5G pricing: the best is yet to come

Telecoms.com periodically invites third parties to share their views on the industry’s most pressing issues. In this piece, Jennifer Kyriakakis, Founder and VP of Marketing at Matrixx, explores best practice in the pricing of telecoms services in the 5G era.

The advent of 5G technology will bring a monumental shift in how traditional telcos operate their business. In the run up to full scale 5G deployments, many forward thinking telcos have launched digital brands. These are essentially 100% digital versions of their businesses packaged as a different brand. Many of them are using their digital brands to experiment with customer experience, service offerings, and business models that will become mainstream with 5G. The theorem: If we don’t have the pricing models and business infrastructure in place to properly extract value from a 5G offering, we’ll end up losing out to the next wave of OTT players. So let’s figure it out now, before the networks are in place.

As operators debate how best to price 5G, some early examples, such as Three in the UK are offering 5G at no additional cost to current 4G plans. The idea seems sound as a starting point, particularly as there is little 5G network availability and devices haven’t yet caught up. But does it make sense in the medium to long term, or do these tactics risk further devaluing the very asset that differentiates them? Are these early pricing models really strategies for 5G, or merely placeholders as telcos continue with transformation efforts that will set them up to compete with OTTs and digital players?

Operators have a powerful opportunity to create a competitive advantage with their 5G offering. Getting the pricing model right is a strong place to start. With the industry already throwing different pricing models at the wall, which one will stick?

The Pay-for-Speed approach

This approach started in some markets with 4G and while it’s simple and straightforward for the consumer, it also sets the precedence that speed is the only value lever telcos have to offer. For example, Vodafone became the first UK network to offer unlimited 5G data plans. Ditching the monthly data allocations, Vodafone offers three speeds; 2Mpbs, 10Mpbs and then the fastest speed possible. People have the choice on how fast they want to download or stream content.

If you are a super user or have a family of six who are always on their phones, it makes sense to pay for those faster speeds. If you are in retirement, don’t necessarily have a job in tech or could care less about YouTube, then having the choice for lower speeds may be a good option.

But is this model sustainable? When in the future, the amount of data – everything from gaming to connected home, health apps, IoT, streaming video and more -could outweigh the speed? Would an operator lose a revenue opportunity on super users who take advantage of accessing large amounts of data at the fastest speeds?

The Rewards approach

Others are taking an ecosystem approach banking on potential new revenue streams by creating value-added services, which often come to life through rewards-based programs. These programs offer incentives such as discounts, coupons and first-access to concerts and movies, to entice users and make the app experience more sticky. By building loyalty around an ecosystem now, as 5G services arrive they have established channel relationships with partners who will be leveraging 5G in the future for AR/VR services and are actively participating in the revenue chain.

Verizon’s Up Program is a great example of this, as they offer discounts and rewards on technology, dining, sports experiences and stage-side concerts. They tout deals monthly and even daily, driving people to check in on the app frequently. Once there, they encourage users to manage their services, often upselling them on new benefits.

By creating these rewards-based programs they are not only appealing to the next generation of users, but they are also creating a more valued relationship between consumers and their brand. This brand strategy is one that few operators have navigated successfully, but it is crying out for change in a new 5G era if operators expect to compete with OTT players.

The Marketplace & Bundled approach

Operators that create marketplaces are offering users opportunities to connect with friends, form inner social groups, gift data to friends, and also manage their plans in real-time. These marketplaces are highly sticky, driving customers to spend lots of time within the marketplace, which breeds more opportunities to sell products and boost revenue.

Another approach are operators who are choosing to bundle the price of data with a specific service. For example, if you want Netflix delivered in high-definition to your smartphone, you’ll pay a flat monthly fee for that service and the data will be included. These bundled-service options work well for a variety of value-adds, including VR gaming, augmented reality services, IoT of the home and more.

This sets the market up nicely for two-sided business models which will emerge with full scale 5G. Getting consumers used to paying carriers for services vs. network access is phase one to future multi-faceted models in which the carriage is monetized through different partners and models.

