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Bharti not No 1: Tata Tele, RCOM unseat it 7 times in 2009
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Unlike 2008, when market leader Bharti Airtel topped the charts for monthly customer additions for all 12 months, this year has witnessed a topsy-turvy battle for the first place. In the first 11 months of 2009, three telcos - Reliance Communications, Bharti Airtel and Tata Teleservices - have all occupied the top slot with each having a minimum three month reign at the helm, a clear indicator that customers go in for the lowest tariffs, even if the difference were to be only a few paise.

Such has been the competition that even in the GSM space alone, Vodafone Essar had displaced Bharti Airtel in March and October to take the top slot in customer additions among operators using this technology platform. Ever since it launched its per second billing scheme and per call pricing for its CDMA customers, Tata Teleservices has occupied the top slot for the last four months. This is also the first year that multiple companies have occupied the number one slot.

The slugfest between thirteen mobile phone firms has also seen India add a record 140 million customers in the first 11 months of 2009. In fact, data released by telecom regulator TRAI on Tuesday reveal that India's cellular base crossed the 500-million mark in November 2009 and its operators added 17.65 million new cellular users during this month, the highest ever since mobile services have been launched in India. This has also taken the country's teledensity to over 46%. At current growth rates, India is set to register over 155 million new cellular connections in 2009, the highest ever globally during a calendar year.

The biggest turnaround story in 2009 has been that of Tata Teleservices which did not register a presence in the top three players in terms of monthly growth during the fist half of 2009. The telco, which offers services on both GSM and CDMA platforms, has since August become a runaway leader, also forcing the industry to respond and replicate its price cuts and billing strategy. "We have added close to 15 million new subscribers over the last four months - this figure itself is a testimony to the efforts that have been put into making our network and services the best in the industry. Clearly, these are times for extreme innovation and we are glad that our offerings are being adopted by subscribers in a big way," Tata Teleservices MD Anil Sardana said in a statement.

Industry executives point out that while Reliance Communications was a leader by a huge margin in subscriber additions in January-March '09 period on the basis of their free minutes launch offer for its GSM operations, its additions fell substantially during April-October after this scheme was over, compelling the Anil Ambani-promoted telco to launch another tariff-initiative around October-November. "With tariff now more-or-less at parity, it remains to be seen how sustainable are their net additions," an executive with a GSM operator said.

Another executive with a GSM telco said that incumbent operators on this platform were not 'unduly worried' about Tatas' pace of growth over the last four months: "The company (TTSL) was struggling with net additions till it launched its GSM operations. However, since these are new circles, what gets reflected as net additions for them are actually gross new acquisitions since there would not be any churn for such recent customer acquisitions, unlike the rest of the industry. With ageing of the existing base, the operator will start seeing normal churn and the net additions will drop even while the gross additions may still be the same as before," this executive, who did not want to be named, added.

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