India Mobile Subs Soar in 2006

India's mobile operators added 6.2 million new subscribers in December, capping a year of rapid expansion that saw the country become the fastest growing telecom market in the world.

According to the latest figures from the Cellular Operators Association of India , the country's nine GSM-based carriers added 47 million subscribers in 2006, almost doubling their subscriber base to 105.4 million in December 2006 from 58.5 million in December 2005. (See COAI Touts GSM Subs.)

The Association of Unified Telecom Service Providers of India (AUSPI) , which collates figures from the four CDMA-based operators, reports 25 million new subscribers were added during the year. The CDMA customer base tripled from 12 million at the end of December 2005 to 36.7 million last month.

India has been reporting higher monthly additions than China, previously the world’s fastest growing mobile market, since August, although its 142.1 million subscribers are still a long way off from China's 500 million-plus users.

India’s government expects it to reach half a billion subscribers -- still less than half the country’s population -- by 2010, and it’s that potential for growth that has sparked manic interest in Hutchison Essar . India’s fourth largest carrier, it added more than 1 million new customers in December -- taking its total to 23.3 million.

U.K. operator Vodafone Group plc (NYSE: VOD), which recently stated its intention to focus on investing in emerging markets, is so anxious to get in on the action that it's taking on Essar Teleholdings Ltd. , Reliance Communications Ltd. (RCom) , and the Hinduja Group in what could become a $20 billion bidding war for ownership of the carrier. (See Vodafone Confirms Interest, Essar Offers $11B for Hutch Buyout, and Reliance Approves Bid.)

A Vodafone spokesman was tight-lipped on the details but reiterated CEO Arun Sarin's comments to the press this week that the operator is preparing to put in a bid, although it "would be some weeks away."

Ovum Ltd. analyst John Delaney notes that a valuation in the $18 billion to $20 billion range "would put the asking price for Hutchison Essar somewhere between $800-900 per subscriber."

"Should Vodafone go that high?" he wrote in a recent research note. "If we were talking about an operator in Western Europe, the answer would definitely be 'no'. But Vodafone is not looking to buy a subscriber base here: it wants to buy the opportunity to serve the vast number of Indians who are not currently mobile subscribers."

He concluded: "With stakes as high as this, it will take strong nerves to hang in there. But we do think that Vodafone should raise the stakes, if it gets the opportunity."

— Nicole Willing, Reporter, Light Reading

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