In Business Model, Mobile

Former Vodafone India CEO and Managing Director Martin Pieters says over-the-top apps could be “fatal,” noting that 85 percent of mobile operator revenue is earned from voice services at risk from OTT alternatives.

Many of us can empathize with that notion. Vodafone India, and Indian mobile operators in general, are not the first to face product maturation of their core revenue stream.

We were asking the same questions 20 years ago at Probe Research, when it seemed clear enough that enough technology trends were aligning that the retail price of voice could approach “zero.”

The solution was not clear then. It is clear, now. Voice is a product like any other. It has a life cycle. To stay in business, telecom service providers must discover or create new replacement services of equal, if not greater magnitude.

So there is a solution: data and other revenue sources. That will happen, according to the Cisco Visual Networking Index

IP traffic in India will grow 400 percent from 2014 to 2019, a compound annual growth of 33 percent.

More to the point, smartphones will account for 40 percent (651.4 million) of all networked devices in 2019, compared to 13 percent (139.8 million) in 2014, representing a 36 percent compound annual growth rate.

“We are not denying the new reality but we are just saying give us some more time to adjust,” he said.

That, in essence, is the framework for the current debate in India about whether OTT voice apps should be subject to the same rules as carrier voice faces.

However the matter is resolved, the basic issue is a common one in the communications business. Whenever incumbents have faced new competition, or a major new replacement industry, such regulatory conflicts have developed.

That now is true of TV broadcasting and linear TV, which will necessarily spar over rules related to online video. Broadcasters fought to make use of videotape recorders and cloud storage devices illegal.

Huge fights over the regulatory treatment of VoIP services were fought in the 1990s.

As difficult as it seems, Indian mobile operators will simply have to move faster to create new revenue streams from mobile data and other sources. That is the strategic direction happening everywhere in the mobile business.

It will not be a comfortable transition. But there is no other strategic choice. So far, the history of attempts to outlaw OTT apps, when consumers want to use them, has broken down, in the end.

But Pieters is right about one thing: where regulatory treatment of carrier voice and VoIP has been more equivalent, the transition has arguably been more gradual. But nothing has prevented the cost of using any form of voice gone any direction but down, anywhere.

Voice in India is not going to be saved by “leveling the regulatory playing field.”

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