It’s a war between Bharti Airtel and Reliance Jio
Both Airtel and Reliance Jio are trying to edge each other out with low-cost data plans, freebies and subsidised phones. But guess who is the ultimate winner?
India's two top telecom operators, Bharti Airtel and Reliance Jio, are locked in a tight competition which has triggered another round of price war in the industry. But unlike the 3G price war in 2012 or 4G price war in 2016, the new battle isn't about who is offering the lowest price but who can sell for free and for how long. And then, there's a revived interest in targeting the lower tier of userbase that is still using the 2G feature phones.
How it started
It all began with Mukesh Ambani-led Reliance Jio rolling out its commercial operations in September last year. Despite being a late entrant to India's telecom space, Jio came all guns blazing with aggressive data plans, over-the-top (OTT) app ecosystem and unlimited free voice calls.
Within the first month of its launch, Jio added a whopping 16 million subscribers. Jio's expansion was mainly driven by free usage under the Preview Offer, Welcome Offer and Happy New Year Offer - which roughly covered the initial six-seven months. Soon, rivals Airtel and Vodafone came up with similarly priced data plans to prevent their users from migrating to Jio.
Airtel in March this year announced a Surprise offer, giving away free 30GB data for three months - similar to what Reliance Jio had been offering until then. Airtel next month extended the plan for another three months. Reliance, meanwhile, continued to shower freebies under its Dhan Dhana Dhan offer. Just this week, Reliance Jio announced a cashback offer on ₹399 recharge whereas Airtel introduced a ₹999 plan to offer 50GB data and unlimited calls. Looking at the trend, it's highly unlikely any of these companies will be stopping these freebies.
Revived interest in low-end phones
Before the 3G and 4G-era, Indian telecom operators sold carrier-locked CDMA phones. These CDMA phones came with voice and SMS benefits. For example, RCom users could make calls and send SMSes to the same network for free. Later, the trend transformed into partnerships between telecom operators and smartphone companies to offer bundled data and voice benefits.
Reliance, earlier this year, introduced a smart feature phone called JioPhone. This strategy aimed at expanding base to feature phone users who were still oblivious to the ongoing 4G boom in the country. Not only is Jio offering free voice calls and data benefits, it's also offering the phone for a really low price - ₹1,500, which is also refundable after three years.
Airtel has also adopted a similar strategy with one major difference - it is not launching self-branded phones, but rather partnering with OEMs to offer bundled data benefits to bring down the price of entry-level smartphones to a feature phone. The Karbonn A40, the first phone under such a partnership, is available for an effective price of ₹1,399.
According to reports, Idea Cellular, Vodafone and state-run BSNL are also planning to launch similarly priced smartphones, with bundled data benefits.
Why feature phones?
Contrary to popular belief, markets such as India are still home to a large number of feature phone users. According to a recent CounterPoint Research report, 400 million feature phones were sold in 2016.
"Close to 200 million 4G Feature phones to be potentially sold in India in next five years bridging the digital divide, an opportunity for OEMs as well as Operators," said the report.
"In the process, we could see the smartphone market growth might slow down a bit as the laggard feature phone users who eventually would have purchased a smartphone will delay the purchase for the 4G feature phone," it added.
A smart feature phone or a smartphone?
An ultra-low-cost smartphone brings an aspirational element that is expected to woo feature phone consumers who have long sought a touch-screen phone but never had the budget for it. The JioPhone caters to the customers who are okay with a feature phone design but want access to smartphone-like features such as video calling, internet browsing, multimedia streaming and so forth.
Parv Sharma, who is an analyst at CounterPoint research firm, told Hindustan Times, "Comparing a feature phone to a smartphone is not an Apple to Apple comparison. A consumer decides between a feature/smartphone depending on their needs e.g. feature phone users look for familiarity and better battery life etc."
Commenting on Airtel's focus on low-end 4G phones, he said, "Affordable smartphones are already available in the market and Airtel's strategy is to offer similar phones, with a down payment of $40. This strategy may face challenges when trying to convince existing featurephone users to upgrade to smartphones. Further, the cash back offered on the device will be settled in 3 years but such devices usually have a lifecycle of about two years."
"Moreover, in the coming quarter, we will see more offerings from Itel/Tecno for smartphones in the region of $50 which will be better than Airtel's current offering. So, this could be a tough sell for Airtel unless they offer a yearly upgrade," he added.
Summing up, the ongoing battle between the top telecom operators is ultimately going to benefit the customers and the industry alike. From mobile banking to multimedia streaming, availability of affordable high-speed mobile internet has opened up new avenues for the industry.
India is estimated to have more than 500 million mobile internet users by 2017, an encouraging figure for companies such as Netflix, Google and Apple that are banking on India's data growth. For customers, there's already a gradual shift to video calling and instant messaging as the primary mode of communication, all possible because of high-speed and affordable mobile data.
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