The rollout of Reliance Jio’s 4G service this time may cause ripples, but not waves or a tsunami as the entry of Reliance Infocomm had caused in 2001, supported by distortions in policy framework then. There have been massive expectations in the telecom sector ever since Reliance Industries (RIL) acquired a majority stake in Infotel Broadband, which won pan-India broadband wireless access (BWA) licenses in the 2010 auction. The expectations have hinged on Mukesh Ambani-led Reliance’s re-entry into the telecom space through Reliance Jio Infocomm. The Reliance group’s foray into the mobile segment in 2001 via Reliance Infocomm had challenged and practically transformed the country’s telecom landscape through its market-disruptive strategies through blatant policy manipulations and large-scale operations. Back then, Reliance was instrumental in introducing various offerings at dirt-cheap prices, which went on to revolutionise wireless growth in India. The industry, experts and users are now expecting a very similar wave to sweep the broadband segment.
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Coming to the positive side, Reliance Jio does have several inherent strengths as a company. It always had the financial backing of RIL, one of the largest business entities in the country. Due to this, the company always had sizeable resources and in the past, it has been a market changer with disruptive marketing strategies. That is no longer a plus point, when incumbents too are well entrenched, technologically and financially. In the past three to four years, Reliance has managed to build up significant capacity. It has a fairly large and geographically well-spread network and Reliance has always seemed to maintain cordial relations with top government officials. Somehow, whenever someone decides to analyse its history, they realise that various policies were tweaked to favour them from time to time.
Reliance Jio aims to become India’s largest telecom player within three years of its service launch and to break even by the end of the third year of operations, many believe that Reliance Jio can change the pecking order in the world’s second-largest telecom market. But personally, we feel there are some major obstacles that Reliance Jio might be facing at the entry level. The potential challenges are very basic in nature, i.e. a weak device ecosystem, lack of backhaul network support and issues related to the low density of 4G networks. The already saturated urban voice market and the incumbents’ underutilised 3G networks will definitely pose challenges. Passive infrastructure sharing with existing incumbents will help Reliance Jio in the short-term only, but pan-India service strategy will require the establishment of new towers and cables, leading to huge capital expenditures.
We believe that while the company may want to adopt the strategy of disruptive pricing again, the scenario has changed significantly over the past decade or so. Customers are more educated and spoilt now. They would need a strong reason to switch from one operator to another. Either the quality of service being offered by Reliance Jio has to be the key differentiator or the price strategy of the service has to be extremely attractive for majority Indians. However, this doesn’t seem to be an easy task in the ruthless telecom market that currently exists in India.
Back in 2001, when Reliance Infocomm had entered the Indian telecom market to provide 2G services and caused massive disruption, mobile technology was a proven technology worldwide. In comparison, Long Term Evolution (LTE) services are still in the nascent stages globally. The entire 4G ecosystem has not yet developed in terms of devices. 3G itself has not taken off the way it should have. There is a lot of potential for 3G services, which is slowly getting tapped. 4G ecosystems has not yet developed in terms of devices, deployment of towers. 4G maturity will take time, which puts aside any apprehensions that Jio’s aggressive plans will shake the industry.
The incumbents are ready to fight harder for a larger share of pie. It is not that easy for a new operator to add value customers by just giving discounts and freebies. Jio undoubtedly will get customers initially, but it might not be the case that will help them in the long-term. They, too, need to have quality and loyal customers instead of getting unnecessarily aggressive they are expected to be calculative. It’s always dangerous to be a rookie in this sector. Reliance has to play really well. They are launching a very new technology that has yet to evolve. Every time they make a mistake, a competitor will learn from it.
We feel that every time Reliance will try to make the right moves, the incumbents will try to ensure that they do not compromise their leadership position. After gaining a first-mover advantage, Bharti Airtel has been steadily rolling out its 4G services across its licensed circles. Spectrum liberalisation has encouraged non-BWA spectrum holders to foray into the space-using spectrum in the 1800MHz band. Idea Cellular and Vodafone India have picked up large amounts of spectrum in this band in the recent auction and can become potential challengers for Reliance in the 4G space over the long-term. Airtel and Idea are established players in the field with millions of users. It is difficult for another player to just enter and impact the market instantly.
The competition is cut throat, and intense and thriving in this segment are difficult. The BWA rollout deadline will also see other players holding spectrum in the 2300MHz band launching services and competing with Reliance in some circles. As per the government rules, all the companies that won BWA spectrum in 2010 are required to roll out services in at least 90 per cent of their service areas by August 2015. However, we believe at present Reliance, is better prepared than its competitors for a service launch in the BWA space. Therefore, the company will have to build a highly-effective business model around a differential pricing strategy and innovative applications. To make an impact, Reliance Jio will need to offer applications that attract the mass market.
Reliance has spent close to four years strengthening its infrastructure muscle, bringing in more investments, devising fresh strategies, signing partnerships (Samsung handsets), and acquiring spectrum. However, the gestation period has been a long one, and the company has failed to convert all the hype into a commercial or mainstream service launch. Going ahead, the long-awaited launch of Jio is expected to usher in some much needed dynamism into the data segment. Its potentially reasonably priced 4G services could give a shot in the arm to the 4G markets if the business model is shaped properly. As for its impact on the incumbents’ business, the entry of a new player like Reliance Jio will stir the waters, and put pressure on revenue growth, margins and capex over a long time, but in the short-run, the impact might not be what they caused in 2001. At the same, it will result in the creation of huge capacity across the telecom value chain. For the consumers, the main beneficiaries, they can look forward to some exciting times and superior speeds. After all, the Jio’s 4G launch is expected to usher in a new broadband era in the Indian telecom sector.
This time market place is different, scope for policy manipulation is limited or has already been consumed, customer is not gullible, and most importantly, the competitors, too have deep pockets, are smart street fighters and are no novices. Whatever happens the ultimate winner would be the consumer and the biggest adjudicator as to who succeeds in today’s world of choices. Incumbents are advised to prepare for tsunami and Reliance Jio to be prepared for a long haul pitted as they are against formidable entrenched players. Let us see who is startled, incumbents by tsunami or Reliance by resilience and resistance of the enemy?
The author, BK Singhal, is former CMD of VSNL and currently serves as a director at Sonata Information Technology. His views are personal
(This story was published in BW | Businessworld Issue Dated 15-06-2015)