The Communication Authority of Kenya is mulling on introducing retail tariff controls in the Kenyan mobile telephony sector. As you would imagine, this has elicited mixed reactions depending on who you ask. This move it is said is part of a raft of recommendations by the recently released report that studied the Kenyan telecommunication competitive landscape. The introduction, according to the regulator is aimed at correcting market failures that are as a result of one operator being dominant over the rest. The proposed retail price controls aim at limiting Safaricom’s freehand in determination of loyalty schemes and promotions, prohibition of on-net discounts, mobile money fees charged to unregistered and cross-platform money transfers. Tariff control is a regulatory mechanism that can be employed to correct market failures in a market. The main motivation for price control is to protect consumers’ rights and interests in circumstances where market forces alone have been unable to do so.
The competitive landscape report implies that Safaricom’s price differentiation between on-net and off-net calls leads to tariff-mediated network effects. By this I mean that subscribers on a network find it cheaper to call others who are on the same network than calling people on a different network, the effect of this the emergence of the ‘club’ effect where subscribers decide which network to join based on which network the people they call mostly are on. If most of my family and friends subscribe to a network X, I am more likely to subscribe to network X because by being on network X and not on network Y, my overall calling costs will be lower due to cheaper on-net pricing. This it is argued is abuse of its dominance. But this is only true if the interconnection rates are high between Y and X meaning it will cost me more if I chose network Y where none of my relatives and friends subscribe to. As we speak, interconnection rates are already regulated by CA. This fact alone means that the regulator found and enforced an interconnection rate that was cost based and reflected the market realities. The Safaricom on-net call rates are above the regulator-set interconnection rates and are similar to the rates its competition provides its customers to call into the Safaricom network, in short, Safaricom’s subscribers pay the same rate as competitors subscribers when both call another Safaricom subscriber. CA would be justified in imposing tariff controls if indeed Safaricom’s subscribers paid less to call their counterpart than when competition subscriber calls. The fact that the report found that each operator was dominant on its own network also means that the club effect can easily be replicated by competition through aggressive marketing and innovation.
Individually tailored tariffs
Another proposal by the regulator is the prohibition of individually tailored loyalty schemes and promotions. The CA 2010 Tariff regulations specify that all promotions or loyalty schemes must be approved by the regulator prior to commencement. Any promotion, offer or scheme currently in operation has the direct approval of the regulator, the details of each promotion or loyalty scheme structure were available to CA before approval and these include individually tailored schemes and promotions. When an operators behaviour due to regulation causes it to become successful, it cannot be punished for successes it encountered while operating within the laid down regulatory framework. If there is any discriminatory behaviour, then CA failed in detecting and stopping this even with the existence of regulations. When that happens, it is clear that regulation is not the solution to the perceived market failures and the only remedy is let competitive forces determine customer choice.
What would happen if call tariffs are regulated?
Most people assume tariff regulation leads to the lowering of retail rates. This would only be true if CA had a way of accurately measuring the costs involved to provide service to additional customers on their network. At the moment, due to the fact that Safaricom has invested more in network infrastructures geographical and population reach, it costs them less to bring in a new customer and provide service to them than its competitors. The proposal to use Long Run Incremental Costs (LRIC) method would mean that because of the massive economies of scale enjoyed by Safaricom owning a large network and technology convergence, the cost of offering an extra minute of termination on the network is virtually zero in the short-term and LRIC is applied to give a realistic cost over the long term. How long is ‘long term’ will determine the price point.
A regulated tariff price should imitate the prices that would have arisen in a market with effective competition, both because this provides incentives to produce the requested service at the lowest possible cost and because the operators requesting the service have the incentive to optimize their own investment decisions. In this way price controls can contribute to efficient utilization of social resources. The problem however is that LRIC works very well in legacy circuit switched networks where it was easy to link network utilization with the provision of a service (if a switched circuit is in use, it is providing a directly attributable service), in a converged environment, the relationship between network resource utilization and provision of services is not that straightforward and an LRIC model applied to it would fail to efficiently allocate costs. As networks evolve into Next Generation Networks (NGNs), LRIC approach to service cost allocation becomes inefficient and LRIC starts to resemble the Full Allocated Costing (FAC) model. The result? higher prices to the consumer.
