India’s cellular service firms may have about a million less customers this month going by early estimates from the companies, who were asked by the Union government to verify addresses of their prepaid subscribers by end-March. The government, worried about the use of mobile phones by criminals, has asked cellular firms to disconnect services to recalcitrant users
The department of telecommunications has said it will fine operators Rs1,000 for each undocumented subscriber starting 1 April.
A sample study by the government last year had found that up to 40% of prepaid customer accounts did not have documentation such as address proof which is mandated under government rules before issuing a connection.
About 85% of the nearly 160 million mobile phone customers in India are prepaid subscribers who pay their bills through recharge vouchers bought from any of the thousands of retailers spread across the country.
“We didn’t wait till the eleventh hour to start taking punitive action. We began barring outgoing calls of defaulting subscribers a month ago,” Sanjay Kapoor, the joint president of Bharti Airtel Ltd, India’s biggest mobile phone company, said. “What we noticed was that they would come back with the documents within a day or two. As of now, defaulters make up less than 0.5% of our prepaid subscriber base.”
Services to such customers will be suspended from Sunday, Kapoor said in an interview on the weekend. Bharti Airtel had more than 35 million customers at the end of February.
The state-owned Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd (BSNL) also said on Saturday that it was on track to completing the verifications. “The final figures are yet to come in, but defaulters are only in the range of one to two lakh,” BSNL’s chairman and managing director, A.K. Sinha, said.
He also expects a large part of defaulting subscribers to submit the required documents when the disconnections begin.
BSNL has a large proportion of its over 25 million customers in rural areas.
Hutchison Essar, India’s No. 4 operator by subscribers, has undocumented customers of between one and 1.5 lakh, its managing director Asim Ghosh said on Sunday.
Prakash Nanani, chief executive of Spice Telecom, a regional cellular operator that runs networks in Karnataka and Punjab, said the undocumented subscribers with his company were about 50,000.
A spokesman for Reliance Communications, India’s second-biggest cellular company, said the company would comment on its documentation efforts this week.
T.V. Ramachandran, director general of the Cellular Operators’ Association of India, which represents GSM (short for global system for mobile communications, a European standard) cellular operators, said that none of the trade body’s members had sought any extension of the end-March deadline. “Some had completed the exercise more than a week ago,” he said. “Even 10 days ago, only about eight million subscribers were left undocumented by all the wireless operators.”
The Association of Unified Access Providers of India, which represents landline and cellular companies using the US-developed CDMA—short for code division multiple access— standard, said its members are yet to submit the final status of their progress.