So have any 5G pricing models arrived yet?

While these offerings are all based on 4G today, they set the foundation for turning customers into high-engagement fans, in turn increasing their revenue streams.

5G introduces hundreds and even thousands of possibilities to utilize the network efficiently and generate additional revenue. Operators that are moving now to innovate and distinguish themselves from their competitors are setting themselves up to reimagine pricing for 5G and drive new revenue vs. defend against price wars and the resulting churn.

 

Pod 15 jul Jennifer croppedMATRIXX Founder and Vice President of Marketing, Jennifer Kyriakakis, brings deep expertise in both telecoms and software with roles ranging from complex systems delivery to technical sales to strategic marketing. Her 20 plus years of experience helping Telcos reinvent themselves has propelled the growth of MATRIXX into markets all over the globe.

Ofcom moves in to protect UK mobile users from loyalty punishments

The UK’s telecom regulator believes out-of-contract mobile users could have saved millions if telcos offered the best deal available, and has released new measures to protect them from being treated unfairly.

After nearly a year’s research the regulator has found that on average the out-of-contract customers, those who have taken out a handset/airtime bundle contract and stay with the operator after the contract runs out, are paying £11 more per month than if they have been offered a better alternative, e.g. a comparable SIM-only deal. This would take the total amount of over-payment made by the 1.4 million out-of-contract customers to £182 million a year.

“Our research reveals a complex mobile market, where not everyone is getting a fair deal. So we’re introducing a range of measures to increase fairness for mobile customers, while ensuring we don’t leave existing customers worse off,” said Lindsey Fussell, Ofcom’s Consumer Group Director.

The new measures introduced today, published in a release titled “Helping consumers to get better deals in communications markets: mobile handsets”, focus on three areas:

  1. Transparency of contract details: mobile operators offering bundle contracts should tell customers the cost of the handset and the cost of airtime separately. This is in line with new EU rules, but Ofcom has decided to introduce it to the UK despite  the decision to leave the EU.
  2. Time limit on “split contract”: this refers to the kind of contacts that a customer would pay for the handsets and usage separately. The new rule would cap such contracts to 24 months, to avoid customers being locked in one contract for to long and to make switching operators easier.
  3. Concretised measure to treat customers fairly, following the more vague “Fairness for Customers” commitment the operators signed up to. Specifically, it requires mobile operators to tell customers that their contract is going to end, and to explain to them the best available deals including SIM-only deals. The easy way of switching operators with a text message that was laid out in June is also coming into effect this month.

Ofcom also declared the first victories in operator endorsements. “All the major mobile companies – except Three – will also be reducing bills for millions of customers who are past their initial contract period,” Fussell said.

O2 and Virgin Mobile will charge their out-of-contract customers the equivalent 30-day SIM-only deal, while both EE and Vodafone are going to reduce the price for their customers out-of-contract for more than three months, though they will only confirm the level of discount by the end of the year. The discount will become effective next February.

“Three is the only major provider that has refused to apply any discount to its out-of-contract customers. As a result, these customers will continue to overpay and will not receive similar protections if they stay on their current deal,” the Ofcom statement said.

The regulator also announced that later this year it will publish its findings on broadband prices, and why some customers find their broadband bills higher than others.

DT gets slap on wrist for net neutrality naughtiness

Deutsche Telekom has found itself on the wrong side of right after its ‘Stream On’ offering was found to break European net neutrality rules.

After the Federal Network Agency (BNetzA) imposed restrictions on the telco on the grounds of net neutrality, DT took to the courts to fight the decision. Unfortunately, the lower courts and today in the Higher Administrative Court in Muenster, it was confirmed the telco would no-longer be able to offer the ‘Stream On’ value add feature in its current form.

The issue which the telco is facing boils down to the small print. DT customers have found themselves to have traffic throttled and are unable to make use of the ‘Stream On’ feature outside the German borders, violating European rules on roaming.

