Confused by India’s cellphone plans?

A bit of maths can give some clarity

The other day I was with a group, talking to a friend who had returned to India after a couple of years abroad. He needed to apply for a new cellphone line as his previous cellular plan had been discontinued while he was away. So he casually asked us which cellular network and plan we would recommend. Everyone in the group had a different suggestion. I recommended Jio’s ₹399 prepaid plan, but this was hotly contested by others in the group. So my friend asked me if I could substantiate my recommendation, and that’s what this post is about.

India currently has three major networks: Airtel, Vodafone-Idea, and Jio. There is a fourth network, the state-run BSNL, but its service is inconsistent with 4G still not being available everywhere. The rest of the competition was wiped out in the bloodbath that followed Jio’s launch into the Indian market with a pricing strategy that massively undercut the market rates and eventually led to India having one of the cheapest data rates in the world.

The reason why most Indian customers are confused about which plan gives them the best value for their money is that most plans come with different features and offers, making them sort of ‘horses for courses.’ In other words, they cater to different needs. I apologize for mixing my metaphors, but this makes comparing them as problematic as comparing apples and oranges. It’s hard to tell someone who loves oranges and hates apples, that he’s wasting his money on those oranges.

Having said that, when my service provider Aircel went bankrupt, I chose Jio, and I’m happy with it. So let’s see if we can figure out what makes me tick.

In the early days of Jio, its network connectivity was not available everywhere partly because the competing networks were slowing or blocking inter-network calls. But with Jio increasing the number of its towers, and the telecom authority issuing huge fines to Jio’s competitors for interfering with inter-network calls, most networks now have similar connectivity within urban zones, though it does vary a bit when you are in rural areas.

I have a broadband connection at home so I don’t need too much data per day. However, I wouldn’t like to run out of data when I’m away from home and need to say, send or receive large files. This does mean that my data needs vary and occasionally will exceed my plan limit. If my plan is not unlimited, this would mean being abruptly cut off the net without even basic messaging services like WhatsApp. This is unacceptable. The networks’ base unlimited plan of 1.5GB/day with speed throttling after the limit, would fit my needs.

I don’t make too many calls, but some of those calls tend to be long ones. In the days before unlimited calls became common, this would often lead to my bill being doubled on Aircel, my previous service provider. Secondly, I travel to the neighboring states off and on. So I would look for unlimited plans with free ‘roaming.’

Online activities like making WhatsApp calls (to contries outside India) and videos work better on higher data speeds. 4G networks are faster than 3G, so that rules BSNL out for me as it’s still only a 3G network where I live.

I haven’t found much difference in speeds between the networks so this is not really a factor for me. Having said that, TRAI (India’s Telecom authority) claimed Jio had the highest download speed of 18.8mbps in January 2019.

One refreshing change at Jio after my experience with other networks was everything is upfront. My ₹399 plan covers all costs, except international calls, and high-speed data packs (in case I exceed my daily 1.5GB quota). I can’t describe what a relief this was after years of unexpectedly running up high calling bills because of roaming fees tacked on without warning, or having my expensive talk-time quietly wiped out because I had forgotten to load a data pack.

If I get all the above, then the deciding factor would be the cost of the services and the value of the extras thrown in.

At one point of time, I preferred postpaid services as you could never run out of credit, and get cut off in the middle of a call to a client. But with unlimited plans becoming the norm in India, this is no longer a valid reason.

Also, postpaid plans in India are generally more expensive because they have some sort of taxes added on. They do make sense if you work in the corporate world where your employer pays your bills and often recovers the costs involved by showing them as expenses that can be set off against taxes. Some postpaid plan like those from Vodafone offers data rollover (unused data accumulation). This could be useful for someone who needs a lot of GB to be used at one go, like say for a computer operating system update.

Neither of those arguments applies to me. So when my provider Aircel showed signs of going bankrupt, I decided to switch to a prepaid plan with whichever provider I signed up.

