The only way is up for India’s mobile market

  • India’s mobile sector is already huge and still growing, though not for all players
  • Reliance Jio and Bharti Airtel continue to dominate and thrive
  • Vodafone India (Vi) and state-owned BSNL lose more ground
  • Smartphone uptake gap between rural and urban customers narrows

You might not think there would be any growth left in a market with almost 1.17 billion cellular connections, but the number of wireless service connections in India, now the world’s most populated country (1.44 billion inhabitants), continues to rise thanks to the attraction of the services on offer from the market’s two clear leaders.   

According to the latest monthly figures from the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), which provides a snapshot of the market at the end of April this year, Reliance Jio and Bharti Airtel added close to 3.5 million connections between them in that month alone. But not all of the service providers are growing: Troubled Vodafone Idea (Vi) continued to lose customers despite its recent cash injection from some remarkably optimistic investors, while state-owned BSNL also reported a further decline in its subscriber base.

Long-time market leader Reliance Jio continued to power remorselessly ahead of the market adding 2.69 million connections during April to take its total to just over 472.4 million mobile subscribers, giving it a market share of 40.48%. Of that total, 433.4 million, or 91.74%, are classified as “active users”, which means they have used a service at some point during the month. 

Meanwhile, Airtel added almost 753,000 wireless connections, taking its total user mobile base to 386.5 million (33.12% market share), of which 383.3 million, or 99.17% of the total, are deemed to be active, a much higher active ratio than that of Jio.

At the other end of the scale, Vodafone Idea’s position continued to worsen. It lost a further 735,000 mobile connections in April, leaving it with a still significant 219.1 million mobile connections for a market share of 18.77%.  Vi also has the lowest active subscriber base ratio of the three big mobile operators, as just 192.6 million of its mobile connections were active in April, 87.9% of the total. 

It’s worth noting that Jio and Airtel have both successfully launched 5G services across the country and Vi, due to its financial and corporate challenges, is yet to do so, though it is planning a significant network investment using its recently raised funds

State-owned BSNL (Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited) also continued to decline, reporting a loss of 1.23 million mobile connections, bringing its total user base down to 86.8 million for a market share of just 7.46%. However, given that the telco is state-owned and state-run, there seems to be little sense of panic as its fortunes wane – there’s always plenty of tax-payer money available to keep the tattered enterprise afloat, so no-one expects it to flounder any time soon.

Some indication of the volatility of the Indian telecoms market can be gained by looking at the increasing number of subscribers exercising their right to churn by porting their mobile numbers from one operator to another. Some 11.07 million did so in April. Since mobile number portability was introduced in India back in 2010, almost 1 billion users have since voted with their feet and wallets and have taken their custom elsewhere. 

As has long been realised, India is a mobile economy and, despite investments in fixed broadband connectivity, there are still relatively few fixed broadband subscribers, with the total for the whole country reaching only 40.7 million by the end of April. 

Reliance Jio is again the market leader, with 11.6 million customers, followed by Bharti Airtel with 7.8 million and BSNL with 4.14 million: Between them, they command more than half of the total. 

The number of fixed voice line subscribers isn’t much different: Across the whole country there are just 34.3 million wireline connections. Unsurprisingly, given the history of extremely limited wireline penetration into India’s massive rural hinterlands (and the concomitant immense popularity of mobile telephony in India’s hugely countryside areas once affordable services became available) the provision of wireline services across the sub-continent is skewed heavily to urban areas. Thus the share of urban and rural subscribers in terms of total wireline subscribers were 91.53% and 8.47% respectively at the end of April. 

Can India’s giant mobile market continue to grow? Well there’s a way to go yet before everyone in the country has a mobile connection. Overall teledensity, including mobile and wireline access, grew slightly from 85.69% at the end of March to 85.76% at the end of April. Urban teledensity decreased by a very small amount from 133.72% to 133.42% (the number being way over 100% because so many people have multiple mobile connections): The good news is that rural teledensity increased from 59.19% to 59.44% during the same period.

- Martyn Warwick, Editor in Chief, TelecomTV

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