The announcement by Safaricom that it’s doing away with its unlimited Internet bundle did not come as a surprise to me. I had discussed the historical reason behind the billing model that is used by ISP’s and mobile operators in a previous blog post here in Feb 2011.
The billing model used in unlimited Internet offering is flawed. This is because the unit of billing is not a valid and quantifiable measure of consumption of service. An ISP or mobile operator charging a customer a flat fee for a size of Internet pipe (measured in Kbps) is equivalent to a water utility company charging you based on the radius of the pipe coming into your house and not the quantity of water you consume (download) or sewerage released (upload).
What will happen if the local water company billed users by a flat rate fee based on per-centimeter radius of pipe going into their homes rather than volume of water consumed? A user with a pipe of radius that is 1% more than the neighbor enjoys 2% more water flow into their house (do the math!). The problem is that their bills will not differ by 2% but by 1% based on the difference in radius of the pipes. A 2% difference yields a 4% difference in consumption but a 2% difference in billing. The result is that a small group of about 1% users end up consuming about 70% of all the water. This figure is arrived at as follows: A marginal unit increase in resource leads to a near doubling of marginal utility. This is a logarithmic gain (Ln 2=0.693 which means that 69% of utility is enjoyed by about 1% of consumers) . This is the figure issued by Bob Collymore the CEO of Safaricom who said that 1% of unlimited users are consuming about 70% of the resources. This essentially means costs could outstrip revenues by 70:1. This does not make any business sense. Not even a hypothetical NGO engaged in giving ‘free’ Internet through donor funding can carry such a cost to revenue ratio. As to why ISP’s and mobile operators thought billing by size of pipe to the Internet could make money is beyond me.
Bandwidth Consumption Is Not Linear
One mistake that network engineers make is to assume that a 512Kbps user will consume double what a 256Kbps user does and therefore advice the billing team that billing the 512Kbps twice the price of the 256Kbps can cover all costs. This is not true. There are things or activities that a 256Kbps user will not be able to do online, like comfortably do Youtube videos. A 512Kbps user will however be able to do Youtube without a problem. The result is that a 512Kbps user will do much more Youtube videos as the 256Kbps user becomes more frustrated with all the buffering and stops all together attempting to watch online videos. The result is that the consumption of the 512Kbps user will be much higher than double that of the 256Kbps user. Other than Youtube, websites can detect your link speed and present differentiated rich content based on that. I’m sure some of us have been given an option to load a ‘basic’ version of Gmail when it detects a slow link. The big pipe guy never gets to be asked if he can load lighter web pages, rich content is downloaded to his browser by default while the smaller pipe guy gets less content downloaded to his browser in as much that they are both connected to the same website. The problem here is that the difference in content downloaded by the two people on 512K and 256K link is not linear or even double but takes a more logarithmic shape.
Nature Of Contention: Its a Transport and not Network problem
The second mistake that the network engineers make in a network is to assume that if you put a group of customers in a very fat IP pipe and let them fight it out for speeds based on an IP based QoS mechanism is that with time each customer will get a fair chance of getting some bandwidth out of the pool. The problem is that nearly all network QoS equipment characterize a TCP flow as a host-to-host (H2H) connection and not a port-to-port (P2P not to be confused with Peer2Peer) connection. There could be two users with one H2H connection each but one of them might posses about 3000 P2P flows. The problem here is that bandwidth is consumed by the P2P flows and not the H2H flows. User with the 3000 P2P flows ends up taking up most of the bandwidth. This explains why peer to peer (which establishes thousands of P2P flows) is a real bandwidth hog.
So what happens when an ISP dumps the angelic you in a pipe with other malevolent users who are doing peer to peer traffic such as bit-torrent? They will hog up all the bandwidth and the equipment and policies set will not be able to ensure fair allocation of bandwidth to all users including you. So some few users doing bit-torrent end up enjoying massive amounts of bandwidth while the rest doing normal browsing suffer. That explains why some users on the Safaricom Network could download over 35GB of data per week as per comments by Bob Collymore. Please read more on how TCP H2H and P2P flows work here. Many ISP’s engage engineers proficient in layer3 operations (CCNP’s, CCIP’s, CCIE’s etc ) to provide expertise on a layer 4 issue of TCP H2H and P2P flows. You cannot control TCP flows by using layer 3 techniques. IP Network engineers are assigned the duties of transport engineers.
At the end of the day, there will be a very small fraction of ‘happy’ customers and a large group of dissatisfied and angry customers. The few happy customers flat rate revenues are not able to cover all costs as the unhappy customers churn. If on the other hand these bandwidth hogs paid by the GB, the story would be very different. This is what operators are realizing now and moving with speed to implement. Safaricom is not the only one affected by this; Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile in the US are all in different stages of doing away with unlimited service due to their unprofitable nature.
