Predatory pricing in India’s telecommunications market? The Competition Commission says no

By Francisco Beneke*

Some facts:[1]

  1. India is the second largest mobile telecommunications market in the world;
  2. Last September, it witnessed the entry of Reliance Jio Infocomm, which invested 20 billion USD to deploy a 4G network in India;
  3. This company is a part of a corporate group owned by India’s wealthiest individual—Mukesh Ambani;
  4. As part of its entry strategy, the company offered voice and data services for free until March this year, which allowed it to quickly capture just over 6 percent of the market in terms of users; and
  5. This led incumbent Bharti Airtel, number 1 operator in terms of both revenue and users, to sue Reliance Jio for abuse of dominance through predatory prices.

The Competition Commission of India (CCI) ruled last Friday that there was no prima facie case of predatory pricing,[2] which Bharti Airtel still has the opportunity to contest under article 26 (6) of the Competition Act. My guess is, however, that such efforts would be futile. Seeing the facts listed above it might be your guess too. After reading the short 17-page decision, one can clearly see that the CCI has a favorable view concerning the competition dynamics in India’s mobile telecommunications market, which may also foreshadow how it will decide the mergers under its review (it already okayed Bharti Airtel’s merger with Telenor India, but other transactions are still pending).

The decision may be summarized as follows: if winning a predatory pricing case against an incumbent is difficult, winning one against an entrant is next to impossible, considering that the complainant is arguably the dominant player. Bharti’s strategy was what one would expect. It tried to put forward a very narrow definition of the relevant market––4G services––where it argued Reliance Jio had, within less than a year, acquired a dominant position. The CCI did not buy it. It defined the market as the provision of wireless telecommunications services to end consumers, including 2nd, 3rd and 4th generation technologies. Jio’s 6 percent share in this broader market made it unnecessary to enter into the analysis on whether prices were predatory.

It strikes me as odd that Bharti would have considered pursuing this suit in the first place. It might have thought that the CCI could have been impressed with the fact that Jio is a part of a massive conglomerate with vast resources. Then again, it is hard to believe that the authority could have been persuaded that incumbents were in a disadvantageous position in this respect, as it rightfully was not.

From an economic standpoint, Bharti’s case was shaky, at best. It does not fit, at least with the information at hand, with the common assumptions that have to be made for a realistic price predation case.[3] It is hard to argue that Reliance Jio had such a cost advantage that it could have endured a lengthy price war to drive enough operators away from India’s market. The country is also experiencing fast growing incomes which will increase the size of the broadband markets, a trend that plays against a price predation strategy being effective. A growing market that can accommodate more entrants is not easy to monopolize. Being an entrant, it is also impossible to argue that Jio is in a position of having a low cost predator reputation that could keep companies away from the market once it becomes the dominant operator and raises its prices.

This is just a quick, though I hope illustrative, review of the case and its circumstances. The takeaways are: few incumbents like Jio’s strategy of giving away everything for free, the case was rightly decided, and it appears that Bharti’s legal advisers were either bored, not heard or have little clue on what a successful predatory pricing claim looks like. India’s telecommunications market is undergoing many changes, which I hope, will give us more interesting material to analyze in the future.

*Co-editor, Developing World Antitrust

@DWAntitrust

[1] See Competition Commission of India, Order under Section 26 (2) of the Competition Act, case No. 3 of 2017, available at http://www.cci.gov.in/sites/default/files/3%20of%202017.pdf; D’Monte, L (2017, April 30). It’s the survival of the biggest in India’s telecom industry. Live Mint. Available at http://www.livemint.com/Industry/n02lQV04A2ui4x37XKVzmL/Its-the-survival-of-the-biggest-in-Indias-telecom-industry.html; and Williams, C. (2017, January 14). How the Ambani family feud hit Vodafone’s Indian mobile empire. The Telegraph. Available at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/business/2017/01/14/ambani-family-fued-hit-vodafones-indian-mobile-empire/.

[2] Competition Commission of India, Order under Section 26 (2) of the Competition Act, case No. 3 of 2017, available at http://www.cci.gov.in/sites/default/files/3%20of%202017.pdf.

[3] See Carlton, D.W. & Perloff, J.M. (2005). Modern Industrial Organization, pp 352–357. United States of America: Pearson/Addison Wesley.

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