‘Stream On’ was first introduced to customers in the US, with the German business following suit after witnessing the success. Offering zero-rating benefits on video streaming, the proposition proved to be as successful in Europe, with two million German customers signed up.

It is of course a strategy which will sound attractive to the data-intensive consumers of today. With entertainment and gaming content from selected partners not bleeding the monthly data allotments, it sounds very interesting, however it seems DT is a victim of its own sluggishness.

One of the issues which BNetzA found was on the data throttling side of the offer. For cheaper data tariffs, download speeds were throttled with the critics arguing this violated one of the key principles of net neutrality, irrelevant as to whether the user consented to the downgraded speeds.

For the tariffs at the bottom end of the scale, download speeds had been throttled to 1.7 Mbps. This might have been sufficient at some point, but at this is not fast enough to deliver a HD quality resolution, the courts decided it was undermining the rules.

Secondly, in limiting the zero-rating offering of ‘Stream On’ to its own borders, DT has also been found to have broken European roaming rules. As the free data stream ended at the border, the courts agreed with regulators that the user was effectively being ‘charged’ for using video and gaming services when in another country. Charging more for services while abroad is a no-no when it comes to the European Union’s rules on roaming.

Although the telco will not be happy with the outcome of this case, it is not the end for the ‘Stream On’ proposition. With two million users signed up, it is clearly at attractive value add for DT, but the telco will have to tweak the small print and update some permissions to ensure it is compliant with current regulations.

France next on the list to be teased with Trump’s tariffs

The United States Trade Representative (USTR) has opened an investigation into France’s digital sales tax, a move which could lead to the European nation facing trade tariffs.

The digital sales tax in France has been viewed as a means to force internet companies to play fair. The creative accounting practices of these companies has ensured nominal tax has been paid to various European states, and France has had enough. The proposed tax has passed through the lower parliamentary house, the National Assembly, and is expected to get the final thumbs-up today from the Senate.

As a result, US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer has announced the launch of an investigation under Section 301 of the Trade Act of 1974 of the Digital Services Tax (DST) into the French government. This is the very same tool used by the Trump administration to justify the introduction of tariffs against China due to the alleged theft of IP.

“The United States is very concerned that the digital services tax which is expected to pass the French Senate tomorrow unfairly targets American companies,” said Lighthizer.

“The President has directed that we investigate the effects of this legislation and determine whether it is discriminatory or unreasonable and burdens or restricts United States commerce.”

What is worth noting is that while many US companies might find themselves paying more tax, this is not necessarily a move to raid the US economy. This tax has been directed towards all digital companies who abuse the international tax system to the detriment of the French government and society irrelevant as to their nationality, it just so happens the US dominates the internet industry.

Many will view the French move as a gallant effort to hold the internet economy accountable, though it seems the US does not feel the same way; its own economy and society does of course benefit from the tax skulduggery.

The suggestion of the US imposing tariffs on the US comes two days after President Trump declared Indian tariffs on US goods should be a thing of the past.

The tax itself has been in the pipeline for some time, as European nations have become increasingly frustrated by the taxation strategies of the digital economy. Companies such as Google, Facebook and Amazon have been shifting profits freely throughout the world to ensure lower taxation rates are paid. This move from France, to impose a 3% sales tax on revenues realised within its borders, seems like an effective counter-punch.

What is worth noting is it is not just the US firms who are abusing this taxation system. Sweden’s Spotify is another which has played the system well. In the UK, as an example, the company reported revenues of £444 million over the course of 2017 but paid £891,425 in tax as it only reported advertising revenues in the country. Revenues associated with the ‘Premium’ subscription product were moved to Sweden where it could pay less tax.

France is not alone with its frustrations either. The UK is another nation which is considering its own digital tax reforms, while the European Commission attempted to pass bloc-wide rules recently. These rules were blocked by the likes of Ireland and Luxembourg, two countries who benefit significantly from the fleecing of other nations.

