India needs U-turn to prevent Jio monopoly

Mukesh Ambani's takeover of India's telecom sector is nearly complete. Aided by Indian authorities, the country's wealthiest man has driven most of his smaller rivals into mergers or out of business since late 2016, when his Reliance Jio business first bowled into the market. Only two other national players in the private sector remain: Bharti Airtel and Vodafone Idea. Both are struggling. Vodafone might not survive.

Several years ago, India had one of the world's most competitive telecom markets, with numerous players vying for business. Now, there is a serious risk of monopoly.

Outside the telecom sector, where tens of thousands have lost jobs, no one is making a big fuss. Jio has lured customers by offering super low-cost access to a state-of-the-art network. Its generosity relies on the financial strength of parent company Reliance Industries, India's most valuable firm. Hooked on a daily feed of cheap gigabytes, Jio's customers won't care.

In the future, they just might. Whatever the sector, monopolies are not typically associated with low fees and top-notch services. Jio's charity might continue after the disappearance of its competitors. But that is a big if. And Ambani did not become India's richest man by giving services away for free.

Ordinarily, the job of the competition authority is to ensure this sort of thing doesn't happen. There are only two explanations for the predicament that India now faces: Either regulators have failed dismally in their jobs over a sustained period, or they have colluded in Ambani's landgrab. Developments point to the latter.

That is because nearly all India's regulatory moves in the last few years have favored Jio. This started even before the launch of services, when the company received India's only pan-India voice and data license for what critics said was a tiny fraction of normal fees. The accusations were quickly dismissed by India's government.

Authorities followed up with another favor in 2018 when they changed rules on predatory pricing to suit Jio. Previously, they had based assessments of significant market power on a company's subscriber numbers, turnover, network capacity and traffic volumes. With the overhaul, only subscriber numbers and turnover were up for consideration. It meant older companies would face pricing restrictions while Jio would not.

Since Jio's arrival, India's competition authorities have waved through a succession of takeovers and mergers that would have set off alarms in just about any other democratic country. Consolidation usually means the disappearance of perhaps two or three players. India's list of casualties is long enough to pin to an industry memorial. They include names such as Aircel, MTS, Reliance Communications, Telenor and Tikona. Vodafone India and Idea Cellular, two former titans, have merged.

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No doubt, India was ripe for change. When Jio rocked up, it looked grossly inefficient and had fallen behind other parts of the world on the rollout of high-speed mobile data networks. The catalyst provided by a new operator, taking advantage of the latest technologies, was welcome.

But the looming prospect of a monopoly in a market that once featured more than a dozen players would make any rational policymaker stop and think. Instead, India's authorities have hit the gas. They are now chasing operators for billions in what they say are unpaid licensing fees. Jio, notably, owes significantly less than Bharti Airtel or Vodafone Idea.

In the latest development, India has been forced to postpone a 5G spectrum auction that was supposed to happen this April. Neither Bharti Airtel nor Vodafone Idea is in a position to buy new spectrum licenses at the high prices the government wants to charge. Only Jio could realistically afford those rates.

India desperately needs a U-turn. It is reportedly preparing a rescue package for stressed telecom companies and could offer relief to companies that owe licensing fees. But it will have to go far to persuade the international community it upholds fair play. Otherwise, India's smartphone addicts may eventually find Jio is their only option.

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— Iain Morris, International Editor, Light Reading

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