As from 1st of April, Kenya will embrace the concept of Mobile Number Portability (MNP). This is whereby mobile users will have the freedom to change operators while still maintaining their mobile telephone numbers also known as the Mobile Station International Subscriber Directory Number (MSISDN). The MSISDN is made up of the country code (CC), the National destination code (NDC) and the subscriber number (SN). Whereas the country code is one for any given country, the NDC is operator specific and is what uniquely identifies a mobile number as belonging to a given mobile network examples of NDCs are 0733, 0722 and 0755.
In Kenya, Mobile phone market share is skewed in favor of Safaricom which maintains a 75% share of the subscribers with the other three operators taking the rest. This obviously makes number portability a viable avenue in which the operators with a smaller share can rope in subscribers from Safaricom. This is especially true because most subscribers who wish to change operators at the moment cannot do so because it would mean them changing their numbers. The emotional attachment to mobile numbers is uncharacteristically strong in Kenya to the extent that not many people changed operators even when the other operators calling rates were lower. YU introduced 50 cents rate and few moved. Orange introduced a flat rate 100/= per month rate and few moved over. This has been attributed to the emotional bond to mobile numbers.
However, some serious questions about the implementation of MNP in the market have not been answered.
The first one is that not all operators are in favor of MNP. The dominant player feels they stand to lose and will not be so keen on making sure that this new process works. in December last year Safaricom CEO was quoted as saying that MNP will not work in the country because Kenyan subscribers own more than one SIM card. This line of defense is because should MNP work as planned, Safaricom will be the biggest loser. On the other hand, Airtel fully supports MNP and has even started an aggressive campaign in the print media dubbed “Ni Kuhama”to sensitize subscribers on MNP and urging them to cross over come April 1st.
If all operators are not for the idea of MNP, a similar scenario such as the one that is currently in India will also play itself here in Kenya. Indian operators have been accused of sabotaging MNP which was introduced in November 2010. Some of the complaints include operators frustrating customers who want to port their numbers to competition. Some subscribers have complained to the Indian department of telecommunications (DoT) with complaints ranging from current operator issuing wrong porting codes, dead phones on porting, to service inaccessibility after requesting for porting. The number porting process is also taking an average of seven days to be effected as opposed to the standard 2 Hrs. DOT has now summoned the operators to discuss these issues.
The presence of operator specific VAS will also pose a challenge to subscribers and the CCK needs to lay the rules on how issues cropping from this will be handled. For example, If you want to MPESA me on my number 0722-123456 because you still think I’m on Safaricom but I have just migrated to Airtel or Orange, you the sender needs to be protected from being billed for cross-network funds transfer charges because they are ten times the on network MPESA charges. CCK will need to force Safaricom to send you a warning message that I changed networks and you are about to be billed for cross network money transfer and you can either accept or decline to continue further with the transaction. This warning should be at no charge to anyone.
If this is not done, there will be a lot of confusion and apathy to the use of VAS as users will fear being overcharged. This will lead to a decline in this critical revenue stream for the operators.
The third issue is the due date for MNP is fast approaching and CCK has not done enough public education and awareness campaigns on what this is all about and the impact it will have on the consumers life. The fist impact is the consumer will no longer be in full control of his mobile phone calling expenses as he can now not estimate how much a call is going to cost him or her. This is because the certainty of if the call is an on-net or off-net call will be removed with the advent of MNP.
The other problem is many Kenyans own low end phones bought on offer from their current providers might have a problem moving across networks unless the current operator unlocks their phones to accept new SIM cards. Doing this by yourself can land you in jail as per the communication (amendment) act of 2009 which says in section 84G(1) and (2)
(1) Any person who knowingly or intentionally, not being a manufacturer of mobile telephone devices or authorized agent of such manufacturer, changes mobile telephone equipment identity, or interferes with the operation of the mobile telephone equipment identity, commits an offense.
(2) A person guilty of an offense under this section shall on conviction be liable to a fine not exceeding one million shillings or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding five years or both.
This fact can be exploited by your existing operator to prevent you from changing networks and should you wish to do so, you will be forced to invest in a new handset. The other side of the coin to this is operators might be forced to start offering free or heavily subsidized handsets to would be customers who wish to port.
The CCK and operators therefore need to clear the air on the issues above so as to make MNP a success. This is because its been tough implementing MNP in many countries including USA, Malaysia, India, South Africa, Thailand, Brazil and many more countries with more mature telecom systems and markets than ours.
Early September, Zain launched the lowest calling rates in the market of 3 shillings per minute to any network. This caught other operators by surprise especially Safaricom which did not expect any sudden price change in the market that soon, this is because CCK had just approved the lowering of cross-network termination fees to below 3 shillings a minute but the effective date was from the 1st of October and not immediately.
In addition to lowering the prices, Zain embarked on an aggressive campaign to target the low end user to migrate from their current networks to Zain. They did this by introducing lower denomination scratch cards (the 5/= card) and changing their marketing focus to the low end of the market by using celebrities well known to the low end market such as Inspekta Mwala. This strategy worked very well for duracoat when they introduced Mr. Marangi, an ordinary painter telling other painters why he uses duracoat that saw sales increase by 153% and when EAPC introduced Matendechere an ordinary mtu wa mjengo to advertise its cement. The other strategy was what I would call “swahilization” of Zain adverts. Safaricom advertising campaign has been successful because of words such as ‘bamba’, ‘niko na Safaricom’, ‘Okoa jahazi’, ‘Sambaza’ and ‘tuma pesa na m-pesa’. We are now seeing Zain adopt more Swahili words and slogans in their advertising and it seems to be working for them.
