ultimately lost, state-owned BSNL needs to be propped-up with government funds and Airtel is flagging. With insolvency rumours swirling around the merged Vodafone Idea business, it does appear Reliance Jio is the only healthy telco.

This does not paint the picture of a healthy telecommunications industry. Some suggest the market might be heading towards a monopoly, and it is difficult to argue when you look at the trends. Competition is a key word in almost every region, and it is dwindling in India.

Consumers might severely dislike the idea of increased mobile tariffs, but the current prices are certainly not sustainable; it looks to be a necessary evil. In comparison to other markets, there is perhaps room to increase prices in India.

In certain markets, the price per GB is far too high, it creates a digital divide, but India is the opposite end of the scale. The current pricing landscape might make the digital economy more accessible, but if it destroys competition in the long-run the final outcome will be a net-loss.

Jio surges forward with subs and profits

Reliance Jio has unveiled its latest quarterly figures and, surprise surprise, subs are once again on the up as well as profits.

Monthly ARPU might have be on the decline, down to $1.77, a trend which is not showing signs of slowing, but scale seems to be the answer for Jio. The firm now has a subscriber base of 331 million, adding 24.5 million over the last three months and 116 million during the last year.

“Growth in Jio mobility services has continued to surpass all expectations,” said Mukesh Ambani, MD of Reliance Industries, Jio’s parent company.

“In less than two years of commercial operations, Jio network carried almost 11 Exabytes of data traffic during the recently concluded fiscal quarter. Jio management is focused on giving unmatched digital experience at most affordable price to every citizen of the country, and accordingly expanding the network capacity and coverage to keep pace with demand.”

The progress which has been made by the firm over the course of the last two years is remarkable and perhaps demonstrates how under-developed the Indian market actually was. Although India has been seen as a growth economy, part of the now old-fashioned BRICs group, it wasn’t until Jio shook up the market the digital revolution took hold.

Average consumption of data is now up to 11.4 GB a month, with Jio suggesting customers used 10 exabytes over its network during the quarter. The Indian consumer certainly has an appetite for data and they don’t seem to be satisfied whatsoever.

Looking at the financials, these are also very promising. Early criticism of Jio was that it was negatively impacting competition in the market as there was little profit being made by the firm. This is generally seen as a negative, as running loss leaders to kill off competition very rarely works for the greater good in the long-term, though the numbers speak for themselves.

Quarterly revenues increased 44% year-on-year, while the firm collected profits of $119 million, a 45% year-on-year boost. These numbers are attractive for the moment, but profitability currently looks to be reliant on scale and subscriber growth. Sooner or later, this growth will slow, and the team will have to look at the worrying rate at which ARPU is declining.

Period Q1 2019 Q3 2018 Q1 2018
ARPU (Indian Rupee) 122 130 154

Jio claims another scalp as RCom is down and out

Reliance Communications has arguably gotten the sharpest end of the Jio stick over the last couple of years, but it seems the misery is finally over as the firm files for bankruptcy.

According to The Times of India, Chairman Anil Ambani has approached the National Company Law Tribunal to file for bankruptcy after a torrid couple of months which capped off a horrendous a couple of years. Although the team thought there might be some salvageable assets in a deal with Reliance Jio, this might prove to be the final chapter of the telco story for Anil.

Over the last couple of months, RCom has been attempting to navigate the red-tape maze to sell spectrum assets to Reliance Jio, though this transaction has been blocked due to no-one tackling responsibilities for debts owed to the Department of Telecommunications. The DoT was not willing to greenlight the deal until it had reassurances, though with RCom not able to pay and Jio not willing to, the deal entered a stalemate.

Of course, the plot thickens when you consider this cash was supposed to help RCom pay off various other debts, including one to Ericsson, which had been attempting to get Ambani arrested and imprisoned over the monies owed. It has all seemingly fizzled out into somewhat of a depressing end for RCom.

15 years ago, however, this would have been far from imaginable. The firm used to be one of the more promising telcos in a relatively lifeless market. India has long been one of the ‘BRIC’ nations, with potential fortunes enough to convince many to make a bet on the market. However, incumbent players were happy with the status quo and India fell behind the rest of the world in the digital rankings. That was until Anil’s brother Mukesh turned up with his new business Reliance Jio.

