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Published on: April 26, 2020, 8:07 a.m.
Telcos pitch in to support low-income consumers
  • Serving the bottom of the pyramid. A file picture of the migration. Source: Pixabay

By Ritwik Sinha. Consulting Editor, Business India

They may have been arch-rivals in the past, fighting tooth and nail to either keep their customer base intact or to enhance their revenue share.

But with the country waging a proverbial war against COVID-19, leading private telcos – Reliance Jio, Bharti Airtel and Vodafone Idea - have stepped up to provide aid to their low-income customers.

The daily wage earners had begun a large scale migration towards different pockets of the country after the lockdown brought their bread earning activity to a screeching halt. So the telcos came forward to ensure that, in the very least, their march back home was supported with telecom connectivity.

Immediately after the lockdown was imposed, telcos created war rooms at strategically important locations and allocated senior engineers and support staff to respond to any disruption. Within a week into the lockdown, they had pitched a specific strategy to keep the phones of low-end customers ringing at remote locations.

In a country, where about 95 per cent of consumer telecom accounts are pre-paid, two leading telcos identified the customers at the bottom of their revenue pyramid (by mapping average revenue per user metrics on a monthly basis). This base was then provided with unrestricted incoming calls as well as the addition of Rs10 talk-time to their accounts. Bharti Airtel identified about 80 million such customers while for Vodafone, the number of beneficiaries worked out to around 100 million.

Shashwat Sharma, Chief Marketing Officer, Bharti Airtel commented, “In this difficult hour of fighting off the threat of COVID-19, Airtel is committed to ensuring that all people remain connected without any disruptions. And for this objective, it is critical to take care of the under-privileged daily wage earners of our country, whose lives have been disrupted due to the lockdown.”

Mukesh Ambani's Reliance Jio went a step ahead offering its users across the board 100 minutes of free talk-time and 100 free SMS till 17 April. In a tweet, the company said: “10x benefits to JioPhone users when it’s needed the most – 100 minutes of calls & 100 SMS complimentary.”

Following the extension of the lockdown period till 3 May, the leading telcos have also extended their unrestricted incoming services for the targeted class of consumers. And there are indications that this offering may be further extended if the lockdown continues depending on the government’s assessment of the situation in dealing with the crisis.

“The financial woes of the low-income group are not going to get over anytime soon. We would like to keep them in our fold as long as our capacity permits,” said the senior official of a leading service provider (who did not wish to be named) while denying that the company may adjust this economic cost as CSR expenditure.

“It was almost a collective decision from leading stakeholders to support a significant group of consumers of a service which is essential to their existence in an unprecedented national crisis. Nobody is looking at adjusting this expenditure under some convenient subhead on the account sheet,” he emphasises.

Rajan Mathews, Director General of Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI), the apex body of private telecom operators, speaks no differently. “As responsible corporate citizens, you have to take such critical commercial decisions in the interest of your consumers and the country and this is what they have done,” he says.

On the issue of whether this offering would be extended if the lockdown continues post 3 May, he presents a different take. "They will probably look at the pattern of the recent days - if the pre-paid consumers of the low-income class have begun getting their accounts recharged on their own. If that be the case, such an offering may not be needed," he explains.

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