The number of people using mobile phones in India reached 17.39 million by the start of September, more than double the figure recorded twelve months earlier according to the Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI). Operators added 1.09 million customers in August alone, vastly outstripping take up rates of wireline services, which added 38,000 customers during the month. In a country with a population of over a billion, however, the addition is little more than a drop in the ocean, raising cellular penetration to just 1.69%. The country’s contentious CDMA-based wireless in the local loop (WiLL) service providers witnessed a lull in their impressive growth, signing up 0.68 million customers during the period, a drop of more than 50% on the previous month. A number of mobile operators have dubbed WiLL an illegal back-door entry into the wireless sector, but thus far have failed in their attempts to have the licences revoked. The two camps are due to lock horns once more over the Telecoms Regulatory Authority of India’s (TRAI) latest proposals on unified licensing for fixed and wireless services.
India’s fledgling wireless market is well on course to reach a predicted 120 million users by 2008. The obvious growth potential of the sector has prompted a host of telecoms operators to invest in India and the past year has seen both the launch of new players and the expansion of coverage by existing operators. State-owned fixed line operator Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd (BSNL) entered the market in October 2002 and is due to become India’s first nationwide mobile network. Impressive growth within the sector in recent years masks the fact that tariffs remain high, excluding swathes of the population, and cost cutting is likely to become a regular feature in this increasingly competitive market. Aside from BSNL, the principal operators include SingTel-backed Bharti Televentures and Hutchison Whampoa’s local presence Hutchison Telecom. However, the likes of Idea Cellular – backed by AT&T Wireless, the Tata Group and the Birla conglomerate – Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Ltd (MTNL) and BPL Communications are intent on increasing the pressure in a busy market.