India Nears 500M Mobile Lines

India is set to reach the 500 million mobile line landmark well before the end of 2009 as the appetite for new connections continues unabated.

According to the latest figures from the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) , the country's mobile operators activated 14.98 million new wireless lines during September, taking the country's total to 471.7 million.

At the current rate of demand, India's 500 millionth mobile line is set to come online some time around the end of November.

What no one knows, though, is how many of those 471.7 million lines are in active use. The vast majority of India's mobile connections are pre-paid, non-contract lines, and it's likely that many millions of mobile numbers are inactive as users switch from one provider to another to get the best deals as their credit runs out.

Until such time that the operators only count active lines in their reports to the TRAI, the high total will remain and continue to grow. At 471.7 million total mobile lines, India now boasts a 40.3 percent wireless teledensity rate, so there is still plenty of room for growth, especially as the operators continue to build out their networks in the country's vast rural areas. (See A Guide to India's Telecom Market.)

Bharti Airtel Ltd. (Mumbai: BHARTIARTL) is still, by far, the largest mobile operator, with 110.5 million lines at the end of September, giving it a market share of 23.4 million. Reliance Communications Ltd. is Bharti's closest rival, with 86.1 million mobile lines for a market share of 18.3 percent.

Table 1: India's Mobile Operators by Subscribers, September 2009
August 2009 September 2009
Bharti Airtel 108 million 110.5 million
Reliance Communications 84.1 million 86.1 million
Vodafone Essar 80.9 million 82.8 million
BSNL 57.3 million 58.8 million
Idea Cellular 50.1 million 51.5 million
Tata Teleservices 42.8 million 46.8 million
Aircel 24.4 million 25.7 million
MTNL 4.7 million 4.7 million
Loop Telecom 2.4 million 2.5 million
Sistema Shyam 1.7 million 2.0 million
HFCL Infotel 0.38 million 0.38 million
Total Mobile Lines Activated 456.7 million 471.7 million
Source: Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI)

It's Tata Teleservices Ltd. that activated the most new lines during September, though. Tata added 4 million new mobile customers, nearly 27 percent of the month's total additions, to take its total to 46.8 million. If it continues to grow at that rate it could overtake Idea Cellular Ltd. to become India's fifth largest mobile operator before long.

Tata racked up the biggest gains in August, too, benefiting from the launch of its GSM services, branded Tata DoCoMo, to add to its existing CDMA offering. Japanese giant NTT DoCoMo Inc. (NYSE: DCM) is Tata's partner, and shareholder, in that GSM drive. (See Tata Takes Summer Subs Lead, Tata GSM Services Go Live, Tata Rolls Out GSM as Tata DoCoMo, NTT Goes on an Adventure With Tata in India, and NTT Takes $2.7B Stake in Tata.)

January is shaping up to be a major month for the Indian mobile market as it will mark the introduction of mobile number portability, and, if the new timetable goes to plan (don't hold your breath), 3G spectrum will be auctioned. (See Green Light for India's 3G Auction and AsiaWatch: What Price India's Mobile Market?)

Fixed shrinks, broadband grows
As India's near 1.2 billion inhabitants turn to mobile services for their voice connections, so the country's fixed-line market continues to shrink. Another 20,000 fixed lines were decommissioned during September, leaving the countrywide total at just 37.31 million.

Fixed broadband, at least, is still growing, though still not at a fast pace. The number of broadband lines of 256 kbit/s or more stood at 7.22 million at the end of September, an increase of 240,000 during the month.

With fixed and mobile connections combined, India had 509 million lines at the end of September, giving the country an overall teledensity of 43.5 percent.

— Ray Le Maistre, International News Editor, Light Reading

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