How can carriers make 40% EBIDTA margin at 2 cents/min tariff?
The mobile tariffs vary a lot across the globe and in some countries it could be as high as 35 cents/min. However, Indian carriers have consistently delivered over 40% EBIDTA margins at a tariff less than 2 cents/min. This article presents a case study on how Indian operators manage high returns at such low prices.
Situation: India has the second highest subscriber base after China at 350 million. The telecom sector was thrown open to private players in 1995 with the launch of mobile services. At the time of launch, the tariffs were very high at 50 cents/min for outgoing as well as incoming calls which meant that only 2-3% top income individuals could afford the service. Gradually competition was introduced in the Indian market and soon it was clear that volumes only could bring profitability to carriers. The number of players in each telecom circle went up from two to four to seven in 7-8 year’s time. At the same time, CPP (Calling Party Pays) and IUC (Interconnect) regimes were introduced in the country resulting in free incoming calls. As competition grew, the focus shifted to mass market and the tariffs started to come down. Indians responded well to the tariff drops and soon India emerged as the fastest growing market. The chart (fig 1) below shows the how the fall in tariff led to high growth.
Indian carriers were clear that they need to reduce tariff to stay ahead of the competition and the mobile services cannot remain a niche service. They followed the following seven steps to attain their aim:
Paradigm shift from ARPU to revenue per min – Indian carriers stopped looking at the ARPU as one of the performance measures. They started considering themselves as the producers and sellers of minutes. Hence the new metrics emerged like the revenue per min and the cost per min. This meant that they needed 40% margin on every minute they sold to achieve the objective of 40% EBIDTA margin. Once they defined the tariff per minute that they could realize from subscribers, they got the target for cost per minute. I would rate this single change in the mindset as the biggest game changer
Outsourcing non-core activities like IT, network – The Indian carriers created many firsts on their journey of cost reduction. Network was considered as a core function of any operator but in the quest of reducing the cost, the Indian carriers outsourced their networks in the year 2003 to the companies that best know how to manage the networks. They roped in companies like Ericsson, Nokia Siemens to manage their networks. Multi-year managed network deals were struck that guaranteed continued business to the network companies at a low cost. It was a win-win situation for both the entities. The carriers managed to change the cost type from fixed cost to usage based costing (based on erlangs per min) and more importantly, they managed to scale up their networks faster on consumer demands. The managed service companies charge on the basis of peak capacity (in erlangs) and the carriers are free to utilize it as they wish. This has resulted in creative tariff plans like night calling to make the traffic pattern more uniform and reduce the peak load. As with any outsourcing deals, the cost came down significantly with enhanced efficiency. Later the carriers emulated this strategy in the area of IT and call centers. Companies like IBM are entrusted with the responsibility of scaling up the IT infrastructure as per the changing needs of the carrier. The deals managed to make the IT cost a variable cost normally at ~2% of the gross revenues. These deals gave the carriers a chance to fight against the best of the world. After the outsourcing of the call centers, the next likely target function for outsourcing could be customer activation and service provisioning. In the end, the carriers would have the responsibility of just managing and owning consumers. Who knows, even that could be outsourced to MVNOs!!!
Focus on Prepaid – The carriers in India have focused on the prepaid market (currently over 99% of new additions are prepaid and over 93% of base is prepaid). Prepaid has a lower cost structure and lower channel commissions which means lower cost to the carriers. Currently, the prepaid card is much more attractive in terms of value than postpaid. Postpaid is currently being subscribed only by corporate connections as a bill is required by corporate. Higher prepaid proportion means lower billing costs, lower bad debt and even lower customer service delivery cost as prepaid customers are much less demanding when it comes to service. The flip side to this is that the churn (3% of base every month) is very high as the loyalty is low amongst prepaid subscribers. The acquisition cost being low, this is not yet pinching the carriers but I believe soon the focus would shift to consumer loyalty
Economies of scale – With falling tariffs, the subscriber net additions started to jump (a mind boggling 15 million subscriber net additions in Jan’09 in India). This ensured that the operators reap the benefit of economies of scale. They started to reduce the tariffs even further filling up the network with minutes. Since the cost increase was in steps due to outsourcing deals, the cost per minute started to fall faster than the revenue per minute and hence the EBIDTA margins stared to increase
Infrastructure sharing – Virgin Mobile may have introduced the concept of site/infrastructure sharing but it is the Indian carriers that followed it with whole heart. Currently, over 40% of the total sites in the country are shared with an average tenancy of over 1.5 per site. This has resulted in huge savings in network running expenses. The operators are now willing to share active infrastructure if the Government so allows. There is strong co-petition in the Indian market
Low cost distribution, e-Charge – carriers developed the low cost distribution model keeping the channel margins low and compensating the channel by way of volumes. They also focused on reducing the transaction costs and India was one of the first few countries in the world to introduce electronic recharge. The electronic recharging eliminated the need of the paper coupons thus reducing the need for multiple stock keeping units at the retail level. This resulted in lower cost to the carrier and low working capital requirement for the channel and on top of this, there were no stock out situations as well. In 2005 itself, electronic recharge was over 85% of the total recharge in the market. The electronic recharge facility helped carriers introduce micro-charge which exploded the market. The recharge could be done with a value as low as 20 cents. This resulted in higher usage leading to further reduction in cost on account of spreading of costs over a larger number of minutes.
Low Acquisition cost (no handset subsidy) – In India, the handset is not sold along with the SIM card. The handsets are distributed and sold separately by the handset vendors. This significantly reduces the requirement of working capital and other inventory carrying costs. The carriers can have a much leaner organization with no handset subsidy burden. In a country like India, where there is no social security number and enforcement agencies are weak, the bad debt should be significant for carriers. Carriers did a smart thing by staying away from the handset subsidy game.
The regulatory framework has been very strong in India and has continuously ensured lower tariffs and consumer interest safeguard. This ensured that the tariffs are transparent (though they are far too many!!!). Regulators also ensured sufficient competition in the market and are in fact planning to introduce mobile number portability soon. They recently awarded licenses to 4-5 new players in each circle taking up the number of players in each circle to 12. This would mean that India would be by far the most competitive market in the world.
All the above initiatives led to tight Opex control by carriers which are reflected in their cost structure (fig below).
Though the cost structure does not throw light on the absolute cost, the cost distribution when compared to other carriers in the world can provide ample pointers to the areas of cost reduction that the carriers in other countries can focus on. Indian operators are on the lookout of acquiring other operators in Africa and Middle-east as they believe that they can replicate the Indian experience there as well. The economies of scale may not be present in smaller markets but does it not call for cross-border consolidation especially in Europe? I am sure that if follow the simple steps of the Indian carriers, the consumers in the other parts of the world may soon enjoy the low tariffs as they are there in India