People on bicycles pass a Jio store in Kolkata on July 13, 2020. Reliance Jio holds a virtual monopoly on telecom technology in India. Photo: AFP/Indranil Aditya/NurPhoto

India’s three privately-owned telecom companies gained subscribers and expanded their user base in February, weeks before the deadly second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic swept through the nation.

According to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, market leader Reliance Jio added 4.2 million subscribers in February, taking its mobile subscriber base to 414.9 million. In fact, this month the Mukesh Ambani-led company added more than double the number of subscribers it had in January (1.9 million).

Rival Bharti Airtel added 3.7 million subscribers and its subscriber base now stands at 348.3 million. Its new subscriber addition was lackluster compared with January (5.8 million).

Interestingly, Vodafone Idea added 652,625 users (first time since October 2019), as it expanded its user base to 282.6 million in February. It had lost 57.7 million customers in the past 15 months. However, the two state-owned companies Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd and Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Ltd lost subscribers.

According to the telecom data watchdog, Reliance Jio and Bharti Airtel have widened their customer market shares to 35.54% (35.43%) and 29.83% (29.72%) respectively over the previous month, while Vodafone’s share narrowed to 24.20% (24.32%) despite adding subscribers. The overall addition of wireless subscribers in February was 8.2 million.

Reliance Jio recently said that in the January-March quarter it had 426.2 million subscribers, having added 15.4 million users. This is more than three times over the December quarter when it had added 5 million subscribers. Airtel and Vodafone Idea had nearly 308 million and 269.8 million at December-end, but haven’t yet declared March-end numbers.

Active users

Market leader Reliance Jio, however, fared poorly with regard to active subscribers and among the top three telcos its count was the lowest. According to the Visitor Location Register, a key metric reflecting the number of active subscribers on a mobile network, Bharti Airtel had 97.47% active users, followed by Vodafone Idea (90.61%), while Reliance Jio came a distant third (78.16%).

However, the localized lockdowns imposed by various states from March onward may prove to be a dampener, especially among prepaid subscribers. Last year, during the April-June quarter, the country’s telecom subscriber base shrank by 17 million. The Indian government had imposed a two-month-long strict nationwide lockdown from March 25 to May 25 to curb the spread of the first wave of Covid-19.