Now onto the US response. Section 301 and related provisions of the Trade Act offer the USTR the opportunity to investigate what it or the White House deem as a foreign country’s unfair trade practices. There will be a public consultation and lobby efforts from Silicon Valley and should the USTR conclude France is unfairly persecuting US business, tariffs could be directed towards imported cheese and garlic.

Tariffs are a popular weapon for Trump and the White House hacketmen on the international trade scene, as it is becoming increasingly common for US diplomats to huff and puff, while banging their chest and showing off their biceps when things don’t go their way.

Unfortunately, the US doesn’t really have a leg to stand on here, though the presence of logic will not persuade the hawks from their flightpath. Internet companies, all over the world for that matter, are taking advantage of a dated taxation system which allows them to grow bank accounts without recontributing to the country which has fuelled this prosperity. There is little which can be said to counter this position.

Interestingly enough, the move could spark wider tensions. The relationship between the White House and the European Union is already stressed and targeting a single member state might not be received well by the bloc. The US feels targeting a single member state is legitimate, though there might well be a bigger conversation to be had in Brussels.

With the clouds of tariffs already lurking above the European automotive industry, the US might find itself with another trade disagreement on its hands before too long.

Vodafone UK edges in front with ‘wider pipe’ approach to 5G

It’s always difficult to offer a winning position before all hands have been shown, but Vodafone looks to have stretched a nose ahead in the UK 5G race.

For the moment, we can only really judge two of the four 5G propositions in the UK, though there have also been hints from Three. With EE launching its 5G assault last month, and Vodafone switching on this week, it does seem that the latter has re-found its mojo and could challenge leadership positions in the UK connectivity standings.

As it stands, O2 and EE are sitting very comfortably in the number one and two spots respectively. With 36% and 33% market share for mobile subscriptions, according to Ovum’s WCIS, Vodafone is a distant third with 20% and Three falls away with 11% in fourth. However, that can all change very quickly, it wasn’t long ago Vodafone was the clear market leader.

Looking at the current offerings from the UK MNOs, Vodafone does look to have a more attractive offering. On the subsidised handsets front, the two are pretty much on par with Vodafone being a little bit cheaper. However, the SIM-only offering might grab the attention of a lot of people.

This is a model which we think is much more suited in the 5G era. If you believe the technologists, delivering data over 5G networks is cheaper than 4G. This is down to efficiency gains on the spectrum front, as well as improvements to antenna and the introduction of new technologies such as Massive MIMO. If it is becoming cheaper to give data to the increasingly insatiable consumer, why not offer unlimited.

Tiering on speeds is a very interesting approach. Data usage is going up for every demographic, such is life as more aspects become digitised, but the variety of ways people consume that data is becoming increasingly varied. Some will only use the internet for browsing, some focus on video consumption and others are gamers. Each different experience can be satisfied by different speed limits.

What will need to be done over the next couple of weeks and months is educating the consumer. Most consumers think faster is always better, but sometimes this is not the case. The majority of consumers could get by with mobile connectivity of 10-20 Mbps, but many think they need the fastest possible connection.

If you are in an urban setting and not able to use the internet on your device properly, the immediate assumption is that speeds are not fast enough. This might be the case, but another explanation is that there are too many people attempting to connect through the same cell site. This is network congestion, its not necessarily anything to do with speed, but too many people are clogging up the digital highway.

This is where 5G can add benefits over 4G. Think of the ‘internet’ as a water pipe. Not only does 5G make the water flow faster, it makes the pipe wider to allow more water to flow through it. This should address the network congestion challenge in various places if more people are connecting more devices to the same cell sites.

With this concept in mind, Vodafone has built the speed-tiered options; all you have to do is work-out how you use your phone, decide on a suitable speed and then you never have to worry about using up your data allocation ever again.

The one criticism we have is the pricing, which you can see below:

Speed limit 2 Mbps 10 Mbps Fastest possible
Price £23 £26 £30

On the lower end of the scale, the 2 Mbps tier, we believe Vodafone has charged a bit too much. And on the upper-end, the telco probably could have charged more. The strategy appears to be gearing as many people as possible to the middle tier which effectively undermines the concept of having experience designed tiers in the first place.

