Idea Cellular beats Airtel, Vodafone at MNP game

The numbers are in, and contrary to many expectations, India’s number portability has actually ended up helping the big three incumbent operators — Idea Cellular, Vodafone and Airtel.

As of March end, a total 4.2 crore subscribers have used India’s mobile number portability — 15 months after they were introduced in January 2011.

The sheer number is a big victory for the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), which expected a porting rate of 5 to 6 percent, even as several industry officials thought the regulator was being too optimistic.

Many operators, especially the big ones, thought porting rate would be around 2%.

However, with 4.2 crore subscribers at the end of March 2012, India’s MNP usage rate is a healthy 7%, based on the number of subscribers, and about 5%, based on the number of connections.

While porting rates may be more than what the big operators wished for, they may find consolation in another aspect of the numbers — it has not been as bad for them as they feared.

While many small operators thought giving consumers the option of keeping their number while changing their operator would work in their favor, actual experience has been the reverse.

While big operators have indeed seen huge number of subscribers leave their network, particularly Bharti Airtel, the exit has been compensated by the influx of subscribers from other networks — especially those wishing to switch from the CDMA technology to GSM.

Though Airtel saw the largest number of people leaving any network — at close to 1 crore (96 lakh to be exact), it also saw 1.08 crore people move in through MNP.

In the end, Airtel had a net gain of 12 lakh subscribers at the end of March 2012.

That said, Airtel was not the choice of most subscribers who wanted to shift into an established GSM operator. That credit went to Vodafone.

While only 1.08 crore subscribers ported in to Airtel, 1.10 crore (2 lakh more than Airtel) chose Vodafone as their porting destination.

Vodafone also lost much fewer subscribers than Airtel. While Airtel lost 96 lakh, Vodafone lost just 81.5 lakh subscribers.

As a result, while Airtel’s net gain from MNP was only 12 lakh, it was 28.9 lakh for Vodafone.

The crown for getting the maximum benefit from MNP belonged to Idea Cellular. The firm saw just 5.97 lakh users leave its network through the scheme, while 9.3 lakh joined it.

In other words, it had a net gain of 33.2 lakh subscribers — thrice as much as Airtel’s and more than Vodafone.

As expected, the biggest losers of subscribers were the CDMA operators — Reliance Communications and Tata Indicom (now Tata DoCoMo CDMA). The first had a net loss of 14.75 lakh customers while the second had a net loss of 12.1 lakh customers.

The numbers would indicate two things:

1) Subscribers were tired of not having enough handset variety in CDMA, and
2) The two CDMA operators failed to tap this segment of their customer base to their newly launched GSM services.

The main culprit in the failure of CDMA operators to win their subscribers to their new GSM networks would be the lack of maturity in their network coverage.

Subscribers who wished to move to GSM simply chose bigger operators whose networks could be relied upon to keep them connected to their loved ones in most places.

This assumption is also be borne out by the fact that the GSM networks of these two operators — Reliance Communications and Tata DoCoMo — also saw huge net subscriber losses.

For example, Reliance Communications’ GSM network lost 13.5 lakh subscribers through MNP till March, while TATA GSM lost 5.1 lakh customers.

BSNL saw a net loss of just 7.6 lakh subscribers.

Most of the new operators, including Uninor, Videocon and Aircel, also saw large numbers of subscribers move out, presumably to more established operators like Idea.

For example, Aircel lost 3.6 lakh, Uninor lost 2.6 lakh and Videocon lost 2.7 lakh net subscribers see charts below.