A call on tele-density

Operators in India add more than 20 million mobile connections every month. That is great news. But it is pertinent to put things in perspective as far as the real wireless tele-density in the country is concerned to know how many distinct individuals actually have mobile connections.

Data from the telecom regulator (TRAI), as of March 2011, indicate that there are 811.6 million wireless ‘subscribers' in the country. That translates to a tele-density of close to 68 per cent. But the TRAI adds in its note that only 573.9 million subscribers are ‘active' ones; that is, those that recharge their accounts periodically and are not disconnected from the system. This would bring the mobile tele-density to less than 48 per cent which means that only a little over 70 per cent of all subscribers are active.

Capturing multiplicity

All the data is captured in an electronic register called the VLR (visitor location register) that is part of every mobile operator's network. The TRAI defines VLR as “a temporary database of the subscribers who have roamed into the particular area, which it serves. Each base station in the network is served by exactly one VLR; hence a subscriber cannot be present in more than one VLR at a time”.

One of the main reasons attributed for this anomaly is the phenomenon of multiple-SIM card usage. This means that subscribers buy multiple connections and stay active with only one operator most of the time. So one subscriber may be part of several operators' subscriber base, but may be the active user of only one. With seven-eight new operators coming on board over the last couple of years, and the low-tariff regime that was ushered as competition intensified, allowed subscribers take and discard connections quite easily.

There is also the rising phenomenon of dual-SIM phone usage. Indian mobile phone manufacturers such as Micromax and Karbon Mobile as well as many international ones such as Samsung have been able to offer dual-SIM phones at cheap rates. Voice and Data, in a recent report, indicates that more than one-third of handsets sold in the quarter ended December 2010 was a dual- or triple-SIM slot phone, as compared to less than one in hundred in the quarter ended March 2009. It appears, therefore, that the phenomenon of ‘active' subscribers being much lower than total subscribers could be due to a combination of the above factors.

Operator level granularity

The TRAI has also released data pertaining to active subscribers as a proportion of their total subscribers. More than 90 per cent of Bharti Airtel and Idea Cellular's subscribers are active, while Vodafone (79.5 per cent) and RCom (64.1 per cent) have a lower proportion of active subscribers.

BSNL, Aircel and Tata Teleservices have only a little over half their subscribers as active ones, going by data from their respective VLRs. New operators such as Etisalat, Uninor, Videocon and Sistema Shyam have fared poorly on this count with only 30-50 per cent of their base being active, indicating that the larger operators continue to command consistent usage from subscribers. It remains to be seen if the phenomenon persist after the much-touted consolidation in the operators space happens and the tariff war peaks out.

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