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Tata Teleservices: In search of a USP

By Surajeet Das Gupta in New Delhi
June 30, 2009 12:56 IST
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There is a simple rule of business which says that if you have too many rivals in the market place, differentiate your product to keep your head above water. It improves your brand recall and breaks the clutter.

Easy advice, but difficult to implement, especially if the market happens to be mobile telecom services in India. Though it is the fastest-growing market in the world, there are about half a dozen service operators in each of the 22 telecom circles and more are ready to join the bandwagon. Out-of-the-box thinking could burst at its seams here.

Tata Teleservices, after a lacklustre performance in the CDMA space, has launched GSM services in Chennai and Tamil Nadu with a bunch of new promises -- pay only for the time you speak and not for 30- or 60-second pulses, pay for SMSs according to their length and enjoy next-generation Internet experience right now.

It is still early days to say if the strategy will pay off. But what is certain is that Tata Teleservices plans an aggressive push in the market armed with these tools.

After Chennai and Tamil Nadu, it plans to cover all the southern states in the next two weeks as well as Orissa and become a pan-India operator (it has not received spectrum in Delhi so far) by October. The bill for the roll out will be Rs 9,600 crore (Rs 96 billion or $2 billion).

Though Tata Teleservices Managing Director Anil Sardana does not want to divulge his market share targets, he says he wants his brand and service to be amongst the top three under consideration by potential consumers in circles in which Tata Teleservices will operate within the next two years.

Vying for space

This is a tough challenge.

As a CDMA player, Tata Teleservices did not really set the market on fire. With around 37 million customers, it is way below rivals like Bharti Airtel (100 million customers), Reliance Communications (80 million), Vodafone Essar (74 million), Idea Cellular (45.4 million) and state-owned BSNL (48 million).

Though the market is projected to expand at a fast clip from 400 million now to 700 million by 2012, the top three players in GSM command over 60 per cent market share at present.

Also, Tata Teleservices' earlier attempts at innovation hardly invoke confidence. It had launched Virgin Mobile -- a niche service targeted at the youth -- some time ago, but has managed to get only 3 or 4 lakh (300,000-400,000) subscribers, a high-decibel advertising campaign notwithstanding. On the positive side, the average revenue from these customers is very high.

But Sardana and his men are confident that, this time, they have got the right mantra for success.

On offer is a pre-paid connection pack for Rs 49 and customers have to fork out just one paisa for every second of usage for a call across the country. That is dramatically different from rivals who charge according to the pulse rates -- for instance, you pay for the full pulse of 60 seconds even if your call lasts only 30 seconds.

The company will use the same model for value-added services too. Thus, SMSs will be charged according to their size and the time taken to reach the recipient.

Sardana explains the logic behind the pay-for-usage model which was pioneered many years ago by Orange in France.

He says that 18 per cent of what the subscribers pay in their monthly bill is for services which they have not used and which they don't realise. For instance, apart from the extra pulse time, a subscriber may be unknowingly paying Rs 30 for caller tunes every month, though he might not have changed his tune for six months!

Rivals, as expected, are not too enthused by the plan.

"Reliance Communications offered an entry-level pack which was half that price and most pre-paid packs are available at the same price. So the Rs-49 offer is not cheap. Also one paisa per second translates into 60 paisa a minute and there are existing offers much below that. We don't see a customer churn because of the offer," says an executive of a leading GSM service operator.

Analysts, on the other hand, are impressed. "The tariff structure ensures that customers do not pay for call drops which have become a serious issue. Regulators across the globe are trying to move towards this direction. I think that it is a big plus," says telecom analyst Mahesh Uppal.

Interestingly, Tata Teleservices had attempted to introduce a pay-for-usage plan for its CDMA service two years ago -- a customer could pay five paisa per second of usage or Rs 1.80 for a minute.

"This worked out a tariff of Rs 3 for a one-minute call. Since we also offered Rs 1.80 for a minute, so anybody who spoke for more than 36 seconds on every call preferred it. We realised it won't work," says a senior executive of the company. As a result, the plan was withdrawn.

The DOCOMO edge

Apart from the pay-for-usage model, Sardana has the NTT DOCOMO connection to flaunt — the Japanese company had last year bought 26 per cent of Tata Teleservices for $2.7 billion (Rs 131.20 billion).

Compression technology provided by NTT DOCOMO (turnover: $45.28 billion, customers: 54 million) will help subscribers to download at speeds comparable to a 3G network -- a next generation network for which spectrum has not yet been allocated to private service operators. In fact, Tata Teleservices has kept a dedicated data channel (spectrum) for this.

Services like i-Mode for Internet mobile and wallet services to use the mobile phone as a credit card will be introduced. There will be customised value-added services on offer. For instance, the subscriber can choose what kind of news, from which newspapers he wants on the ticker. Through timed SMS services, he can affix the time and date when he wants the message to reach its destination.

To begin with, Tata Teleservices will open 600 retail stores in the south which will, apart from other things, give customers the NTT DOCOMO technology experience.

On Sardana's target clearly are middle- and high-level customers who look for add-ons. In fact, Sardana admits that he will not chase mass-market subscribers.

"We are aware that the market is already cluttered. But our surveys show that over 70 per cent of the customers are not satisfied with their existing service providers. So there is a large scope for us to get in," says he.

Industry estimates suggest that though tariffs in the country are the lowest anywhere in the world, subscriber churn is as high as 50 to 60 per cent per annum. In other words, more than half the customers change their service operator every year. And this, despite the Rs 3,000 crore (Rs 30 billion) mobile service operators spent on advertising last year. (The number is expected to be much higher this year with the entry of new players.)

Tata Teleservices reckons that price is not the key reason why a subscriber opts out of a service -- it is the quality of the service. No less than 53 per cent said in a survey carried out by the company that the network is the biggest factor that drives the churn.

Customer call

Thus, Tata Teleservices will focus on those 50 per cent of the existing customers who are in search of a better network, or a market size of around 250 million subscribers by the end of this year when the total subscriber base is expected to swell to 500 million. Not for it the ten million new customers that are added every month.

The company also has on its crosshairs that customer who is unsatisfied but has decided to hang on to the existing operator because he doesn't want to give up his mobile number. Till mobile number portability kicks in, Sardana says he will offer this customer a similar number (same last five digits, for instance) and alerts to all contacts stored on his phone about the change in the number.

According to Sardana, 14 to 20 per cent of post-paid subscribers in the metros fall in this category.

In the final analysis, will the GSM foray attract customers to Tata Teleservices?

Competitors say that it will only eat into the company's base of CDMA subscribers. The argument is based on the fact that CDMA services are more data-centric. "CDMA is a data-friendly technology. But by wooing customers on the value-added data platform through NTT DOCOMO's Internet services, it is talking to the same customers," says an executive of a rival GSM operator.

Sardana is not convinced.

He says these are two different markets -- CDMA is targeted at the mass market where the entry barrier is low, while the GSM offering is for high-value customers.

"A customer has to pay Rs 999 to become a CDMA subscriber with a bundled phone. GSM, where you have to buy the phone, is more expensive. In GSM we will sell a range of value-added services. So, it is different," he says.

The market just got more interesting.

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Surajeet Das Gupta in New Delhi
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