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Do we really have 374 million mobile Internet subscribers in India?
Do we really have 374 million mobile Internet subscribers in India?
By: Mrutyunjay Mishra

In a two part series, Mrutyunjay Mishra Co Founder, Juxt Consult writes on the Mobile Internet numbers in India & the state of the industry currently. Part 1  reveals the reality of Mobile Internet Subscribers in our country.  

A close friend sent me a mail with two links, saying that, ‘78% of all statistics that he comes across are lies’
J As someone who is responsible for generating a lot of statistics, I have to clarify these numbers. 

One of these links said that, according to (Telecom Regulatory Authority of India) TRAI there are ‘374 million mobile Internet subscriber in India’. The other link quoted a StatCounter charts showing that ‘50% of Internet users in India are accessing Internet from their mobile devices’. I will write a separate post on the 2nd link quoting StatCouter Global Stats. For the time being let’s look at the TRAI numbers from the following link:

TRAI reports what mobile operators report to it in a standard format, against certain standard, agreed-upon definitions. They, in turn, collate the numbers and put it in press releases. In all TRAI reports, historically sold subscriptions/SIMs are called ‘subscribers’. SIM is not an ‘individual’, and neither TRAI being a regulator can now say so publicly, nor many analysts, journalists, mainline media and great bloggers. We all have our obvious reasons for not accepting it; it is like our childhood story of everyone telling the king that he is wearing a great dress. None can lie to him; he is the king.

But you must understand and ask your basic intelligence whether in a country of 1.2 billion people, with 32% below 12 years old (2011 Census) and 25% to 40% of the population below poverty line (depending on which estimate you trust), how can we have 951 million telephone subscribers? I am certain that we are yet to find all babies in India holding a mobile phone (though occasionally I see some holding their parent’s phone), and of course, lots of people are still running around to put together their two square meals a day... forget affording a mobile phone to download ring tones or access Facebook to post pictures.

Peak virtual location register (VLR) subscriptions/SIMs as on 31 March 2012 were 683.02 Million – translating into 74.31% of the total subscribers reported by TRAI. That means there are 683 million SIMs that got active on a particular day of the month. Bear in mind that it is not ‘average VLR actives’ (‘peak’ against ‘average’ is an old trick of jacking up the numbers).

My guess:  “I hope TRAI deliberately introduced the VLR number when Juxt made some noise in July 2010 about the wrong reporting. They may slowly introduce a third ‘average VLR actives’ because ‘peak VLR’ will tone down the old error for some time and then average VLR will completely tone it down to the correct number, which operators usually use for internal decisions. Thus, this calculation mistake happening for years will possibly be corrected over a couple of years’ time.”

Therefore, please safely assume that we don't have more than 70% of that vastly reported, and quoted 683.02, number (478 to 500 million unique people) in India using mobile phones -- because the same individual may carry multiple SIMs (which are with lifetime validity), and in any case, 30% of all mobile users carry more than one active SIM. (Check an interesting chart on pages 6 and 7 of this PDF – Proportion of VLR subscribers - Circle wise.) Read Annexure IV for the definition that creates this stupid confusion that many of us know and understand but never acknowledge.

Nowhere does the same press release talk about wireless data service numbers. Is TRAI avoiding details on those two numbers, ‘Broadband’ and ‘Data service’? Possibly they are’ maybe it is a diktat for the regulator, in India’s great telecom story, that since those two numbers are the black ships, don’t exposé them much. It is embarrassing for all of us.

In one of their older releases of Performance Indicator Report, they shared the so-called wireless subscribers data (that our journalist and blogger friends all over picked up to make noise). Refer to page 33 of this report: Chart 1.18 reads “Growth of wireless subscribers capable of Accessing Data services/Internet”. The operative word is "Capable of Accessing". But we all read what we wanted to. Wow, “Mobile Internet is so big!”

That chart shows that there are 373.84 million subscriptions that are capable of accessing data services (as on 30 September 2011), and the total wireless subscriber base at that point being 906.93 million, this adds up to 41% of all SIMs at that point of time. That's the second confusion of my friends – “How come we have such a big Mobile Internet Users Base in India?”

This confusion has become the reality. Basically, any phone connection connected to a BTS tower that can access data service because mobile operators have that ability for those many connections (irrespective of user’s handset’s ability to receive data or the user’s awareness, need and interest regarding data services or even actual access to data services) is (mis)interpreted by a few as data service subscriber (TRAI never made a mistake). Therefore, according to experts on data, we currently have 41% data service subscribers in India as on quarter ending 30 September 2011.

In the other news today, mobile operators only make around 13% of their total revenue from data service (whatever that means). How is that possible with almost half of the guys using data service, and particularly when data service is more expensive than voice service?

Conclusion: We are yet to have so many mobile Internet users in India. We will definitely reach that number someday but we will definitely take some decent amount of time to reach there.

-To be cont.-