A few days ago, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), the industry watchdog, said the country's mobile phone subscriber base had reached an astounding 812 million, adding 20 million new connections in March. That should have been quite a milestone - going past the 800-million mark and inching toward 70 percent tele-density.
If only it were true!
This isn't speculation: The watchdog's figures and the market data speak for themselves, as also revealed by Voice&Data, that dug deeper into the figures, looked at the handset data, spoke to the industry and came up with some startling figures. The real number, the study said, was 500 million - that's the actual number of mobile users in India.
Why? The first is the regulator actually means 812 million "subscriptions", as in mobile phone numbers, and not "subscribers", as in distinct people or entities. For example, if you as an individual have two mobile numbers, you'll count as two subscribers.
The second is a whopper! It shows up in the watchdog's own footnote to its data in the press statement: "Active wireless subscribers on visitor location register as in March 2011 are 574 million."
This register is a database of active subscribers, currently being handled by the mobile switching centre which it serves. Each base station is served by only one register, so a mobile number cannot be present in more than one such registry at a time.
So the 574 million subscribers in the register for March means the remaining 238 million mobile numbers are inactive. They are mobile numbers, mostly prepaid, that have not been recharged or topped-up, allowing their validity to expire. Else, they are in the "grace period" before disconnection.
This grace period can vary a lot, stretching into months or a year, even though the bulk of these users is unlikely to renew and recharge. Therefore, out of the total of 812 million mobile numbers in March, the register shows, only 574 million were active.
Now these are also not simply prepaid mobile numbers that have run out of prepaid credit balance. They have also run past their SIM subscription validity period -- Some may also belong to postpaid users who have not paid bills and have been disconnected. It's a fair bet that most of these inactive mobile numbers aren't springing back to life.
Blame this on the proliferation of free SIMs: 1+1 offers, bundled SIMs, or the so-called "lifetime free" SIMs - all this adds up to extra SIMs which many don't use.
It also adds up to extra SIMs that people do use: The multi-SIM phenomenon. CyberMedia Research data shows 45 percent of all mobile handsets bought into India during October-December 2010 were dual- or triple-SIM phones.
So, even without firmer data on multi-SIM ownership, it's really big in India. Industry estimates it at 15-30 percent. Pick any 100 mobile users, and they will own 115 to 130 active SIMs among them. Other industry folks call this figure conservative, putting multi-SIM ownership at above 40 percent.
The Voice&Data study - went with the conservative approach, and assumed just 15 percent multiplicity, or 1.15 SIMs per user in India.
The math now becomes simple: 812 million mobile numbers of which 574 million are active on the registry. So that leaves 238 million inactive or grace-period mobile numbers. So, dividing 574 million mobile numbers by 1.15, one is left with 500 million real users. Now that's something. We've been over-estimating India's active mobile subscriber base by over 312 million? And computing tele-density at 67 percent, instead of 41 percent.
Tele-density is the number of phones per 100 people. So by using the TRAI figure of 574 million active mobile numbers, we get a "corrected tele-density" of 47 phones per 100 people. If you really want to know how many people really own and use a mobile phone subscription, you have to eliminate the duplication, leaving 41 percent tele-density.
Yet, that's also the silver lining.
Since we've been under-estimating the untapped or addressable market by at least 300 million, it also becomes the additional number of people who could buy handsets and connections beyond what is currently projected. That's something to be excited about.