Reliance Jio changed the rules of the game and offered a disruptive data-driven service which appealed to the Indian consumer. Soon enough millions of Indians were ditching traditional telcos in pursuit of the glories hidden in digital society. RCom did not adapt and is now suffering the consequences of standing still for a decade.

RCom now joins a growing list of casualties in India. With the Vodafone/Idea merged business planning its assault, you have to hope this ‘new’ player will be able to offer some resistance to the Reliance Jio momentum. Although this is an admirable success story, there are a worryingly small number of telcos for such a vast market.

Ericsson seek Ambani arrest over unpaid RCom bill

Ericsson has filed its second contempt petition against Reliance Communications in the Indian Supreme Court asking for Chairman Anil Ambani to be arrested.

The dispute between Ericsson and Reliance Communications is not a new one, though this certainly steps the conflict up a level. With previous lawsuits focusing on unpaid bills, Ericsson has requested be detained in civil prison and be barred from travel overseas unless he can guarantee the payment of 550 crore rupees (roughly $79 million) owed for various products and services.

According to The Economic Times, Ambani has previously given guarantees in court that the debt would be repaid to the Swedish vendor, though since the December 15 deadline is firmly in the past Ericsson executives have gotten twitchy. The last filing asks Ambani be detained until there are concrete guarantees the bill will be paid.

Having missed the original payment in September, Ambani and Reliance Communications were given until December 15 to find the cash, though this has proved more difficult than expected. Ambani is in a bit of a stalemate at the moment, as while he will not want to be arrested, payment somewhat relies on the sale of licenced spectrum assets to Reliance Jio, a transaction which is being held up by the Department of Telecommunications.

This deal is currently in limbo, as while the National Company Appellate Law Tribunal has given the green light for the sale (and told the Department of Telecommunications to clear it), the hold-up is concerning cash. The Department is standing its ground, stating it is not possible to clear the deal unless there was clarity on payment of dues and associated charges. Reliance Jio CEO Mukesh Ambani has stated the company would not be prepared to take any liable for dues owed by Reliance Communications.

With all parties refusing to give in the road ahead does not look like a pleasant one. Not only has his telco business suffered due to the success of his brother’s disruptive influence on the market, but in refusing to accept liability Mukesh is pushing further misery, and a potential jail sentence, onto Anil.

On the other side of the coin, Mukesh’s Reliance Jio is having a much happier time. The latest figures from TRAI suggest the telco grew its subscriber base by more than 10 million, taking total market share up to 22.46%.

That said, family disputes mean nothing to the Swedes. Ericsson will seemingly push ahead to recover the debt, whatever the cost.

TRAI reveals Jio is the only Indian telco in growth

The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has released its monthly report on the state of play in India, and it’s a pretty gloomy picture for everyone aside from Jio.

Across the country, the message is relatively positive. Wireless subscriptions have grown once again this time by 2.4 million, not as glorious as previous months but growth is still growth, but to add a slight dampener to proceedings, broadband declined, this time by 70,000 subscriptions. Once again we reiterate the fixed broadband segment is one which is bursting with opportunity.

Sustained growth in India, while commendable, is not necessarily an interesting development as we have been saying the same thing for more than 18 months. Perhaps the most interesting aspect is who is capturing the additional subscriptions. Stating Jio has collected the lions share will surprise no-one, but September saw everyone else shrink.

Subscription growth Total market share
Reliance Jio 13.02 million 21.57%
MTNL -9,435 0.3%
Reliance -16,349 0.004%
BSNL -536,407 9.67%
Tata -1.01 million 1.88%
Bharti Airtel -2.36 million 29.38%
Vodafone -2.62 million 18.97%
Idea -4.06 million 18.23%

Reliance Jio has now firmly established itself in second place in the market share rankings, which has been a long-time coming, though it is starting to make genuine in-roads against Bharti Airtel. Each month new figures are released and while Bharti might have been able to maintain its position, recent figures have shown the eroding impact of Jio.