Replicable retail tariffs
One of the recommendations by the study is that Safaricom’s Tariff must pass the ‘replicability test’. In order for a product or service to be considered replicable, it must be commercially and technically capable of being replicated by Safaricom’s competitors. By this we mean that any new tariffs that Safaricom comes up with should take into consideration the capability or state of competitors infrastructure and services especially at the wholesale level. If for example, Safaricom comes up with a tariff that takes advantage of a new innovation they developed, then competition should have similar innovations on their networks or should be allowed by Safaricom to access this new innovation at wholesales prices to enable them offer similar tariffs. In order for competitors to be able to compete with Safaricom in retail markets, it is necessary for them to have access, either via their own networks or through access to Safaricom’s network, to the wholesale components that enable those retail prices to be offered. This as you can imagine will slow down the pace of innovation by Safaricom or change the main focus of innovation from the customer to competition, anytime Safaricom wants to innovate, they will think of ways through which competition will not benefit much from it as opposed to spending their time and knowledge on how the innovation will first benefit the customer.
The report found that Safaricom is dominant in the tower market owning about 65% of telecommunication towers in Kenya and recommends that it shares it towers with competition. To do this effectively, Safaricom has to let a 3rd party manage the towers on its behalf. Safaricom owns its towers while competition has a mix of owned and outsourced/leased towers. With rapid advancement in technology, there is a saying in the industry that it is always cheaper to build a network tomorrow. Any new entrant or existing operator rolling out new retail services and infrastructure such as towers will do it cheaper today than those who did it in the past. See how easy it was for Finserve Africa (Equitel) to get market reach by the flick of a switch riding on an MVNO license? Older operators didn’t get to enjoy these benefits and had to put in sweat and blood to get where they are.
In the Safaricom 2017 sustainability report, the operator spent close to 10 million litres of fuel and about KES 48,000 per month per tower location on energy costs. The report also shows that fuel and power costs are coming down and that Safaricom has also embraced green energy initiatives to power the active components at the tower stations, it is becoming cheaper by the day to setup and manage tower locations but the increase in the number of towers makes the management of the same a challenge. Outsourcing of tower management is used by some operators to shift a large element of their fixed costs to the variable costs column of their financial books, in doing so the operators financial health improves. Tower outsourcing has little to do with improved efficiency in actual operations and management of these towers but more to do with improving the books. Due to this, the global trend in the telecom sector is the outsourcing of tower management to independent 3rd parties, something Safaricom should consider for its own benefit and not due to regulatory requirement. Safaricom should then decide to lease its towers to competition on a purely commercial basis.
Although well meaning, the CA needs to explore non-tariff based remedies to the perceived dominance of Safaricom. Tariff control is a very intrusive approach to handling abuse of dominance whether real or perceived. As markets evolve to become competitive, ex ante regulation should reduce as the regulator forebears regulation in favour of competitive forces. The challenge however is that customer inertia can mask the existence of competition in the market leading to the regulator applying regulatory tools to correct this perceived market failure. Market forces should be let to dictate the market tariffs.
The tariff control ocean floor is littered with shipwrecks of tariff control attempts by various countries that tried to correct market failures by employing it. One of these countries is Mexico who in 2012 introduced tariff controls by baring America Movil from charging interconnection fees to its competitors. Movil controls 70% of Mexico mobile market. As of 2015, mobile call charges had dropped by about 17% but investment in the sector dropped 30% during the same period, for a developing country like Kenya, a drop in ICT investments will have far reaching effects across multiple sectors of the economy. Whereas the intended outcome of tariff control is to protect the consumer from a dominant operators actions, the question that remains is whether tariff control is the only viable market correction tool available.