Will Marginal Cost Pricing Kill the Telecom Business?

Marginal cost pricing is an important principle in many markets, including some parts of the telecom business, from time to time.

Products that are "services," and perishable, are particularly important settings for such pricing. Airline seats and hotel room stays provide clear examples.

Seats or rooms not sold are highly "perishable." They cannot ever be sold as a flight leaves or a day passes.

Whether marginal cost pricing is “good” for traditional telecom services suppliers is a good question, as the marginal cost of supplying one more megabyte of Internet access, voice or text messaging might well be very close to zero.

Such “near zero pricing” is pretty much what we see with major VoIP services such as Skype. Whether the traditional telecom business can survive such pricing is a big question.

That is hard to square with the capital intensity of building any big network, which mandates a cost quite a lot higher than “zero.”

In principle, marginal cost pricing assumes that a seller recoups the cost of selling the incremental units in the short term and recovers sunk cost eventually. The growing question is how to eventually recover all the capital invested in next generation networks.

Indeed, some already argue that tier one telcos do not recover their cost of capital, perhaps an indication that marginal cost pricing is dangerous to the long term health of the industry. .

Of course, it is easy to see why marginal cost pricing has developed. It is enabled to a greater degree by Internet mechanisms.

As a rule, any industry touched by Internet distribution tends to see a trimming of supplier profit margins. In fact, that is an important strategy for digital disruptors, where the strategy literally is to destroy profit margins in a traditional business, gaining share and then dominating the new business, with permanently lower profit margins, and possible lower gross revenues.

That is the theory that underpins the pursuit of “zero billion dollar markets.” One sense of the word is that big markets get created when whole new industries are founded. But one other use is more ominous for incumbents.

That is reliance on marginal cost pricing to literally “destroy” the pricing regime in an existing market, allowing a new competitor with radically lower cost structure to displace the current leaders. That is the essence of the phrase “analog dollars, digital dimes and mobile pennies.”

It is a rational strategy for a new provider to attack a market with much-lower prices, shrinking markets but gaining leadership in the process.

Also, there is a third meaning of the term: any market not large enough for a provider to maintain a direct sales force. Paradoxically, opportunities for channel partners could grow as product categories contract, though that trend will conflict with the effort to market using mass market channels.

Overall, over the top apps--one clear manifestation of the Internet impact--boost usage, but attack profit margins. Telcos sell more data capacity, but lose value and revenue in their traditional revenue streams.

The question therefore remains: will marginal cost pricing eventually destroy the economics of the tier one telco business, unless telcos massively replace “access” revenues priced that way with big new revenue sources not priced at marginal cost, or at least not requiring huge sunk investments before revenue can be earned.

That is the argument about why Verizon’s FiOS investment is problematic.
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