Out of curiosity, I checked what network the people around me use and why. One thing became clear immediately. Most people stick with their existing provider to avoid the headache of changing as the difference in service quality is not really tangible. Here’s why users chose a particular network.

A lawyer friend switched to Vodafone when Aircel shut down. She uses a ₹499 postpaid connection because she doesn’t want to run out of credit, which is not really a valid reason as most prepaid cards have unlimited plans. Another Vodafone user who is into advertising is with the network because he’s been with them forever. However, it was only a year ago that he realized that he was being massively overcharged with a ₹1500 monthly bill, and downgraded to the ₹499 postpaid plan.

I have some personal experience with Vodafone as my mother is also on it (actually on Idea, a network that merged with Vodafone). My brother had given her a Vodafone postpaid plan. She doesn’t use the net much but still used to run up a bill of nearly ₹1500 every month. I couldn’t do much about it as she didn’t want to switch to a new number, and my brother was too busy with his business to sort it out. Anyway, he eventually switched her to a prepaid plan. I was then able to get her a 1GB daily plan with unlimited calls for 365 days for ₹1499, which not so long ago, used to be her monthly bill!

₹1499 plan for 365 days is ₹4.11/day ($21.55 per year). If you disregard that the daily data is 1GB and not 1.5GB, then this is one of the best value for money plans. Unfortunately, Idea no longer offers this plan.

An engineer friend said he uses Airtel because the HOOQ channel is offered for free on it. Another one uses it because he finds the network more reliable and faster than Jio or Vodafone, which is debatable.

I have a spare Airtel SIM but never use it as I find Airtel to be a bit unscrupulous, springing hidden charges like roaming without warning.

I don’t know too many people who use BSNL anymore because it’s mostly on the slower 3G network. Those who stick with BSNL don’t mind the slow speed, as they feel it’s safer being a state-owned network, and they don’t think it’s worth the headache to go get a connection from another network.

I myself have a BSNL line, which I use as a secondary SIM on my Android. It’s useful if I’m in an area where the Jio service is poor. BSNL too is sneaky. If you load talk-time onto it without a data pack and accidentally use the net, BSNL charges you an exorbitant data rate, which swiftly consumes your entire talktime.

An architect friend switched to Jio because Vodafone charged him for WhatsApp calls. Another one switched from Airtel because he has a farm in the hills, and Jio is the only network that has sound reception there. A project manager I know uses a Jio 2GB daily plan as his primary internet connection because the data plan is cheap and connectivity is good.

My mother’s main line is Vodafone but I have given her a Jio line as a backup in case her main phone goes down for whatever reason. I put a ₹98 monthly plan which gives unlimited calls and messages and 2GB of data a month. If you don’t need data, this is among the cheapest services available. The only cheaper plan is the Jiophone’s ₹49 monthly plan but it only works on the Jiophone, which is not for everyone.

When I switched from Aircel to Jio a couple of years ago, I was paying ₹300/month for 1Gb of data with calls, messaging and roaming being extras. These would easily take my monthly bill to around ₹1000/month.

At around ₹100/month, Jio is now just a tenth of my previous bill but offers a whole lot more. Unlimited calls and messages, plus 4G data (up to 1.5GB per day at high speed and throttled thereafter to 64kpbs or so). Most networks seem to be offering more or less similar speeds so that’s not a factor for me.

That’s why switching to Jio was a no-brainer.

1.5Gb/day is good enough for me. But Jio offers five plans with this same data, with different periods and prices. I must add that Jio has cleverly ensured the loyalty of its existing customers by a voucher scheme within its MyJio app. This effectively reduces the price for all plans above ₹300 by ₹50. To compare plans, you can either compare on ‘per day/year’ cost or a ‘per GB’ cost. I rarely, if ever, use up the entire daily quota available on my plan, so the ‘per GB’ cost comparison is not relevant to me.

