India Adds 15M Mobile Subs in January

A staggering 15.4 million mobile lines were activated in India during January, according to the latest statistics from the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) .

The number seems even more amazing when broken down further: It averages out to nearly 497,000 new lines each day, or more than 41,000 each hour.

In the previous few months the number of additions had risen above the 10 million mark, but reaching 15.4 million in one month is by far the biggest single addition to the mobile subscriber base. It takes the total number of activated wireless lines to 362.3 million, and, once the country's 37.75 million fixed lines are added, it takes India's total number of telephone lines to more than 400 million for the first time. (See IndiaWatch: Mobile Nears 347M Subs and IndiaWatch: 3G Delayed, 2G Adds 10M.)

But there's still plenty of room left for growth, as India's teledensity is just 34.5 percent. Many of those without any kind of telephone connection are in India's expansive rural areas, which are now the focus for many of the country's mobile operators (and the country's government) as they look to build up their subscriber bases. (See A Guide to India's Telecom Operators.)

For example, the metro "circle" (telecom service area) of Delhi has a mobile penetration rate of around 90 percent, while some of the rural circles, such as Assam and Bihar in the northeast have penetration rates below 20 percent.

That remaining growth potential is what is attracting overseas investors, including Japan's NTT DoCoMo Inc. (NYSE: DCM), Bahrain Telecommunications Co. (Batelco) , and Norway's Telenor Group (Nasdaq: TELN), which recently confirmed its plans to take an initial 60 percent stake in new entrant Unitech Wireless and inject more than $1 billion into the company during 2009 alone. (See NTT Goes on an Adventure With Tata in India, Unitech Shares Towers, IndiaWatch: Telenor Still Committed, and NTT Takes $2.7B Stake in Tata.)

The Norwegian operator has described India as the "world's largest untapped mobile market" because of the nearly 800 million people who are still without a mobile connection. By Telenor's reckoning, China is home to 710 million people who aren't hooked up to a mobile network.

In addition, there are the additional growth opportunities, particularly in the densely populated metro areas, that will come with the launch of 3G services. The auction of 3G spectrum, which had been set for January, has been delayed -- industry observers now believe the auction may happen in March.

The longer that auction is delayed, the more it suits state-owned operators Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd. (BSNL) and Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Ltd. (MTNL) , which have already been handed their spectrum. MTNL has launched its initial 3G services in Delhi and Mumbai (the two metro circles where it holds licenses), while BSNL is in the process of rolling out its initial services in 12 other cities. (See MTNL Launches 3G.)

The imminent availability of 3G spectrum notwithstanding, Unitech Wireless and the other new entrants face a tough battle to attract subscribers ahead of the country's leading and well established mobile operators. Bharti Airtel Ltd. (Mumbai: BHARTIARTL) is still the largest mobile operator, with 88.4 million subscribers at the end of January, followed by Reliance Communications Ltd. with 66.3 million and Vodafone India with 63.3 million.

— Ray Le Maistre, International News Editor, Light Reading

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