Wrong Number: Why Telecom's Subscriber Base is Dropping

Telecom operators have started culling out non-compliant and dormant accounts, resulting in a drop in subscriber numbers. This is a good thing and the reported decline will have no real impact on revenue or activity since the cull is mainly of dormant or erroneous accounts.

Mohammad Chowdhury
Updated: Dec 22, 2012 08:38:49 AM UTC

Mohammad Chowdhury is PwC's Telecom, Media and Technology consulting leader across Australia, SE Asia and New Zealand. Until recently he built the practice in India where he became one of the most quoted industry experts in the country. Mohammad has served as an adviser to telecom sector reform in Saudi Arabia, Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, Slovakia, Poland and Slovenia and during 2015 as national telecommunications adviser to the Government of Myanmar. Previously in his career he has conducted significant strategic roles at Vodafone and IBM. He is quoted regularly by the Financial Times, Wall Street Journal, BBC, CNBC, TV-18 and NDTV. Mohammad has worked in 83 countries, lived in 7 and speaks 6 languages. He has a BA in Politics, Philosophy and Economics from Oxford University, an MPhil in Economics from Cambridge University, and strategy training from Harvard Business School. He was born in London, has family origins in Bangladesh, and is married with two sons.

Last month, India’s GSM operators lost nine million subscribers between them, bringing the total number down to 664 million from October’s 673 million. Bharti Airtel lost 2.8 million users, Vodafone 2.4 million, Idea Cellular 1.6 million, Aircel 1.5 million, and Uninor and Videocon 0.4 million each [1].

CDMA operators such as Reliance Communications and Tata Teleservices weathered similar losses, and overall the Indian mobile market has seen some 30 million disconnections in the last four months.

With 2012 already having been an annis horibilis for Indian telecom, are matters going from bad to worse now?  Have Indians had enough of mobile and started giving up on telecommunications altogether?

Subscriber numbers are dwindling because operators are doing some much-needed cleaning up of their subscriber bases. There are two reasons why they're doing this now.

First, the government recently introduced new norms for subscriber verification, insisting that certain fields such as 'name' and 'address' must be properly verified before anybody can be given a connection. To comply with the new standards and avoid stiff penalties, operators have been clearing their registers of connections that don’t comply.  They have been introducing new processes to comply as well, and have hired thousands of sales staff onto their books to ensure that customer verification is done by employees and not agents.

Second, operators have been cleaning up their “VLRs” to ensure that more subscribers on the network are 'live'. Each operator has a Virtual Location Register (or VLR, given telcophiles’ knack of inventing three-letter acronyms for anything that has an on button) which is a database that provides a count of all the SIM cards being serviced on an operator’s network.

Operators around the world have policies of disconnecting those SIMs on the VLR that have no activity over a period of time (say 90 days) and therefore the numbers reported in most markets are usually an accurate representation of the “real” number of users.

But we are unique in India and here the gap between reported and live connections has only grown: Today only 77 percent of the industry’s reported 900 million+ subscribers are “live.”  Now that operators have started culling out non-compliant and dormant accounts, subscriber numbers are going down.

In essence this is a good thing, and the reported decline will have no real impact on revenue or activity since the cull is mainly of dormant or erroneous accounts, and relatively few from active subscribers.

Newspapers claiming that operators “haven’t added a single subscriber” in October are erroneous.  The industry continues to add around 6 million new subscribers every month.  Things may be bad in Indian telecom, but not that bad after all.

[1] Source: Cellular Operators’ Association of India (COAI)

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