Mobile telephony : 2009

Unlike 2008, when market leader Bharti Airtel topped the charts for monthly customer additions for all 12 months, this year has witnessed a topsy-turvy battle for the first place. In the first 11 months of 2009, three telcos — Reliance Communications, Bharti Airtel and Tata Teleservices — have all occupied the top slot with each having a minimum three month reign at the helm, a clear indicator that customers go in for the lowest tariffs, even if the difference were to be only a few paise. Such has been the competition that even in the GSM space alone, Vodafone Essar had displaced Bharti Airtel in March and October to take the top slot in customer additions among operators using this technology platform. Ever since it launched its per second billing scheme and per call pricing for its CDMA customers, Tata Teleservices has occupied the top slot for the last four months. This is also the first year that multiple companies have occupied the number one slot. The slugfest between thirteen mobile phone firms has also seen India add a record 140 million customers in the first 11 months of 2009. In fact, data released by telecom regulator Trai on Tuesday reveal that India’s cellular base crossed the 500-million mark in November 2009 and its operators added 17.65 million new cellular users during this month, the highest ever since mobile services have been launched in India. This has also taken the country’s teledensity to over 46%. At current growth rates, India is set to register over 155 million new cellular connections in 2009, the highest ever globally during a calendar year. The biggest turnaround story in 2009 has been that of Tata Teleservices which did not register a presence in the top three players in terms of monthly growth during the fist half of 2009. The telco, which offers services on both GSM and CDMA platforms, has since August become a runaway leader, also forcing the industry to respond and replicate its price cuts and billing strategy. Industry executives point out that while Reliance Communications was a leader by a huge margin in subscriber additions in January-March ’09 period on the basis of their free minutes launch offer for its GSM operations, its additions fell substantially during April-October after this scheme was over, compelling the Anil Ambani-promoted telco to launch another tariff-initiative around October-November.

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