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A Tale of Two Mobile Markets - China and India

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Next weekend, on March 3rd around noon China Standard Time to be precise, China will sign up its one billionth mobile subscription. India in the meantime, crossed the 900 million subscription mark in Feb. Roughly an year ago, India was adding subscribers at historically record pace of approximately 20 million subscriptions per month (that translates into a new Australian market every month) while China continued at its steady pace of 8-12 million net-adds per month. In Q1 2011, data indicated India might actually edge out China to reach the first billion landmark. Then, the market collapsed due to the intense competition, the pervasive corruption, and the accounting gimmicks.

In 2011, the global GDP growth was 2.7% according to the World Bank. While the OECD countries saw only modest gains (1.7%), China (9.1%) and India (6.5%) accounted for a good percentage of the global growth. Buoyed by the rising disposable income, the middle class in the two biggest countries are spending more than ever before.

All of the top 6 global operators by subscriptions are from China and India.  Collectively, they account for 27% of the global mobile subscriptions and 12% of the global service revenues. In 2011, India added 141 million subscriptions while China netted 133 million.

Having worked in both of these markets over the last decade, I have always seen China and India as two of the most dynamic mobile markets in the world. They might seem similar on surface but are quite different underneath. Both represent vast human resources and the biggest middle class with buying power. However, their competitive landscape is vastly different. On our Competitive Index (CI) scale of global markets, they are on the extreme ends of the revenue and subscriber concentration indices. China is one of the least competitive mobile markets and India is by far the most competitive mobile market in the world.

In China, China Mobile monopolizes the market with over 66% of the market. Regulators are trying to boost the other two operators China Unicom and China Telecom but have a lot of work left on their plate. India on the other hand is a hot cauldron of intense competition, too much competition if you ask the operators. There are 5 operators with roughly 100 million or more subscriptions with the Bharti Airtel at number 1 but with less than 20% market share.

China’s mobile journey began in the early nineties with the Ministry of Post and Telecommunications providing the telecom services as China Telecom. In 1994, under pressure, China Unicom was introduced to the market but was largely a failure. Later in 1999, China Telecom was split into three businesses with China Mobile becoming the mobile arm. Recently, when the 3G licenses were granted, market was segmented into its current form with China Mobile still leading the pack by a good distance.

China’s overall growth for the past decade has been pretty steady staying between 8-12 million net-adds per month. Remarkably, the ARPU has stayed fairly consistent at around $10. Data revenue started growing significantly in the last 3-4 years. China Mobile has been the number one operator by the number of subscriptions, the total revenue, and the market cap for many years now (it is more valuable than Google). In data revenues, China Mobile has consistently ranked in the top 5 for the last 5 years.

India started its mobile journey late towards the end of the last decade but after a series of market reforms and introduction of new players like Reliance in early 2000s, market caught fire. The lack of landline infrastructure, the declining $/min costs aided by the burgeoning middle class meant the market was ripe for explosive expansion. In 2005, India was roughly 300 million subscriptions behind China but its per month net-adds has been inching up steadily and by Q2 2007, India caught up with China in net-adds.

While China’s mobile market growth continued at a steady pace, the Indian market leaped into high gear, breaking records month-after-month and came tantalizingly close to China in Q2 2011 with only 55 million separating the two at the time. However, by then, the market retreat had already started. As we outlined in our Competition and Evolution of Mobile Markets research paper last year, the market composition and the intense competitive landscape was unsustainable. The cost to acquire a new subscriber started to become unbearably high. The rapid customer acquisition at any cost started to have a significant impact on operator profitability.

Also, the heavy burden of regulatory levies meant that the regulatory charges are approximately 20-25% in India whereas in China they are negligible. This meant, virtually all the operators started veering towards the dangerous negative margin territory in 2011-12. Additionally, the pervasive corruption reared its ugly head and a number of key players got caught up in the spectrum auction scandal. The bottom line is that the market is going to stay in the state of “mess” for the next few quarters as it tries to clean things up and plan the next phase of growth and momentum. It can take solace from the fact that the open free market and legal framework is still attractive to the mobile ecosystem. The fact that Vodafone won the $2 billion tax case should inspire confidence in the market.

