South African telecommunication market structures


The South African telecommunication sector is a fast growing sector in the country and in the entire continent today. Indeed, the telecommunication sector and the transport sector of South Africa, together contribute about 10% of the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) (Esselaar, Gillwald, & Stork, 2006). In the entire African continent, the South African telecommunication emerges as the most developed with its network ranked at 99.9% digital (Datamonitor, 2009). Across Africa, the industry boasts of having the best and latest fixed line and satellite communication systems (Datamonitor, 2009). Despite these positive and significant trends in the South African telecommunication industry, the sector’s prices emerge among the highest based on the global pricing standards. To determine how South Africa sustains such trends with such pricing strategies, this paper provides an analysis of the industry’s market structures and the pricing strategies employed by the individual firms operating in the country.

Presently, the South African telecommunication industry comprises of five major service providers. There are two fixed line operators; Telkom and Neotel and three main mobile telecommunication firms; Cell C, MTN and Vodacom. Telkom South Africa was established in October 1991 following the splitting of the South African Posts and Telecommunications (Barber, Fung, Toshniwal, Voorheis, & Harvey, 1999). Essentially, after the separation, Telkom acquired partial private status. Reduced tariffs, extra calls, and higher tax revenues experienced from the privatization of parastatals in other economies formed the main reason towards the privatization of the company (Barber, Fung, Toshniwal, Voorheis, & Harvey, 1999). Results from the 2009 financial year, indicate that Telkom SA, was the largest fixed line operator with 4.5 million telephone access lines out of which 99.9% had digital connection (Datamonitor, 2009). Fixed line voice service, fixed line data services, and mobile communication services are the main services offered by the company (Telkom SA, 2013). Until 2006 when Neotel Ltd was established, Telkom South Africa enjoyed a monopoly status in the fixed line industry. Neotel is not as strongly established in the industry as Telkom SA; however, critics believe that should the company pull a growth strategy throughout the country; the levels of competition will increase substantially (Bidoli & Tobin, 2006). Neotel Ltd, which is partly owned by the Tata, an Indian company offers services in fixed wireless and dial-up internet. Since the entry of Neotel into the fixed line industry, the fixed line sector has been growing steadily, recording a compounded annual growth rate of 1.6% in the period 2005-2009 (MTN, 2005; Datamonitor, 2009).

In the mobile telephony, Cell C, which operates as a subsidiary of 3C telecommunication ltd, was established in South Africa in 2001 (Minges, 1999). The company provides services in voice, data, messaging, roaming services, and international calling services. The company headquarters are at Sandown, South Africa. MTN South Africa, which is a branch of the MTN Group Limited launched in South Africa, in 1994. MTN is a public company, listed in the Johannesburg Stock Exchange. MTN is among the largest mobile service provider in the country, enjoying a 37% market coverage, which equates to about 20 million subscribers. The company provides services in data, messaging, voice, roaming services and international calling services (MTN Group Limited, 2009). Vodacom, the leading mobile service provider in South Africa was established in 1993 as a joint venture between the states owned Telkom SA and the UK based private company Vodafone. In the financial year 2005/2006, Vodacom was the leading mobile service provider in the industry with a market share of 49% (Vodacom, May 2013).

The market structures in the South African telecommunication industry are dynamic and variant over time. Not until 1991, the industry existed as a monopoly with the state owned Telkom SA being the only telecommunication service provider in the country (Theron & Boshoff, 2006). After the privatization of Telecom SA; however, the industry opened up for competition, with Telkom SA granted five years to prepare for a competitive environment (Esselaar, Gillwald, & Stork, 2006). With the process of appointing a second network operator marred by political issues, the industry did not gain any competitive status until 2006, when Neotel began its operations in the country (Esselaar, Gillwald, & Stork, 2006; Horwitz & Currie, 2007). Since the entry of Neotel into the industry, the market has assumed a duopoly like structure with increased vertical integration characteristics, which ensure that the firms in the industry remain in control of over the industry trends.

Evidently, there exist only two dominant fixed line operators, Telkom SA and Neotel; and two dominant mobile service operators. In the mobile industry, Vodacom and MTN have secured full control over the industry leaving little room for Cell C to exercise any market competitiveness (Minges, 1999). The regulation of competition in the South African telecommunication market vests with the Independent Communication Authority of SA (ICASA) (Datamonitor, 2009B). In addition, the industry also faces competition regulation from other competition authorities in the country. Presence of such different bodies in the country, cause regulatory conflicts, which account for the competition problems being experienced in this industry (Theron & Boshoff, 2006).

A general analysis of the telecommunication industry functions to justify the market structure evident in the South African industry. For one, the telecommunication industry, both fixed line and mobile technologies belong to the category of industries that involve high initial fixed costs and increasing returns to scale (AfricaMoniter, 2007). Essentially, the average cost curve in telecommunication industries exhibit a decline trend over a long period, which is mainly due to the high initial capital rudiments (Theron & Boshoff, 2006). These costs are; however, recovered over time, which causes the average cost curve to begin rising again. In South Africa, the initial fixed cost committed in the establishment of the firms is recovered after 6-8 years, and this depicts the brake even point in the industry (Minges, 1999). MTN, for example, took more than 8 years to break even as evidenced by Figure 1 below, which shows the ratio of debt to profit in the period 2000-2005. The positive ratio depicted by the graph prior to 2003/2004, indicates that it took the company quit some before getting into profitability since its establishment in 1994.

