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The telco confusopoly

The one frustration that started me blogging more than three years ago was the confusing pricing practices of phone and internet service providers. It was quite obvious to me that their 'plans' where meant to be confusing to ensure the consumer could not easily identify the cheapest provider. Today, the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) has released a report that recommends improving price information for telecommunications contracts to avoid a 'confusopoly' (here).  Amongst other things -

The authority also wants to prohibit what it says are misleading advertising practices, such as the use of the term "cap" on mobile and broadband plans.

"It's not a cap, it's not a maximum, it's a minimum," Mr Chapman said

"We want to prohibit that unless its a genuine hard cap, so that if you exceed your limit the service ends or you get the opportunity to upgrade." (here)

Most recently I have been comparing mobile phone plans. Some of the cheap plans don't allow you to call 13, 1300 and 1800 numbers under the cap, and they all have different call rates, flag fall and penalties for exceeding cap limits. To actually compare providers you need to know your calling needs in advance and have the mathematical skills to run this call profile, and other scenarios, through a model of each available phone plan. Insanity.

As I previously wrote -

By consciously manipulating these two criteria of a free market [low barriers to entry and perfect, or at least good, information], all firms in the market are able to avoid a state of true competition that would produce the most efficient allocation of services, and are able to artificially inflate the value of the commodity, hence producing more profit for each firm in the market.

This is not meant to sound like a conspiracy, because indeed each firm does not need to meet in back rooms with the other firms in the market and all agree to limit customer information and the comparability of their products. They each simply need to aspire to the great marketing ideal of product differentiation, a concept that is fundamentally designed to artificially eliminate direct competition by removing direct comparability.
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The power of product differentiation, through its ability to remove comparability and create an information gap to distort what could be a perfectly competitive market, can be demonstrated by the case of the term life insurance market in the US in the late 1990s. There was a mysterious and dramatic drop in prices across all firms that did not correlate to price drops in other forms of insurance, which themselves where steadily rising.

According to economist Steven D. Levitt, this can be attributed to the realisation of a perfect market through the power of the internet. Although term life insurance policies had been quite homogeneous before this period of time, the process of shopping around for the cheapest price had been convoluted and time consuming, whereas websites such as Quotesmith.com suddenly made the process almost instantaneous.

In just a few years, the value of the term life insurance market in the US had dropped by USD$1bilion because of the new found ease of comparability. What insurance firm would want this to happen? Even if you were a small player in the market, say a 1% market share, your turnover had just dropped by $10million. It is perhaps one of the great recent examples of the power of perfect competition in allocating resources efficiently, yet possibly one of the greatest blunders by the insurance industry.

I believe that the power of private enterprise is its innovative response to the financial risks it incurs, but with very simple regulation the innovative confusopoly, which comes at a cost to cosumers, can easily be avoided.  Indeed, most of the pushback against the telco confusopoly is from webpages which keep up-to-date tabs on plans from each service provider and enable you to take some rough guesses about future use and compare the cost effectiveness of each offering (eg here)

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