The recipe is simple. Mobile Operator provides a mobile wallet service. Mobile wallet service enables payments for services sold online. Mobile Operator signs on merchants selling products and services online. Mobile Operator throws in some free data and some promotions via tie-up with merchants. Subscribers like the arrangement and sign-up. Subscribers access these services and browse, choose, book and pay for them using their online wallets. Subscribers then settle their bills separately with Mobile Operator. Mobile Operator grows to become the preferred gateway for multitude of services offered online and strenghtens its presence in the digital services market. In short, this is how it works
Bharti Airtel, India's largest Mobile Operator has just inked an agreement with Uber, the popular online taxi hailing service that is revolutionizing the taxi business world over. The agreement enables Bharti Airtel's subscribers to make payments for their Uber rides using Bharti Airtel's wallet service, Airtel Money.
In a country of more than 1.2 billion people and where credit card and banking penetration is pretty much limited to the consumers in cities and more developed geographies, online wallet services are becoming increasingly popular as Mobile Operators take over the role of banks as reliable brands with nation-wide presence that are able to 'store' small amounts of money in mobile accounts from which users can make payments from for their online purchases. Mobile wallets also enable users of smartphones with near-frequency-communications (nfc) technology to affect payments through nfc readers, which means that the wallet service can also be used at participating merchant outlets for purchases of goods and services.
Payment Facilitation - The Operator Advantage
Mobile Operators, the exclusive owners of the connectivity pipes - ie the providers of 3G and 4G cellular services hold a special place in the mobile commerce and digital services ecosystem. Direct carrier billing enables subscribers to pay off all their monthly expenses credited to their mobile phone accounts in just one payment, via a visit to a nearby customer center, and for those with a mobile data plan and a bank account, the payment can simply be made on their phones. Direct carrier billing is essentially a short term credit granted by the mobile operator for subscribers, much like the credit card arrangement from banks. Mobile wallet services on the other hand work on a pre-pay mode, where users first credit their mobile accounts with cash and then start drawing down from this amount for purchases they make. Either way, Mobile Operators are fast becoming the banks for micro-payments, which in most developing countries, form the bulk of payments made online.
For Mobile Operators, payment facilitation is not all that there is to why the digital services marketplace could be their next forte. The rise of the app market is seeing Mobile Operators launching their own app stores. Such app stores which are tailored with a mix of local and global apps provide incentives such as zero-rated data usage as well as products and services promotions from the app publishers - for example, a movie ticket purchased on a cinema app offered exclusively on the mobile operator appstore comes with a 10% discount, which is enabled via arrangements with cinema operators, and similarly, with a multitude of merchants in the locality. Such incentives play a critical role in the make or break of an app, and a service, as transactions via apps are the life-line for a growing number of online services.
Soaring Demand, Growing Competition - Why Alliances Matter
From the merchant's end, partnerships with Mobile Operators will be a huge contributing factor in retaining and enhancing their competitive edge in the digital services market. India for example, is Uber's second largest market, and the market for online taxi hailing service is rife with competition with India's own home-grown services such as Ola, which controls approximately 60% of the market, followed by Meru and TaxiforSure, both of which control about 16% of the market each. Uber finishes 4th and in a country where the organized taxi market accounts for less than 10% of the overall market and where a burgeoning middle class will push the demand for more transperant, higher quality and more efficient services, the opportunity and scope for growth for any player in infinite. Alliances with Mobile Operators will therefore be very strategic for service providers such as Uber and Ola who leverage the Internet heavily, as Operators, by preloading these applications on devices they sell and by bundling data and promotions for subscribers using the service, help to accelerate the mass adoption of these services.
Data - the Most 'bundle-able' Commodity
In the case of Bharti Airtel and Uber, both companies are joining hands to provide taxi passengers using Uber access to free high-speed internet powered by Airtel 4G. In fact, Bharti Airtel is also rolling out some special mobile packages that will be providing voice, data and device plans to Uber driver-partners. Extrapolating this to other services, Mobile Operators are probably the only players in the digital services ecosystem who can always throw in some free data to any fixed or mobile venue (where the service is rendered), to supplement the mobile wallet linking and app store listing they provide to support the take up and usage of these services.
In the announcement of the Airtel Money and Uber partnership, Amit Jain, President of Uber India says that, “We are thrilled to join forces with Airtel to deliver solutions that elevate the Uber experience for riders and drivers throughout India. This unique partnership is built on our shared visions and strengths of broad, reliable networks and connecting people to their world, anytime, anywhere". He adds that, "Airtel is leading the way for wireless connectivity, and as our telecom partner, will help us in our quest toward transforming urban mobility for hundreds of millions of commuters in India.”
To attract more users and spice up the offers, Airtel is giving away up to Rs.500 for free for Uber riders who top up their Airtel Money wallet. “Our partnership with Uber is directly in line with our commitment to offer innovative and relevant services for our customers. Now, Uber riders can enjoy the convenience of paying through their Airtel Money wallets, while also experiencing the power of blazing internet speeds with Airtel 4G on the move. We are excited that Uber has chosen Airtel to fulfill its telecom needs, and look forward to supporting the company’s rapid growth across India”, says Srini Gopalan, Director of Consumer Business, Bharti Airtel.