Not surprisingly, the intense competition had a significant toll on the overall ARPU in India. While China’s ARPU stayed constant at $10 for much of the decade and its data % increased to 27% in 2011, India’s ARPU plummeted from $11 in 2005 to $3 in 2011. Players like Reliance boast a subscriber base of 150 million but the ARPU is < $2 leading to a meager 3.7% profit margin. However, many of the Indian operators are a part of the big conglomerates so it is easier to absorb and hide the declining financials. Regulators must realize that the industry can stay healthy only if its players remain financially viable. One has to look at mobile growth holistically.  They must abolish outdates policies, rationalize the exorbitant levies, liberalize the market further and outline long-term spectrum policy without delay.

It is fairly easy to be fooled and seduced by the large numbers. However, these markets are not for the faint hearted. After the pleasantries are over, the unsuspecting and the unprepared will get chewed and spat out in no time. The feeble IP regimes make it even more problematic. But, it is 37% of humanity we are talking about. Markets are still attractive but one needs a strategic focus, strong local partners, and iron clad teeth to take a bite of these markets. Even established players can exhibit extreme naiveté in understanding the rules of the game.

Regulators in both markets face key decisions on a number of vectors – 4G spectrum, competition, FDI, IP, broadband plan, and policies on a number of fronts. Both countries have similar long-term goals but are inefficient in terms of regulations and capital allocation (they are not unique in this respect, even more advanced markets like the US have their share of quirks in the regulatory framework) needed for the next phase of market and revenue growth.

India is likely to cross its billionth mark by early 2013. The market will go through significant restructuring and self-correction over the course of next two years. China will look to expand its 3G and 4G markets and bring broadband to the masses. The smartphone and data usage is on the rise laying the foundation for the future transformation.

China has been the bolder of the two. By deft coordination and shrewd strategy, the likes of Huawei and ZTE have shaken its western rivals in their boots while protecting its local turf. India has been content with the services business though it is starting to ramp up its manufacturing and R&D capabilities. Indian operators have had better success at spreading their wings, investing in foreign markets and collaborating with foreign operators. China is somewhat closed but disciplined. India is mostly open but waffling.

In the last ten years, China has become the 2nd largest economy in the world behind the US while India will edge past Japan to become #3. Given that mobile will have a central role in the ICT evolution of global markets particularly in the developing nations, what happens in the mobile markets of China and India will influence rest of the world. (I just finished up a project for UN in this area, more to come).

So, congratulations to China for the significant milestone and to India for its tremendous growth.

The future of mobile data applications and services in China and India is extremely bright albeit tortuous.

Tighten your seatbelts and enjoy the journey.

We will be keeping a close eye on the trends in the wireless data sector in our blogtwitter feeds, future research reports, and articles. The next US Wireless Data Market update will be released in Feb 2012. The next Global Wireless Data Market update will be issued in Apr 2012.

Disclaimer: Some of the companies mentioned in this survey are our clients.

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Feb 27 Mobile World Congress, Barcelona
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© Chetan Sharma Consulting 2001-2012. All Rights Reserved.
Chetan Sharma Consulting is a management consulting and advisory firm helping companies in the mobile and voice communications sector. Our expertise is in developing innovation-driven product, business, and IP strategy. We've helped companies like NTT DoCoMo, China Mobile, Samsung, KDDI, Motorola, Alcatel-Lucent, Sony, Microsoft, Virgin Mobile, KTF, Sprint Nextel, Reuters, Disney, Qualcomm, Reliance, BEA, HP, Merrill Lynch, Cincinnati Bell, Bain, SAP, Vulcan, American Express, and many others. What can we do for you?


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