On realizing that Zain posed a real threat, Safaricom (and other providers such as YU and Orange) lowered their calling rates drastically to keep subscribers from migrating to Zain. They also launched campaigns and promotions aimed at appeasing subscribers not to change providers. What has however been working in favor 0f Safaricom is the fact that it commands 75% of the market share and many people have had Safaricom DID numbers since they bought their first mobile phone. The number is their identity and its the number in their business cards, contacts, friends phones and CVs. It is also a treasure of sorts especially if it’s the old 0722 prefix. I know people who would prefer to call at a higher per minute rate than change numbers.
The question is if this race to offer subscribers with the lowest calling rates is sustainable in the long run.
There are varied opinions in the market about this with some hailing it as a new dawn in mobile communications in Kenya while some see it as a looming disaster waiting to happen. Unfortunately I belong to the later camp that sees this war as one which will hurt everyone in the end if its not handled professionaly. On my side I have Mickael Ghossein the Telkom-Orange CEO who says that this rush will hurt the margins and eventual profitability of these companies.
I am arguing not from a subscriber point of view that is oblivious of the operations and the ecosystem that is the telecoms market, but my argument is from within the industry and looking at the whole issue from an operator business point of view.
From the look of things, Safaricom stands to lose more in this war than Zain. The average ARPU from voice traffic has dropped significantly and considering that voice is the major contributor to Safaricom’s revenues, their revenues will drop sharply if the subscriber flight continues. As I said, what is helping Safaricom is the fact that people do not want to let go of their numbers, however when number portability takes effect from December, a 0722 can migrate to Zain and so can a 0733 migrate to Safaricom or orange.
The other factor is the business models employed by both Safaricom and Zain. The latter has employed the model used in India by its new owner Bharti Airtel. The model focuses on subscriber numbers and not ARPU. Bharti is interested on how many active subscribers are its network than how much they make from voice traffic, With this Bharti becomes attractive to corporates who then offer Value Added Services (VAS) to these subscribers. such as targeted SMS advertising. A good example is when Bharti offered VAS to the ‘Idols’ franchise for Sony TVs Indian Idol and mobile auditions for the idols program happened over Bhartis network and all voting for the idols was done on its network too. In this deal, Bharti made more money than it made from mobile talk airtime from these subscribers for the whole year.
In the mad rush for numbers here in Kenya, we seem to forget that India has over a billion people with Bharti owning 186 million of them as active subscribers as of June 2010. India can provide the numbers to enable Bharti offer below prevailing market rates and still make money from other avenues. The Kenyan market on the other hand does not have these numbers with our national population at 38 Million people and VAS such as online voting are a foreign idea (as evidenced by Kenyans voting patterns on Miss Universe and BBA, we barely vote). We simply do not have the critical mass needed to sustain such a model of business in the country.
A similar price war started around 2001 when cybercafés started offering internet at one shilling a minute down from ten shillings. This came a cropper as the cafes did not have the client numbers to sustain their businesses and many closed shop while some resorted to supplementing their internet income with other services such as photocopy and doing online research for students.
However all is not lost for Zain because the capitalization and operational model it has been using since inception as Kencell has come to be a key strategy advantage in this war. It has been shown that companies that have a higher ratio of variable costs to fixed costs tend to fair much better in a downturn than those with a higher proportion of their costs being fixed costs. Zain has a higher variable to fixed cost ratio in its books compared to Safaricom and if this war were to turn even uglier with the formalization of number portability, Zain will emerge the winner because it can easily adapt to changes in revenue better than Safaricom.
Safaricom will have two options, one of increasing revenues (very hard) or reducing costs (easier). From recent comments by MJ, he plans on concentrating on the data market by becoming a fully fledged ISP but the trick is the revenues and margins earned from data are no where comparable to those of GSM service and it will take a lot of adjustment to get used to. 1GB of internet data earns MJ about 800 shillings (from the 10MB for 8 bob a day promo). 1GB of sms text data earns about 5 million shillings in revenues. Both these GB’s cost the same to Safaricom from the upstream provider.
In conclusion, the mobile operators need to stop this insane lowering of prices to attract customers, they should focus on offering better service and clearer calls as key differentiators of their services, instead of lowering prices, why don’t they focus on offering better customer service and better network coverage in the CBD and rural Kenya? Using price as a differentiator has never worked well in markets that do not have the numbers to sustain these low prices. If this trend doesn’t stop, we will see the government lose a critical source of revenue from tax on profits, people losing their jobs (from mobile operator employees to the scratch card vendor in your estate). The effects of this on the economy would be very negative and a domino effect would hurt other sectors of the economy.