Figure 1 Net debt to EBITDA (2000-2005) for MT


Another main factor defining the telecommunication industry is its high supply and demand side economies of scale. Supply side economies of scale equate to zero additional costs for new entrants (Theron & Boshoff, 2006). This implies that the size of the market should be directly proportional to the number of operators. Demand side economies of scale enable existing firms in the industry to gain more social benefits than private benefits with every new entrant due to the positive externality effect created by the new entrant (Theron & Boshoff, 2006). The social benefit means that, with every additional new entrant, the marginal cost of granting an additional user with access by incumbents becomes lower (Bidoli & Tobin, 2006).

The competitiveness of a market is determined by the extent to which any firm in an industry has limited market power such that any of their adapted strategies such as raising profits does not have profound effects to other firms in the industry (Baye & Beil, 2006). This concept is validated by competition authorities who rely on the small but significant non-transitory increase in price (SSNIP) test to determine the relative power of firms in an industry. Consequently, a relevant product market is one, which comprises of products and services with interchangeable and substitute characteristics to consumers in terms of quality, price, and applicability (European Commission, 1997). The SSNIP test has also delineated competitive markets into product and geographic dimensions. The product dimension considers the substitutability of the products offered by the firms in question, in relation to other firms in the industry. The geographical dimension, on the other hand, focuses on assessing the substitutability of products and services provided in a given geographical region by the firms in question relative to other firms operating in the same industry in such regions ( European Commission, 1997). Bidoli and Tobin (2006), however, argue that in the telecommunication industry creating regulations across such boundaries is difficult. The telecommunication markets are in a state of constant change due to their heavy reliance on technology (Theron & Boshoff, 2006). Nonetheless, firms in the telecommunication sector have found a loophole in the market definitions such that they adapt their market to the issues at hand. For example, firms can pose as mergers in one instance and as complaints in a different instance before competition regulation authorities depending on the argument at hand (Bidoli & Tobin, 2006).

The South African telecommunication industry assumes a vertically integrated structure. This structure allows the incumbent firms to leverage the monopoly and market power in the regulated ventures to the regulated ventures, thereby curtailing the market’s competitiveness (Theron & Boshoff, 2006). The vertical integration of the South African telecommunication industry makes it impossible for the available infrastructure to integrate all services, which make them to depend on the incumbent firms, Telkom SA in accessing the last mile infrastructure (Minges, 1999). Apparently, Telkom SA possesses the value added networks (VANS) license and the public switched telecommunications network (PSTN) license, which makes it a strong vertical integration ability in the South African industry (Bidoli & Tobin, 2006). This vertical integration provides Telkom SA with the ability to offer network services to competitors in the market, as well as to the final consumers.

Essentially, a telecommunications operator such as Telkom SA, which controls a critical facility in the industry, has both the incentive and the power to control other firms in the industry (Datamonitor, 2009). Such factors have enabled Telkom SA, to remain in control over the industry’s costs due to lack of competition in the upstream market. In fact, various VANS providers have filed complaints with the competition commission severally, accusing Telkom of abusing its dominance of the upstream market (Competition Commission, 2004).

Mobile operators in South Africa, on the other hand, assume an oligopolistic competition bearing, considering the structural interdependencies among them. The firms have for instance, created structural relationships in the termination of voice and data tariffs, as well roaming services (Theron & Boshoff, 2006). The vertical integration among the mobile operators concentrates on the downstream service provision market. Cumulatively, MTN and Vodafone control more than 90% of South Africa’s downstream market making the competition more of a duopoly than an oligopoly (Vodacom, May 2013; MTN Group Limited, 2009). The two firms, leveraging on their market power have on various occasions engaged in buying out other smaller service providers in the industry to increase their downward vertical integration powers. As such, the two firms have been able to control the prices in the industry by setting high prices offered on a leave it or take it basis (Theron & Boshoff, 2006). The presence of Cell C in the South African market makes no substantial impact on the industry’s bearing. Despite the fact that Cell C entered into this industry with a competitive pricing strategy, they have not been able to achieve any substantial effects in the market due insignificant market power.

In conclusion, it is apparent that indeed the South African telecommunication industry is among the fastest growing industries globally despite its high pricing strategies. Arguments presented in this paper show that the market structures adapted by this industry are responsible for these trends. The fixed line sector in the country is more a less a monopoly, assuming the Telkom SA control over the upstream market. Telkom has been able to leverage on the market power it possesses to expand rapidly in the industry. The mobile sector, on the other hand, emerges as a duopoly dominated by MTN and Vodacom. The two firms have also been able to leverage on the market power they possess to expand rapidly in the industry. The shortcoming of these structures, however, is the high pricing that arise from their use. The vertical integration nature of the key industry players hinders competition in the industry forcing prices to remain high.



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