The issue for those who are trying to resist the Jio revolution is what is around the corner. Jio has made no secret of its plan to capitalise on the ridiculously low broadband penetration across the country, and you have to wonder what will happen when a more established network can be developed. The company recently purchased controlling stakes in Den Networks and Hathway Cable, offering it a foot through the door, though expect some big developments over the coming months.

Predicting what will happen is a simple task; Jio will take the same low-cost approach to broadband as it has with mobile, though the potential of a convergence product portfolio could further pile the misery onto competitors. How many customers might be tempted to switch over to Jio’s mobile proposition when a cheap broadband bundle is thrown in as well? This is what will be the most interesting development.

Jio has done an absolutely wonderful job of revolutionising the Indian digital economy, but what can be done on the fixed broadband side of things remains to be seen. Just as the story is starting to become repetitive, Jio is about to start on a new chapter.

We’ll be ready for 5G by 2020 – Reliance Jio

Reliance Jio owner Mukesh Ambani has stated India will be fully-4G by 2020, and is setting his eyes on the 5G euphoria already.

The statement of intent adds to a remarkable couple of years for Reliance Jio and the Indian digital economy on the whole. Starting from nothing in December 2015, Reliance Jio has risen to become arguably the most influential telco in India, dragging the country’s digital economy into the 21st century. A little over two years ago, India was in the digital baron lands, though now the Indian digital appetites are as insatiable as those in ‘developed’ nations.

“India has moved from 155th rank in mobile broadband penetration to being the number 1 nation in mobile data consumption in the world… in less than two years,” said Ambani at the India Mobile Congress, courtesy of Live Mint. “This is the fastest transition anywhere in the world from 2G/3G to 4G. By 2020, I believe that India will be a fully-4G country and ready for 5G ahead of others.”

Paying complements to the pro-active approach to stimulating the digital economy from the Indian government, Ambani is continuing the ambitious expansion of the Reliance Jio business. 5G is what will attract the headlines, most notably after a few telcos highlighted 5G is not a top priority for some nations at Broadband World Forum last week, but the broadband ambitions are just as important.

Tackling the 5G euphoria and increasing broadband penetration across the country perhaps work happily alongside each other when you consider the importance of a fibre network in both cases. The JioGigaFiber proposition, announced during the company’s AGM in July, promises FTTH connectivity in a market where broadband penetration is roughly 10%. ‘Fibering up’ the country is critical for 5G, and Reliance Jio has already started the mission.

“India will be among the largest digital markets in the world,” said Ambani. “Every enterprise must have an ‘India First’ vision to participate in this market. We will need to reinvent to grow and nurture this market to its full potential. This will be a win-win for the entire industry, for India and for the entire world.”

One interesting question which remains is whether the lessons taken from the Jio-effect can be implemented into other nations which are struggling in the lowly places of the digital league tables.

Jio leapfrogs Idea and Vodafone for second place in India

The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has unveiled the monthly growth statistics for July and India is still the market which keeps giving.

Looking at the wireless segments to start with, Jio is once again dominating. Overall, the market grew by 10.5 million subscriptions taking the total to 1.15 billion. This number is already pretty staggering, though when you consider the total population of the country is over 1.3 billion there is still room for growth. In most developed markets the mobile penetration (the total number SIM cards) exceeds 100% of the population, while there are numerous cases of this percentage going north of 110%. Looking at these statistics in the simplest of terms, there is still potential for another couple of hundred million subscriptions in the country.

Of course, Jio is capitalizing most from the insatiable appetite of the Indian digital society. When looking at the total number of subscriptions secured by the telcos, Reliance Jio captured roughly 91% of the new customers, boosting its subscription base by 11.7 million. Amazingly, the 609,000 subs captured by Vodafone or the 313,000 attributed to Bharti Airtel are nothing more than footnotes; how many markets are there were you could say that!

The end result is continued momentum for Jio. As you can see below, Jio has leapfrogged both Vodafone and Idea in the market share rankings. That said, with the much-anticipated merger on the horizon it won’t be long before the combined entity hits top spot.

