Interconnecting confusion

Interconnect fees and the reasons for their reduction are possibly the most misunderstood “big” news story over the last twelve months.

The hype and hoopla around this topic is fueled by our feelings as consumers of being charged too much big big monopoly companies. So I should start by saying that I’m not saying that we are paying too much. I’m not saying that because I don’t know enough about the costs of providing cellular services in South Africa. Maybe we are, maybe we’re not. Also, I’m not saying there aren’t monopolistic practices in the market – again I simply don’t know. Given the other stories torn from inside companies by the sharp teeth and salivating jaws of the Competition Commission, it’s understandable that many suspect consumer-unfriendly play by most large South African companies, particularly those in industries with a small number of players.

What I am saying is that most of what you read in the news about interconnect is horribly misguided.

The biggest misconception is that interconnect fees are an expense for cellular providers, and that the removal of this expense would allow them to reduce tariffs to consumers. Well, it is an expense, but it is also a source of revenue. Every time one company pays an interconnect fee, another company is receiving it.

Interconnect does not change the total amount of profit within the cellular industry. It may redistribute it a little, and there may be negative medium term competitive implications arising from interconnect, but lower interconnect won’t automatically increase profits that could allow competitive price lowering for the benefit of consumers.

TechCentral has an interesting article: Bain warns consumers not to expect cellular price cuts.  Of course, it also include some done-to-death flawed statements (whether from Bain or inserted by the zealous staff writer) such as:

Because new players have few customers at first, most calls on their networks will be to networks of other operators. High interconnection fees make it difficult for them to enter the market.

It’s not that this statement is incorrect (it is in fact correct) it’s just that it is horribly misleading because it only presents one side of the story. I’ve reworded it to provide the stunning insight:

Because new players have few customers at first, most calls to their networks will be from networks of other operators. High interconnection fees make it profitable for them to enter the market.

If you are a small cellular operator, most people calling your customers won’t also be your customers. You get to charge them an interconnect fee for most calls. You can model this in a spreadsheet (I’ve done it) and provided two basic assumptions hold, interconnect is irrelevant as a primary force. Fees in and expenses out equate .

  1. “Cellphone users must make calls, on average, equally to all other subscribers independent of network.” If Cell C customers are more likely to call Cell C customers rather than a random cellphone user in South Africa, the numbers start to change. Although I don’t have info to back this assumption up, it feels reasonably robust.
  2. “Customers on all networks must, on average, make the same number of calls.” This is actually where the problems arise and the true cost of interconnect exists.

Why is assumption #2 a problem? Think about the goal of competition for consumers: “Profit maximising companies see to increase volumes by lowering prices, gaining market share and thus making more profit. Provided Marginal Revenue is above Marginal Cost, companies should cut prices.”

So, what happens with interconnect fees above “true” cost of completing the call? When a company seeks to lower its prices, below that of the competition, its customers will make more calls than average. (This is intuitive and also expected from a downwards sloping demand curve.)

Company A reduces its call rates. Company A’s subscribers will make more calls (incurring interconnect expenses for Company A paying to Companies B, C and D) but customers of Company B (and C and D etc.) won’t be making more calls into Company A. Thus, Company A pays more interconnect and receives no more interconnect. Its costs have just gone up, pushing up Marginal Cost to a point where it doesn’t make sense to lower prices.

Voila – a perfect pricing system to force prices higher and higher. If Company B raises it’s prices, its subscribers will receive more calls than they make, resulting in more interconnect revenue than expenses for Company B. If the interconnect fee is sufficiently above the true cost, the reduction in profit form lower call volumes will be more than offset by the much  higher profit from interconnect fees being greater than interconnect expenses.

So interconnect fees need to come down to true cost plus a fair profit margin. It has little to do with interconnect being an expense factored into retail tariffs, but rather a function of the competitive pricing actions it encourages.