CELLULAR PRICING: Greener or Leaner

VoicenData Bureau
New Update

Aspate of activities has taken place in the cellular industry

over the past few years. However, the issue that has taken prominence among the

cellular operators, subscribers and policy makers, is that of pricing. The

competition among the players in the industry has also aggravated this issue.

Each and every player is coming out with his or her tariff plans and tries to

attract more number of cellular subscribers.


Is the issue of pricing peculiar to India? Can we not

benchmark against some other country’s practices? In order to answer these and

a set of other questions that may arise regarding the issue of pricing, we need

to have a clear understanding of the cellular tariff rates prevailing across

some of our neighbors. The table gives a bird’s eye view of the scenario

across some of our neighboring countries. A cursory look at the table would

reveal that the tariff in our country is far higher. Can this higher price be

attributed to poor telecommunications infrastructure in our country, or to the

lack of clear understanding of the interconnection issues, or to our practice of

Receiving Party Pays (RPP) scheme as against some of our neighbors Calling Party

Pays (CPP) scheme or due to any other reason(s)? Let us analyze the pricing

structure of our country and answer the issues of concern.

Pricing: Towards Greener or Leaner

Pricing of the telecommunications services is the mechanism

that provides the linkage between supply and demand, and it also sets the

threshold level for being able to afford sustainable service. There is a

tradeoff between affordability and sustainability i.e. the desire to reduce the

cost of services to make it affordable for a broader segment and the funds

generated for sustainable investment.


There are two possible alternatives for any

telecommunications service–socially-desirable pricing and the cost-based

pricing, which we call as the leaner and the greener pricing, respectively. The

principle of leaner pricing which forms the basis for most traditional pricing

strategies is to charge customers only as much as they are able to pay. Such a

strategy dictates that the price of telephone connection would be low, usually

not related to the cost of provisioning of service i.e. subsidized subscription

charges and negligible usage charges for basic services and in contrast, very

expensive business services, long distance services and premium services. The

argument against such a philosophy is that initially the subscribers of these

services belong to a well versed category because of their clustering in

commercial and political centers of large cities. Further, the leaner pricing is

often a failure to generate desirable revenue to break-even the initial

infrastructure costs and to sustain further growth. The service provider

(generally, the public operator) may be forced to borrow to cover the subsidy,

resulting in raising his cost structure in order to pay interest charges and

repayment of loan. Ultimately, the operator can slip into a vicious trap. This

will affect the economy as well as the new infrastructure investment

opportunities, adversely.

Cellular Tariff (percent of per capita)




or Rental
Peak Tariff  Off Peak Tariff


2.52  0.02372  0.02372


0.62 0.006812 0.0068116

Sri Lanka

0.94 0.017052 0.0073061


1.29 0.014965 0.0132042


0.34 0.00177109 0.0008855
Singapore 0.08 0.00039158 0.000391561

The cost-based pricing is another extreme in the

price-strategy continuum. Such a strategy emphasizes on two-part tariff

structure–fixed and variable charges. Fixed charges include part of

installation and recovery of initial infrastructure costs. On the other hand,

variable charge also known as usage charges include operation, maintenance and

administrative charges. The infrastructure costs include transmission or

receiver, base units, network management systems, signaling network, and test

center, among others. Operating costs include leased line fee, and promotion and

interconnection charges. For a detailed comparison of the pricing approaches,

refer to the table on the previous page.


Cost-based Approach

In a cost-based approach, the two major cost drivers are the

fixed costs comprising of installation and infrastructure costs, and the

variable costs comprising of mainly license fee and interconnection charges. We

consider that estimating interconnection charge is the primary issue in the

determination of pricing for cellular services in the near future.

Interconnection charges are the charges which one service

provider pays to the other service provider for transporting or terminating the

calls in his area. Interconnection between fixed and mobile network is critical

for mobile operation, as a large portion of total cellular traffic either

originates or terminates on the fixed network (93 percent in metro regions and

85 percent in the telecom circles).


