Bharti Airtel, which on Tuesday surprised the Street by posting a net profit of Rs 83 crore during the January-March quarter — its smallest in 15 years — against the expectation of a net loss of around Rs 104 crore, may have put the worst behind it. Reason: The Telecom Disputes Settlement and Appellate Tribunal (TDSAT) on Tuesday provided it and other incumbent operators a huge relief by putting an interim stay on the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India’s (Trai) new regulation that defined predatory pricing by giving a new definition of significant market power (SMP) and sought to end segmented offers to consumers.
This means Bharti, as well as other legacy players like Vodafone and Idea Cellular, can go ahead and bring out any tariff scheme irrespective of their revenue and subscriber market share without being penalised as predatory. They can also go ahead with providing segmented offers (read discounts) to their high Arpu (average revenue per user) customers without violating any regulation. As a result, in the April-June quarter of the current fiscal Bharti’s numbers may not be affected as much as it was during the December and March quarters. During December quarter, due to a 57% cut in mobile termination rate, Bharti’s gross revenue took a Rs 1,062-crore hit, earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortisation or Ebitda fell Rs 338 crore and mobile Arpu by `16.
Similarly, during the March quarter, due to a cut in international termination rates, its gross revenue was affected by Rs 124 crore and Ebitda by Rs 86 crore. Had the incumbents not got relief on segmented offers, according to rough estimates drawn up by FE, it would have cost them around Rs 10,000-12,000 crore in a year. This has now got been reined in.
The TDSAT in its interim order on Tuesday said that both these aspects of the new regulation (definition of significant market power and bar on segmented offers) will be kept in abeyance and operators will not be penalised for not following them till a it completes a detailed hearing on the matter. Providing relief to the incumbents, the tribunal noted that the regulation with regard to SMP has undergone major changes compared with what was in place since 2003.
Earlier, for checking predatory pricing, an operator was considered dominant if it crossed the 30% threshold by number of subscribers, revenue market share, volume of traffic and network capacity in circles. However, in its new regulation that came in February, Trai removed the network capacity and volume of traffic and kept only the subscriber and revenue market share as determinants. This affected incumbents because in most circles either they have a 30% market share or close to it while new entrant Reliance Jio is only around 13-15%. This meant that incumbents could not come with any innovative tariff package but could only be reactive by matching Jio’s tariffs.
Further, they got hit because to retain their high Arpu customers they were barred from providing segmented offers, which means discounts that are not part of the regulator tariffs. Trai termed it discriminatory and said that every scheme needs to be reported to it. With a cap of 25 tariff packages, the incumbents felt constrained if they reported segmented offers and the fear of losing valued customers was high and real.
Now the TDSAT has said that Trai can only ask incumbents details of segmented offers for purposes of analysis and if the operators do not disclose the same, they cannot be penalised. The TDSAT order has come on the petition of Bharti and Idea Cellular.