₹149 plan for 28 days is ₹5.32/day (₹1942/year)
₹349 plan for 70 days is ₹4.27/day (₹1559/year)
₹399 plan for 84 days is ₹4.15/day (₹1516/year)
₹449 plan for 91 days is ₹4.38/day (₹1600/year)
₹1699 plan for 365 days is ₹4.51/day (₹1649/year)

There’s only a marginal difference between the plans, with the ₹399 plan working out as the best value for your money. I admit to being a bit surprised as I assumed the best deal would be for the ₹1699 plan.

The two competitors left in the market, Airtel and Vodafone, have had no option but to match Jio’s prices even if it cut into their profits. With all networks now offering similar plans at similar prices, the difference comes down to the extras offered by each operator.

For instance, the extras offered by Jio, which I find useful include, Jiosaavn Music for unlimited streaming music, and Jio TV for access to live TV, which in my case means live NBA games.

Airtel offers similar extras. For instance, its ₹199 prepaid plan (valid for 28 days, with the same 1.5GB/day with unlimited calls and messages), comes with Airtel TV Premium subscription which offers content from Zee5, HOOQ, over 350 Live TV Channels, over 10,000 movies and more. That ₹199 plan for 28 days is ₹6.54/day (₹2388/year), making it pricier than the 1.5GB/day Jio plans. This is where the extras come in. If you prefer Airtel’s extras, then Airtel is for you as the difference is barely ₹1000 per year.

Vodafone also offers extras like a 50% discount on Amazon Prime. The catch is this is only for new prepaid customers aged between 18–24.

Vodafone postpaid connections priced above ₹399/month also come with free access to Amazon Prime for one year. The catch here is that the yearly cost works out ₹4788. Amazon Prime costs ₹1000/year so if you take that out of the equation, your net cost is ₹3788. This is more than twice the cost of the ₹399 Jio plan with all other features being more or less on par.

Airtel has also launched a new prepaid bundle at ₹299 to offer 28 days of Amazon Prime membership along with 2.5GB data per day, unlimited calls to any network and 100 SMS per day. What’s the catch? Let’s do the math.

₹299 for 28 days is ₹10.68/day or ₹3898/year. Since Amazon Prime costs ₹999/year (or ₹129/month), your net cost works out to ₹2899 per year.

Jio doesn’t have a 2.5GB plan but it has 2GB and 3GB plans. The 2GB/day plan costs ₹448 for 84 days, which works out to ₹398 for 84 days after the discount, or ₹1729/year. That makes the Jio plan ₹1170 cheaper than the Airtel one though it does offer half a GB less every day. If that bothers you, then try Jio’s 3GB/day plan which costs the same as Airtel’s 2.5GB/day plan.

I recently noticed that Airtel has launched a ₹249 prepaid plan with unlimited calling and messaging, 2GB data per day, and an innovative built-in life insurance cover of Rs 4 lakhs that’s valid for the 28 days of the plan (a tie-up with HDFC). Again, the catch is you are paying nearly ₹3000/year for this prepaid plan. If you want a good insurance plan, it might be better to instead take out the extra ₹1500 that you are paying, add a bit more, and get a proper insurance cover.

Though I’m grateful to Jio for bringing data prices down, I know they are just a business like their competitors and have no illusions about them being more concerned about customers. In fact, I have a friend who despite admitting that Jio’s service is superior where he stays, refuses to use Jio because he distrusts the Ambani family who owns Jio.

I have no such qualms, and seriously doubt if Jio is making a loss on these prepaid plans. One possibility is Jio has a long term plan of recovering its costs somewhat like how Amazon operates. Alternatively, Jio’s cost may be less because it initially acquired the cheaper ‘internet service providers’ license (under which it can offer only data services) but later migrated to full-fledged telecom operator by paying an entry fee of ₹1,658 crore. Its competitors claim this gives its a huge and unfair financial advantage. Here’s the story.

My guess is Jio will not hike up prices as long as it makes business sense to stick with the current pricing strategy. So I find it to be the best bet.

For now.

it’s an odd world