Dialling the wrong numbers

Dialling the wrong numbers

It is one of the most cited data points about India over the last six months.

In April, a United Nations think tank said that there were more Indians with mobile phone connections than there were those with access to proper toilets. At the time, the report by the United Nations University, referring to 2008 data, said that there were 366 million people with access to toilets, as against 564 million people with mobile phone connections.

This comparison perfectly superimposed India’s problems with basic infrastructure, over its eagerness to adopt technology. It was almost too perfect.

Since then everyone, from hardware vendors to dot-com entrepreneurs, has screamed this from the rooftops. Yes we have huge issues in this country. But look at how many people are buying mobile phones and going online!

Unfortunately recent data by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) pierces this bubble somewhat.

According to Visitor Location Register data published by Trai, only 70% of mobile phone connections were active at the end of September; i.e. out of 688 million subscribers, only 482 million were live on 30 September .

The data has caused some concern among various telecom operators as reported in this newspaper.

But the gap could be even larger. A recent KPMG report indicates that around 40% of all new phones sold in India could be dual-SIM handsets.

This means the monthly growth figure cited in the report, of 2.55% in subscriptions, may translate only to a growth of around 1.65% in new users. Not to mention new users with existing connections, who could drop this further.

Adjusting Trai’s window for measurement could also have an impact. Many users think nothing of using and discarding SIMs after short freebie periods. Weekly windows of measurement will capture this churn better.

While this doesn’t throw the India telecom story into the toilet, it gives it a large reality check. This new data should help analysts and prepare tech entrepreneurs.

The onus is now on Trai to create a transparent reporting system that can catch all such nuances with greater granularity. Even if this means rubbing some operators the wrong way. What’s bad for PowerPoint is good for the country.

Has India’s cellphone story been too optimistic? Tell us at views@livemint.com