France Telecom says it will not match the low-cost mobile offers recently launched by Iliad because such aggressive pricing would be bad for network quality and innovation in the long-run, says France Telecom CEO Stephane Richard. That Orange won’t compete on price might strike you as unwise.

Goldman Sachs, for example, forecasts that Iliad’s market entry will cause France Telecom to lose a third of its operating profits in its domestic market by 2015.

But there are ample precedents for France Telecom to do so. Beyond higher marketing costs as competition escalates, sometimes all an incumbent can do is harvest a business. That, in fact, was AT&T’s strategy when it was a dominant long distance provider facing growing competition from a growing number of competitors, and as prices for its product continually declined.

A similar strategy has been taken by incumbent telephone companies in the face of growing competition from VoIP providers. You might argue that telcos should have jumped into VoIP aggressively, matching competitor lower prices.

They generally haven’t done that. The reason is that incumbents lose more than they gain by matching lower prices, even when everyone would agree lost market share is the inevitable result.

For an incumbent telco, matching lower competitor prices implies lower retail prices across the board, for the entire customer base, not just for the consumers buying the VoIP service. A rational telco executive would do better to preserve gross revenue and profit margin on a gradually-shrinking base of customers, rather than adopt across the board lower prices in an effort to slow the market share losses.

“The real risk is that all the operators become ‘low-cost’, meaning less investment, fewer services and jobs,” said Richard.

Iliad, which markets its services under the name Free, touched off a price war on January 10, 2012 with an offer of unlimited calls to France and most of Europe and the United States, unlimited texts, and 3 gigabytes of mobile data for 19.99 euros ($25.83) per month, without a contract.

France Telecom and Vivendi reacted by cutting some mobile prices but only on the offers sold without phone subsidies and contracts.

Some analysts predict that France Telecom, Vivendi and Bouygues will all become structurally less profitable as Iliad takes market share in the coming years.

But that has happened before, in the telecom business. Firms as large as AT&T was, or MCI, watched profits gradually decline, to the point that both were purchased by other providers in the market.

Right now, local telcos are essentially harvesting their legacy voice business, essentially “allowing” VoIP competitors to take market share. That is a rational strategy, especially in the consumer segment of the business.

The point is that there are times when an incumbent simply cannot match prices, and has to prepare to lose market share.

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