The two major issues that need to be addressed in

interconnection are: interconnection charges and multiple points of


Currently, there is no interconnection agreement between the

fixed and mobile service operators. For calls between fixed and mobile networks,

the revenue-sharing arrangement is same as set out in the original license. As

per the arrangement, there is no revenue sharing for the calls from fixed to

mobile. However, in the Chinese case, each three minute fixed-mobile or

mobile-fixed call, incurs an interconnection charge.

The arrangement in India is expected to change with the

implementation of the CPP regime. And the mobile operators should continue to

stress for a share of long-distance and international call charges on the

grounds of parity with basic service operators. This will benefit the operators

as well as the mobile users. The operators will be able to target at cost-based

pricing in the near future.


Further, the interconnection methods followed in some of the

other countries are depicted in table below. It is clear from the table that

many countries have started following the cost-based interconnection charges.

Moreover, in Mexico, the interconnection charges are benchmarked against

international practices. All these factors should give India enough motivation

to go ahead with the cost-based approach. The pricing models followed by the

other countries can be tailored to our Indian conditions, so that both the

mobile operators as well as the customers benefit.

A Comparative Analysis of Greener Vs Leaner Pricing

Tariff Element

Socially-desirable or Leaner Pricing 

Cost-based or Greener Pricing
Basic services Cellular and other

premium services

Installation and



Low pricing, Waiting list to  

ration the demand,
Same price for

Very high No waiting list Cost of infrastructure of providing connection, Lower costs for transfer



(monthly rental)

Relatively low price, Network

congestion will

ration the demand

Shared long run incremental costs, Rental of handset

Call charges

Very low,


Bundled with

subscription charges
High metered, No bundling Calls charged per minute, Interconnection

National long

distance call

High charges, Ratio of longest distance to local call rates is twenty or more Call charges per minute with

possible reductions for

duration of call,

Discounting during
off-peak period,

Ratio between

longest distance to

local rates is five

or less

call charges 
Generally very high, Accounting rates are kept high,

Number of outgoing circuit kept few

to generate net settlement payments

to cross subsidize domestic network 
Per minute charges Discounting ratio between international and national calls,

typically three or

Tax No sales tax,

Based on profit

and loss account

of operation
Sales tax in addition  to tax on profit and  loss account of operation  Sales tax in addition

  to tax on profit and loss account of operation
Currently, the socially-desirable pricing is being followed in our

country. However, in the long run, move towards the cost-based approach

would be a viable alternative.

In the case of multiple point of interconnection, operators

stand to gain from access to multiple points within their circle(s) of

operation. This would enable them to carry calls on their own network to a

maximum extent and would minimize the fixed-line charges they would pass on to

the fixed operators. However, the fixed operators preferred to provide only a

single point of interconnection. So, TRAI intervened and made multiple points of

interconnection possible. This would eliminate the basis of charging

fixed-to-mobile calls at STD rates. However, the mobile operators continue to

complain that the TRAI order is not being implemented.


Under the original license agreements, the fixed operators

were not paying mobile operators for terminating traffic on their network.

However, the mobile operators have to compensate the state-owned incumbent for

terminating traffic. It is known as the Mobile Party Pays (MPP) scheme. It is

also being used as part of compensation to fixed service providers for loss of

revenue due to the existing or potential fixed line traffic migrating to the

cellular networks.

The other approach that is currently considered for adoption

is the CPP scheme. Under CPP, the person making the call pays the entire cost of

the call. The subscriber will benefit with greater flexibility in pricing

options, control over billing and publication of a cellular directory. While

operator will benefit with larger subscriber base, greater revenue, flexible

pricing options and level-playing field with WiLL.

From some of the OECD countries experience, it has been

established that growth in mobile subscribers in the countries with CPP scheme

is much faster. For instance, in 1998, in the countries following CPP and RPP,

the number of mobile subscribers per 100 fixed access lines was fifty-one and

thirty-eight, respectively. By 1999, the ratio changed to sixty-one and

forty-two, respectively. This signifies that the growth rate of mobile

subscribers with RPP have much slower growth rate than those of CPP.


