India's RCom Starts Subsidizing iPhones

A wireless carrier subsidizes phones to boost spending on data
A customer tries out an Apple iPhone 5C at a Reliance Digital store in New Delhi on Nov. 2 Photograph by Prashanth Vishwanathan/Bloomberg

Signing up for a monthly wireless contract to get a subsidized iPhone is common in the U.S., but in India, Apple fans are accustomed to paying the phone’s full price. In November, Reliance Communications (RCom), India’s third-largest mobile operator by market value, became the first to hand iPhone 5Cs to customers willing to commit to 2,599 rupees ($41) a month for 24 months. Gunjan Hasan, who got one at an RCom shop in Mumbai, says she’d been putting off buying a phone because of the upfront costs. “When you have a family and other expenses, you really need to think before paying up to 50,000 rupees [about $800] or so for just a phone,” says Hasan, 36, who works at KSA Development Venture, a teacher-development company in New Delhi.

The subsidies are part of Chief Executive Officer Gurdeep Singh’s plan to reduce RCom’s dependence on low-margin users. India is the second-largest mobile market after China. In the fiscal year that ended in March, its active subscribers hit 788 million, up 37 percent in two years, according to the Cellular Operators Association of India. Most of those users, however, have cheap voice-only plans; India market leader Bharti Airtel averages $3.10 per subscriber each month, compared with $8.80 at comparably sized China Telecom. Subsidies may nudge shoppers toward pricier data plans, Singh says: “We are hungry for growth, and this could be the tipping point.”

If he’s right, RCom could help solve an ongoing headache for telecom operators in the world’s fastest-growing smartphone market. With the country’s mobile users accustomed to paying less than a penny a minute for voice calls, India’s operators make far less per customer than their international peers. Averaging only $1.60 a month per user, compared with $69 for U.S. companies, Indian operators have slashed data fees by as much as 90 percent, betting cheaper rates will help fuel a rise in mobile gaming and social networking. RCom’s average revenue per user jumped 26 percent, to 120 rupees ($1.92), during the three months ended in September. To increase averages further, the company said in a Nov. 5 statement that it had disconnected 10 million “unprofitable, low-end subscribers.”

Most Indian operators are counting on devices cheaper than the iPhone. High prices have kept Apple a distant No. 8 in the local market, well behind first-place Samsung. Almost 80 percent of Samsung’s smartphone sales in India come from models priced below $380. Local brands such as Micromax offer many low-cost smartphones, too. India’s smartphone shipments will grow from 16.3 million in 2012 to 41.4 million this year, according to market researcher IDC, which predicts the number will hit 128 million by 2015.

Most operators need to persuade more Indians to use phones for more than voice calls before they can woo them with Apple products, says Ankita Somani, an analyst in Mumbai with Angel Broking. “First they have to increase data usage in the country,” which is about 10 percent of overall revenue, she says, predicting that slice will grow at double-digit rates.

Ten years ago, RCom tried subsidizing Samsung and LG handsets but ended the program after customers stopped making payments and walked off with the phones. Now the company requires users to agree to automatic credit card payments. It’s teamed with banks that run credit checks, including Citibank and Standard Chartered. “Credit rating and history go a long way in determining the success of this plan,” Singh says.

Not many Indians use plastic, though. The country has only 18.5 million credit cards, or about one for every 50 mobile phones, according to Bloomberg Industries analyst Praveen Menon. And Indian customers aren’t used to a long lock-in period with a service provider, says Harit Shah, an analyst in Mumbai with Nirmal Bang Equities. “Six months, maybe,” he says, “but not two years.”

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