Mauritius competition watchdog places mobile operators under scrutiny

Mauritius competition watchdog places mobile operators under scrutiny

Julie Tirtiaux writes about an investigation by the CCM into allegedly discriminatory mobile pricing policies by the two main mobile operators in the island nation of about 1.2 million.

On 27 August 2015, the Competition Commission of Mauritius (“CCM”) announced an investigation against two major mobile operators, Emtel and Orange. The CCM has identified similar concerns to those examined in other jurisdictions such as France and South Africa, related to the exclusionary effects of discriminatory pricing policy for calling services.

Price discrimination triggered the investigation

The CCM is concerned that the two major mobile telephony operators may be discriminating between tariffs for calls made between subscribers within the same network (“on-net calls”) and calls to subscribers from other competing networks (“off-net calls”). This raises the question as to why off-net calls are charged at higher rates when compared to on-net calls.

The table below sets out the respective call tariffs charged by Emtel, one of the respondents in the current CCM investigation.[1]

Call direction Per second tariff (Rs) Per Minute (Rs)
Emtel to Emtel Voice call 0.02 1.2
Emtel to Emtel Video call 0.02 1.2
Emtel to other mobile operators 0.06 3.6
Emtel to Fixed land line 0.0575 3.45
Emtel to Emtel Favourite Num 0.016 0.96

The CCM suspects that the higher prices for off-net calls may not be objectively justified by cost differentials. This potential discrimination could thus be “preventing, restricting or distorting competition in the local mobile telephony sector, which ultimately could deter or slow investment, innovation and growth in the sector”.[2] It is argued that such conduct raises a strategic barrier for new and small mobile operators to enter and expand within the mobile market, as rational consumers would likely be inclined to choose the operator which already has a large user base.

mauritius

In other words, this allegedly discriminatory pricing policy for calling services could lead to exclusionary conduct by the duopoly of Emtel and Orange and consequently to the infringement of Section 46(2) of the Mauritius Competition Act of 2007.[3] However, such an infringement will have to be proved by the CCM, as the presence of on-net/off-net price differentiation does not automatically raise competition concerns in and of itself. It has been argued that the existence of two equally large competitors is enough to observe a competitive outcome and thus the maximization of and consumer welfare.[4]  Put differently, it is not the number of players in a market which determines the competitive outcome but rather the intensity of competition between the existing players.

The analysis of the foreclosure effects of on-net/off-net price differentiation by the Autorité de la concurrence[5]

In December 2012, the Autorité de la concurrence fined the three main French mobile operators, i.e. France Télécom, Orange France and SFR a total of €183.1 million for supplying their subscribers with unlimited on-net offerings.[6]

According to the Autorité de la concurrence, “these offerings first of all artificially accentuated the “club” effect, that is, the propensity for close relatives to regroup under the same operator, by encouraging consumers to switch operators and join that of their relatives (…). Once the clubs were formed, these offerings “locked” consumers in durably with their operator by significantly raising the exit costs incurred by the subscribers of on net unlimited offerings as well as by their relatives who wish to subscribe to a new offering with a competing operator”.[7]

In addition, these offerings automatically favoured large operators over small operators (“network effect”). In other words, these offerings induced users to subscribe to the dominant incumbents at the expense of smaller independent operators who would undoubtedly have been faced with higher cost structures directly related to the higher off-net calls rates.

The regulation of the mobile sector in South Africa

Unlike the Mauritian telecom market which allows operators to freely set their prices, South Africa regulates call termination rates, which correspond to fees that mobile operators charge each other to carry calls between their networks, via the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (“ICASA”). ICASA justified new regulations by saying that the rates had driven up the cost to communicate for consumers, making South Africa one of the most expensive places to use a mobile phone.[8]

 

On 29 September 2014, ICASA modified the asymmetric rates, first introduced in February 2014,[9] in order to ensure a level playing field between the mobile operators. The intended effect of these asymmetric rates is to ensure low off-net call rates for operators with low market power.[10]

 

In addition to the regulatory aspects in the hands of ICASA, in October 2013 Cell C lodged a complaint with the South African Competition Commission against MTN and Vodacom in relation to alleged differentiation between on-net/off-net prices. [11]

Conclusion

In conclusion, the efficient functioning of the crucial mobile sector is a delicate task for both regulating bodies and enforcement agencies. It will thus be interesting to see how this investigation progresses and what learnings the CCM is able to draw through the assessment of the on-net/off-net price differentiation by the two main mobile operators in Mauritius.

[1] See Emtel’s price plans presented on their website on 7 September 2015: https://www.emtel.com/price-plans

[2] See the media release of the CCM of 27 August 2015 opening of investigation on monopoly situation in relation to mobile telephony sector.

[3] Section 46(2) of the Mauritius Competition Act prohibits a monopoly situation held by one or several firms which “(a) has the object or effect of preventing, restricting or distorting competition; or (b) in any other way constitutes exploitation of the monopoly situation”.

[4] Frontier Economics “On-net/off-net differentials the potential for large networks to use on-net/off-net differentials or high M2M call, termination charges as a means of foreclosure” March 2004.

[5] That is to say the French Competition Authority.

[6] Decision of the Autorité de la concurrence of 13 December 2012, France Télécom, Orange France and SFR, case no 12-D-24. This decision has been appealed and is currently pending before the Paris Court of Appeal.

[7] Press release of the Autorité de la concurrence: http://www.autoritedelaconcurrence.fr/user/standard.php?id_rub=418&id_article=2014

[8] ICASA, 16 October 2012 Media Release https://www.icasa.org.za/AboutUs/ICASANews/tabid/630/post/consumers-benefitfrom-a-drop-in-the-actual-cost-of-prepaid-mobile-voice-call/Default.aspx INCASA said that “mobile prices are cheaper in over 30 African countries than they are in South Africa

[9] The asymmetric rates adopted by INCASA in February 2014 were declared unlawful and invalid by the High Court on 31 March 2014 as they were objectively irrational and unreasonable.

[10] It must be noted that these new asymmetric rates have been challenged and that the case is still pending. See the following article on ENSafrica: https://www.ensafrica.com/news/the-reformulation-of-call-termination-rates-in-South-Africa?Id=1414&STitle=TMT%20ENSight.

[11] This complaint is still being investigated by the Competition Commission.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s