Battle of the Cell on

The cell phone market is widening and so are the number of cell phone providers. Till recently the preserve of private players, with the entry of BSNL into the field, subscribers stand to gain, feels SUNIL NALIYATH

WITH THE entry of the state owned BSNL as the latest cell phone service provider, Kochi has become a real happening place at least in terms of stiff competition. The competition seems to be going to the extent of crossing swords. At the national level, the private cell phone service providers have already decided to move court, seeking intervention. In short the cellular phone sector is all agog with excitement. And each one of them is competing with one another for extending better and improved customer care. In the changed scenario, as far as the cellular phone service goes, the customer is the king now. They are in such pivotal position that they can call the shots without much strain. With four operators already in the fray, what was predicted is

actually happening.

When BSNL finally launched Excel, its prepaid cellular scheme last week in Kerala, it became India's biggest service provider. . And how was the public response like?

" As we look at it the response was quite good. All of the 2,000 connections that were allotted to Ernakulam was sold out within a few days of its launch and requests for an equal number were also

received at the Ernakulam office," informs a senior official of BSNL. He also adds that

with BSNL becoming full fledged with its launch of postpaid plans named Cell One, it will go full steam ahead.

BPL Mobile, which has been in Kochi for nearly six years, has a total State level

subscriber base of 1.5 lakhs. "We believe that the market will expand and at BPL we have an annual growth plans

of 40 to 45 per cent," affirms R. A. Venkitachalam, the Chief Operating Officer of BPL Mobile.

Given the fact that the BPL mobile has doubled its subscriber base in the last three years and is said to have pioneered the hugely popular prepaid cards (mots) and SMS in

Battle of the Cell on

Kerala, their scheme of things for the future cannot merely be taken as a tall claim.

But are they chalking out any fresh strategy for the future?

"The mobile phone market is a rapidly growing and dynamic one. Our strategies will be to consistently build on the three pillars of innovative products/services, technology and customer service and offer relevant value for subscribers," says Mohammad Saleem, the Deputy Chief Operating Officer of BPL mobile for Kerala.

With BSNL's launch, are the private players worried ? "No. Our market share in Kerala is about 55 per cent and with BSNL's entry it should expand further. We would maintain our ledership in the four players' market," says V G Somsekhar, the Chief

Operating Officer of Escotel cellular services, confidently. This is because the prospective customers were expecting the arrival of BSNL for the past six months and thus, the consumer growth is bound to happen, which itself is a refreshing development. Escotel is the player who pioneered the concept of mobile services in

Kerala way back in 1997. And today they have garnered a total subscription of nearly 2.50 lakhs, thus becoming the undisputed market leader.

Airtel, promoted by Bharti Cellular Ltd, has emerged as one of the domineering players in Kerala within a very short span of time. With a countrywide subscriber base of more than two million, they have invaded the market with two brands, namely Airtel, the post paid and Airtel Magic the prepaid one. Airtel, in spite of their belated entry into

Kerala's cellular scenario, has achieved a subscriber strength of 50,000 connections.

Thus it has become the fastest growing cellular brand in Kerala by grabbing over 10 per cent market share within three months of its launch. Airtel was launched here in July this year.

"Our vision is to make mobile communication a way of life and be the customer's first choice," maintains Mr T.Elango, the Chief Operating Officer of Airtel, Kerala. With our strength of being a national brand, we are confident of consolidating our performance, he asserts. This is also indicative of the huge market potential that Kerala offers.

However, many of the prospective clientele consider that the existing air time charges and monthly rentals are likely to undergo a revolutionary change in the recent future.

Is there a price war on the cards ? "Not really. We always keep reviewing our prices to make it more attractive, which happens to be a continuous process," corroborates V G Somasekhar of Escotel cellular service.

The Airtel chief also endorses the fact that a price war is inevitable as any competition will drive the rates down. The cellular segment has become so hectic that it is no more considered a luxury gadget. Instead it's fast acquiring the status of a utility device.

Amidst this din and bustle, reports say that the cell phone operators in the country are yet to touch break-even. But the relatively new industry has given the advertisement sector its own share of excitement in terms of business turnover. The city's billboards at all vantage points display aggressive ads of all cell operators and their brand ambassadors. Airtel has an annual budget of Rs 6 crores for their local promotions whereas Escotel maintains about 70 billboards in Kochi alone.

As far as the brand ambassadors are concerned, Airtel is endorsed by A R Rahman and Airtel Magic by Shah Rukh Khan and Kareena Kapoor. BPL, on the other hand, has roped in

Mohanlal as their brand ambassador and BSNL is planning to come out with an extensive campaign programme.

All the service providers are also getting more and more technology savvy to keep a pace with the changing scenario. With the competition hotting up, it is the right time to propose a standard tariff for all the service providers. Currently, as per the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) recommendation, it should be Rs 200 for monthly rentals and Rs 2 per minute for air rentals.

As far as the users are concerned, the future holds exciting options when it's increasingly becoming a tight ropewalk for the providers. It's difficult to assess the business growth of handsets as a majority of the dealings are carried out in the grey market. But Nokia, the Finnish handset manufacturer, remains he most sought after brand among Malayalis. Motorola, Siemens,

Samsung, Sony-Ericsson are the other brands that are doing good business in Kochi.

Numerous models of all these brands have flooded the market.

The post-launch ripples of BSNL's services is yet to surface, even though it has

created a stir in the market. With its launch all the service providers are zeroing in on

their subscribers. For, the private players very well know that ultimately it's not the price

that's the vital factor but services.

"The segment is going to be more and more customised and through this the customer strength in itself will expand," feels Sreeyesh, an executive with Kairali Ford. People will always prefer the service that has wider coverage, he adds. It is from this point of view that BSNL is going to score. But converting the existing subscribers of other operators can be a tough proposition as

with good personalised customer care the private operators will have an edge over their biggest competitor.

Many a company currently operates exclusive 24-hour call centres for its pre and post paid subscribers besides several galleries, showrooms and other marketing networks across Kerala.

BSNL will woo the middle class category the most. With a moderate pricing strategy and

value-for-money offers they are likely to expand their subscriber base.

Vinodkumar, who has been a cellular subscriber for a long time in the city opines that the private operators have less accessability, especially in the rural area.

"BSNL, with wider coverage and DoT advantages, can penetrate the market," he comments.

Suresh, a moderate pre-paid subscriber, on the other hand, says that he is quite content

with the service that he is getting from his private mobile service provider.

With a total market in Kerala being somewhere in the region of 20-30 lakhs, the cellular sector in Kerala is definitely in the throes of a boom. Currently it is estimated to have a total cellular using population of 4.5 lakhs in Kerala and this figure should increase manifold within the next few years.

With the Indian conglomerate, Reliance, making its foray and WLL (Wireless in Local

Loop) technology becoming a reality, the final stage for the survival of the fittest will be set.

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