In Business Model, Internet Access, Mobile

The global telecom industry began to move from monopoly to competition in the late 1980s and early 1990s. So in some cases we now are 40 years into that process, and most countries have telecom markets that are competitive in most respects.

But we might be on the cusp of something maybe we did not expect: a move back to monopoly as a result of market forces. And that raises big questions about how innovation and investment can remain robust, as that is what competition was intended to do, and has done.

The big problem is the profitability of the business. In simple terms, retail prices for virtually every telecom product have dropped steadily. That is a major success for an industry that had wanted to connect the unconnected for simple reasons: it is better to have everyone as a potential customer, than only some.

But sustainability now is an issue, something we can see very clearly in the India mobile market, where arguably none of the firms are profitable on their own (tax breaks play a part for Reliance Jio, for example, which can take losses in telecom that offset profits in other of its businesses).

This is going to be a developing story for the next decade: can we sustain competition, and if so, how, and at what level?

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