The success of this initiative will entirely depend on whether Vodafone can educate the consumer on the basics on connectivity experience. The water pipe analogy is a good one to explain the difference between 5G and 4G, though it would also help to inform users of how much speed is required to do what.

How much do you need to use WhatsApp, watch YouTube or play Harry Potter; Wizards Unite, for example. The general consumer in the UK will not know the answer to this question, and unless they do, this Vodafone strategy will likely fail.

Ofcom introduces text-to-switch

Thanks to Ofcom the days of being passed around a call-centre should theoretically be over, as new text-to-switch rules come into play.

Starting today (July 1) customers will be able to end mobile contracts simply by texting their provider. It’ll end an incredibly frustrating process used by all mobile operators to keep valuable post-paid customers from leaving their grasp.

It has been one of the biggest complaints against the telcos over the years; ending contracts is an incredibly painful process. While it might leave customers frustrated and infuriated, it does also help the telcos improve their churn. This is a system which is effectively loyalty through stubbornness, as the telcos enter a game of hide-and-seek with customers. It’s a competition of will and a perfect example of the telcos not understanding customer service.

“Breaking up with your mobile provider has never been easier thanks to Ofcom’s new rules,” said Lindsey Fussell, Ofcom’s Consumer Group Director. “You won’t need to have that awkward chat with your current provider to take advantage of the great deals available.”

Of course, while the majority of the telcos will be disappointed with the new rules, realising they will have to figure out new strategies to keep customers instead of forcing them into loyalty through the torture of hold-music, there will be some who are happy.

“I’m delighted that text-to-switch makes it easier and faster for everyone to get the best deal, helping people change to a new mobile provider with a few taps on their phone,” said Dave Dyson, CEO of Three.

“At Three, we’re making huge improvements to our 4G experience and preparing to launch the UK’s fastest 5G network, in more cities and towns than anyone else this year. This makes it the perfect time for people to consider the outstanding experience Three can offer, both now and in the future.”

Three might well be happy with the development considering the opportunity it has as we approach the era of 5G tariffs. Although the telco has not unveiled any pricing plans for 5G yet, the scene as been set for a disruptor to enter the fray and cause chaos.

EE has launched its 5G network and Vodafone is entering the small numbers in the countdown. Both have detailed tariffs on their websites, and both are charging a considerable premium for the pleasure of 5G. There is a massive opportunity for Three to undercut these two competitors on price, and with the new text-to-switch rules, it will be easier to lure potential subscriptions away.

In a perfect world, this text-to-switch initiative will force the telcos into a more customer-centric mind frame. Most businesses will tell you it is more profitable to cultivate customers first and chase new business second, but that have never really been the case for the telcos. Almost every business is geared towards acquisition first, leading the industry to its current position where it has one of the worst reputations for customer service and experience.

Perhaps these new rules will encourage the telcos to think about customers in a different way. The technology and data are certainly there to create a more valuable and informed customer experience, but only time will tell whether the telcos embrace it in the same way the OTTs do.

O2 UK first to exploit fairness initiative with Overpayment Estimator

Ofcom has been pressuring UK MNOs to stop ripping off their customers at the end of their contracts and O2 has been the first to act.

One of the secrets of success if you work in a regulated industry is turning new regulations to your advantage. When they can get away with it all operators rip off their customers whenever they can, whether it’s exorbitant roaming fees, punitive charges for going over your allowance or failing to let you know when you’ve paid off your handset.

The smart MNOs are the ones that make a virtue out of doing what they’re compelled to by the regulator and that seems to be what O2 has done with the launch of its Overpayment Estimator. It’s actually a fairly rudimentary tool that just asks you about your current contract, tells you what you could save if you switch to O2 when it ends and then invites you to set a calendar reminder to switch to O2 when that happens.