Telco Net Adds Market Share
Reliance Jio 11,796,630 19.62%
Vodafone 609,974 19.3%
Bharti Airtel 313,283 29.81%
BSNL 225,962 9.8%
Idea 5,489 19.07%
MTNL -9,914 0.3%
Reliance Communications -31,814 0.004%
Tata -2,357,690 2.1%

Perhaps the most amazing aspect of these statistics is in the broadband market however. The staggering growth of the mobile segment will continue for at least the short- to mid-term future, though with a total of 22.2 million broadband subscribers there is an incredible opportunity for the right offering.

Just to put these numbers in perspective, the broadband would have to grow 50-fold to even come close to the same scale as mobile. Admittedly, it significantly more expensive to invest in infrastructure for a future-proofed broadband network in comparison to mobile, but this is an area which seems primed for the right disruption.

Of course, with disruption comes uncomfortable truths. Jio might be on an upward trend, collecting subscriptions and hiring generously, though the consequence of this disruption has been market consolidation. In the most general terms possible, consolidation is never a positive for the job market, while the Financial Express is reporting job losses of 50,000-75,000 in the Indian telco market across 2018.

28m net adds – Jio numbers really are quite remarkable

Reliance Jio has reported its numbers for the last three months, and it does make for some very interesting reading.

28.7 million net adds for subscribers across the quarter, taking the total up to 215 million, and a churn rate of 0.3%. Few telcos can claim to get anywhere near these numbers, though it seems Jio is doing it while making money as well, with the team claiming net profits of roughly $89 million. The traditional players in the Indian telco market must be pulling their hair out over the cheap offers Jio is able to offer while continuing to be profitable.

“Jio continues on its path to drive digital revolution in India,” said Mukesh Ambani, MD of Reliance Industries. “We doubled our customer base and most user metrics in the last 12 months.

“215 million customers within 22 months of start is a record that no technology company has been able to achieve anywhere in the world. Jio has built an ecosystem for digital services and its affordable and simplified pricing strategy offers every Indian a chance to experience the ‘power of data’. FTTH and Enterprise services with strong fibre backbone across the country would further establish Jio’s leadership as a digital services provider.”

The Jio mission seems to be about creating scale, leaning on efficiencies and then creating new opportunities to monetize the user though diversified offerings. But, it does all start with encouraging the consumer to be a more active participant in the digital ecosystem.

The network has continued to expand, Jio now claims to cover 99% of the Indian population, and to have the only network to deploy pan-India 4G across the 800 MHz, 1800 MHz and 2300 MHz bands. These are not the only boasts, as the team also believes it has the world’s largest mobile data consumption and VOLTE networks. What this does offer is opportunity for the consumer to deep dive into digital.

Jio consumers use on average 10.6 GB of data per month, while spending 744 minutes talking on devices and 15.4 hours consuming media. The more Jio can convince its users to spend online, the more money it makes. This might seem like a simple idea, but the previously digitally starved Indian consumer is certainly gaining an appetite.

Of course, mobile is just the beginning. When we saw Mathew Oommen’s, President of Reliance Jio Infocomm, presentation during the Big Communications Event in Austin this year, he was bullish about diversification and convergence. Broadband was a big area of focus, with Oommen claiming there are only 18 million broadband connected homes in the country, while the enterprise market is currently at a fifth of what it could be. These targeted segments are becoming apparent.

JioGigaFiber, which will offer both consumer and enterprise broadband and entertainment services, was announced earlier this month. Customers across 1,100 cities can no register for services starting 15th August 2018, with the launches being dependent on demand. Broadband will be a more capital intensive campaign for Jio, though we suspect there might be a few initiatives in the pipeline to encourage subscriptions.

Elsewhere in the business, JioTV is growing, as it JioCinema, while the combination of JioMusic and Saavn is starting to look like a winner as well. MyJio, the self-care app, now has more than 200 million downloads, and the mobile payment business is starting to gather steam.

Mobile might be where Jio caused the chaos on the first place, but the team is clearly not satisfied with just being a telco. Jio is on the verge of becoming one of the most influential businesses in India, touching the consumer in every aspect of life.