Hence, the tariffs need to be re-balanced or rationalized in

order to promote efficiencies. Re-balancing would reduce tariffs that are above

cost and increase tariffs which are below cost. The primary gains that can be

achieved via cost-based approach would be:

  • Reduction

    in cross-subsidization and ensuring that transparency is maintained

  • Facilitate

    widening of the subscriber base and at the same time restricts cream skimming by

    the operators

  • Provides

    efficiency-oriented incentives for consumption

  • Help

    in linking costs to technology and market changes

  • Enhance

    the value of service to the customer

  • Cost-based

    pricing coupled with the CPP regime would increase the mobile subscriber base

Future Challenges and Recommendations

BSNL earlier preferred to provide only a single point of

interconnection, and to charge STD rates for originating and terminating calls

on the mobile network in a circle. TRAI had intervened and issued an order in

April 1997 directing the then DoT/DTS to provide both-way connectivity at points

of interconnect, and also any number of points of interconnect and multiple

gateway mobile switching centers, to the mobile network operators subject to

technical integrity of the network and technical feasibility. Now with the

finalization of the fourth cellular licenses, some of the operators will have

their bases in adjacent circles. The issue of providing inter-circle

connectivity to mobile operators will be a challenge that needs to be addressed.

Method of Interconnection Charges in Different Countries



Mobile to Mobile Fixed to Mobile Mobile to Fixed

Italy, Japan, Sweden,


Cost-based Cost-based Cost-based


Cost-based Revenue sharing Revenue sharing

Sri Lanka

Sender keeps all Cost-based Cost-based
Mexico Both parties decide International benchmarking

One of the reasons cited for not embracing the cost-based

approach is the inherent difficulty in estimating the price. The cost structure

submitted by the license-awarded cellular operators during the introduction

phase, can prove to be a great guidance in this process.

Further, TRAI can outsource the activity to the research or

educational institutes, so that a more acceptable and elaborate

mathematical-modeling approach can be applied to structure the tariffs. Other

alternative would be to benchmark against the international standards as

followed by Mexico.

With the emergence of newer services like Short Messaging

Services (SMS) and WAP-enabled services, the interconnection charges need to be

arrived at seperately. Currently, the charges for the mobile services are based

on the duration of the call. However, as the domain of mobile services extends

to data, a different system of charging will need to be developed. One viable

alternative would be to charge on the basis of pay-per-click, as currently done

by Bharti.

Lok Sabha secretariat in its March 2001 issue published the

seventeenth report of the standing committee on IT-2001. The report emphasizes

that TRAI accepts that the convergence of mobile pricing to that of fixed line

pricing is possible, without hampering the operators’ sustainability. This

statement is based on the information provided by different agencies during the

tariff-revision dialog. Further, there has been a rapid fall in per line cost

for cellular services due to the change in the policy, maturity of technology

and economies of scale. Per cellular line cost has come down to Rs 4,100 as

against TRAI’s previous estimate of Rs 40,000, which shows that revised

cellular tariffs will be comparable with landline tariffs (per landline cost of

Rs 30,000).

This reduction in pricing of the cellular services is

feasible only if it is backed by the improvement in capacity as well as quality

of service to cater the potential customers. So it is always advisable to reduce

mobile charges in a planned manner to cope up with the demand for new services

and maintenance of service quality. It is a prime task of the regulatory

authority to keep a check over service providers like MTNL who can offer very low

tariffs, creating a sudden imbalance in the competitive cellular market due to their advantageous position, in terms

of license fee and interconnection charges.

With the newer challenges emerging in the cellular industry,

the question of pricing based on leaner pricing may not be viable. So, the

transformation to the greener or cost-based pricing is a pre-requisite and with

continued reductions in mobile prices to that of landline costs, the customers

stand to gain a lot.

The article is written under the guidance of Prof V Sridhar,


Srikumar K, Piyush Jain, Ashish Sanghavi, Tarun Tripathi, Santosh Ramji, and Jateen Waghdhare,

all MBA students at IIM Lucknow.