India’s missing mobile subscribers

Reliance Communications and Bharti Airtel have both rushed to launch their respective tablets bundled with 3G data plans. Bharti’s Beetel Magiq costs Rs. 9,999 (US$218) and Reliance’s 3G Tab costs Rs. 12,999. With the market flush with cheap Android tablets and the iPad, why did Reliance and Bharti launch their tablets now? To cash in on the 3G data plans as the money from voice services is dwindling.

And why are revenues from voice services dwindling? In a dog eat dog world, the telcos have slashed tariffs like crazy just to stay competitive and amass millions of subscribers. In the process, the telcos forgot that more subscribers doesn’t necessarily mean more revenues. Maybe the telcos did realize that more subscribers doesn’t necessarily translate to more revenues but they hardly had a choice. With 15 operators in India’s 23 telecom circles, even saying the landscape is hypercompetitive would be an understatement.

The result of this hyper competition is hyper ventilation with a total of 851.7 million mobile connections at the end of June 2011. Just like more subscribers doesn’t mean more revenues, mobile connections doesn’t mean mobile subscribers. Of the 850 million mobile subscribers, the TRAI-maintained visitor location register (VLR) has recorded  594.77 million connections on its peak day. Which means  256.93 million connections were inactive. 257 mobile numbers have neither placed a call nor received a call on the peak day of June 2011. This simple math leaves us to this conclusion :

One in three mobile connections in India are inactive

Though it sounds sensationalist to say that one in three mobile connections are inactive, the statement is not true and only takes care of the pessimistic side of the story. Fortunately, there’s an optimistic side of the story which doesn’t track the switched off mobiles, phones that ran out of battery and phones which moved out of coverage area on this fateful day of June 2011.

Visitor Location Register is a temporary database of subscribers who have roamed in the area of a particular base station. Each base station is provided with one VLR, avoiding double entries. In addition to the VLR, there is a Home Location Register (HLR) which is maintained by the telcos. This uses the unique identifier called International Mobile Subscriber Identity (IMSI) associated with a SIM card. This is what Airtel and Reliance maintains. HLR count is what the telcos report to TRAI. The HLR database is bounced against the VLR database on the peak day to arrive at the 257 million subscriber figure we have been talking about.

VLR – HLR == The Delta

The truth is somewhere between our optimistic side and the pessimistic side.

While collecting the data throughout the month would definitely help determine the total number of mobile subscribers in India, it is an impossible task. Which only means one thing, we never know the exact number of mobile subscribers in India. At best we can provide a range: India has 595 million to 852 million mobile subscribers at the end of June 2011.