The fact that this is even a thing is an indictment of how UK MNOs treat their own customers. It’s surely not beyond the capabilities of modern BSS to create an internal calendar marker at the start of a contract that automatically notifies them when it has finished and yet that often doesn’t happen. The only plausible explanation can be that they want their customers to keep paying over the odds and that’s not cool.

“It is simply not right that consumers across the UK are being charged for a phone they already own,” said Mark Evans, CEO of O2. “You wouldn’t keep giving money to your mortgage provider if you’d finished payments and owned your house – so why should it be that way for your phone? The mobile industry does not have the best track record on transparent billing practices.  Our Overpayment Estimator is another positive move towards changing that.”

O2 has something called ‘custom plans, which it says don’t charge customers for their phones once they’re paid off and automatically lower their bills. If some of its competitors are still doing that sort of thing then O2 deserves some credit for exploiting this window of opportunity while it’s still open. The technology presumably exists to only charge people for what they use, but there’s no point in trying to walk before you can crawl is there?

Vodafone Idea has had enough of toe-to-toe Jio battle

Vodafone Idea has contacted subscribers to confirm the end of its ultra-low-priced data tariff as it shifts towards ARPU over scale.

According to The Economic Times, Vodafone Idea is following in the footsteps of Bharti Airtel to end its lower cost data tariffs. These might be attractive to Indian consumers and do encourage the overall subscription numbers, but the dent which has been put in ARPU figures seems to be too much to stomach anymore.

The SMS states:

“Dear Customer, your current Idea post-paid plan is no longer valid from 10-July-2019.You will be upgraded to Nirvana 399 with benefits of unlimited voice calls, 40 GB high speed data and 100 L/N SMS.”

Although the telco is asking subscribers to effectively double their monthly bill, the new data plan does also include year-long subscriptions to Amazon Prime, Prime Video and Prime Music, as well as other bundled TV services.

For Vodafone Idea, this is perhaps a move which has been on the horizon for some time.

When Jio entered the market, it offered a service which drastically undercut anything from the incumbent players. This loss-leader position threw the market into chaos, with profits being slashed everywhere and telcos disappearing from the landscape. The remaining players had to create tariffs which were competitive, such was the queue of consumers waiting to switch to Jio, but they would also have to stomach significant blows on the financial spreadsheets.

What this move does suggest is that Vodafone Idea is willing to sacrifice subscriber scale, focusing on higher-value services and customers. It will see market share drop, but if there are greater profits on the horizon, investors might be happy with the outcome.

Jio is unlikely to follow suit, why would it if it is profitable at the same time as cheap, but this doesn’t mean Vodafone Idea is in trouble; there will be a market for higher value services in India and this is just a different way of doing business.

What this does suggest is that Vodafone Idea cannot tolerate the toe-to-toe battle with Jio. It seems it cannot be beaten at its own game, so perhaps it is a better idea for Vodafone Idea to carve its own niche in the Indian telco environment.

More than 13% mobile users in Spain changed operators in 2018

According to a recent survey, over 13% of mobile users in Spain switched mobile operator in 2018, 18% more considered switching.

The National Commission on Markets and Competition (Comisión Nacional de los Mercados y la Competencia, “CNMC”), Spain’s market competition watchdog, recently polled 5,000 families and over 9,000 individuals to understand their loyalty towards their mobile operators. The survey found the churn rate reached 13.48% of all mobile users. In addition, 11.25% considered moving to a new operator but did not start the process, a further 6.57% did not only consider moving but had actually started the process of moving but did not complete the swap.

When it comes to the main reason for moving, tariff was by far the leading driver, cited by 62% of the individual respondents, the highest level since 2015. A quarter of users moved operators to get fixed and mobile packages, with 20% driven away by the dissatisfaction with the quality of service at their original operators. 14% said they were attracted to change by special promotions (see the chart at the bottom of the article).

On the other hand, the most cited reason for users to stay with an operator for long term is tariff discount or improved terms, chosen by 49% of all respondents. Until two years ago, the leading reason had been promotion of new handsets.

CNMC survey 2018 b