India’s mobile number portability (MNP) scheme has had a mixed response in the first five months of the financial year, according to telecom regulator Trai’s data.
The latest is the July-September quarter, in which, of the 140 million MNP activations, one third (52 million) were for new numbers and two thirds (81 million) were for existing numbers, according to Trai. These figures are modest by world standards, but surprisingly better than last year: at the same point in the previous fiscal, the number of new MNP activations was 15% higher than at the same point in the year before. It was also a little worse than in the March quarter. This could be explained partly by the generally weak nature of quarterly Indian growth, with short-term factors weighing on consumption and a slowdown in investment dampening the rural economy. MNP is also thought to have benefited by having started a few months earlier than in 2018 (in June and July 2018). And by the anecdotal evidence I’ve heard, MNP volumes are picking up in the current October-December quarter, also benefiting by having started earlier in 2019.
Whatever the reason, the latest data suggests that, even if not everyone is jumping to other numbers, almost all are at least questioning their existing numbers. And that seems to be reflected not just in the number of MNP transactions, but also in the details that Trai publishes. Last month, for instance, when the number of MNP activations was about 50 million, Vodafone lost 59.17 lakh subscribers and was the second-worst-affected telecom operator, after Idea Cellular, of the six top companies in terms of mobile number portability-out and incoming. Vodafone, it should be noted, has been embroiled in the latest round of regulatory pressure from Jio and other companies, with regulatory bodies reaping an alleged windfall of over $20 billion from the sale of government bonds in 2018-19, a direct result of the rapid growth in mobile data. With Mukesh Ambani’s company clearly showing signs of becoming more aggressive in the mobile sphere, Vodafone is surely not going to be in much better shape in future, no matter what Vodafone’s stake in Idea Cellular is.
Meanwhile, both Airtel and Reliance Jio saw their subscriber numbers drop in the last two quarters, by about 7.9 million and 8.5 million, respectively. Although Vodafone and Idea Cellular’s numbers did rise to more than a billion combined, this is not a cause for celebration, either.
One piece of good news is that despite the competition between Vodafone and Idea, it seems possible for them to retain their share of the market; the average annual growth rate in mobile numbers portalled by the two companies last year was about 10%, a far slower pace than in the previous year. The biggest question is, however, for the sector: how long will the low price competition continue? If Jio continues growing at its present pace, it will probably cause any of the existing companies, other than Jio, to suffer the fate of Alok Kejriwal and the pork flute in Roopa Ganguly’s first book.