Millions of mobile phone users in India may have to look for new service providers with three telecom operators likely to switch off their networks from January 18. However, the imminent network shutdown offers a window of opportunity for other operators to pick up these subscribers.
Telecom operators Telenor, Videocon and Tata Teleservices, which collectively have about 10 million subscribers in the circles where their licences expire next month, are among the nine telcos whose mobile permits were cancelled by the Supreme Court in February this year in the 2G-spectrum allocation case. The affected operators have permission to use their allocated spectrum till January 18.
In a recent re-run of the auction, Norway's Telenor was able to secure airwaves in only six circles, excluding Mumbai, Kolkata and West Bengal where it has nearly 7.5 million customers.
Similarly Videocon, which managed to retain permits in six regions, will have to shut down GSM operations in 11 circles including the key markets of Mumbai, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Kolkata, Kerala, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Rajasthan, which together account for its nearly 1.7 million users.
The count of affected subscribers is based on end-October data provided by the Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI).
Tata Teleservices, which chose not to bid again for the CDMA airwaves it held in the loss-making zones of Assam, the northeast and J&K, will disconnect services to nearly 300,000 subscribers in these areas.
The government has said it will hold another round of spectrum auctions before March 2013. An inter-ministerial panel is set to meet on Friday to decide on the reserve price for this auction.
A spokesman for the Telenor Group said, "We have been able to ensure business continuity in six circles. In the remaining regions—Mumbai, Kolkata and West Bengal—our services will remain operational at least till January 18." He declined comment on the fate of its nearly 1,200-strong workforce in these regions.
The operator's Indian unit, Uninor, has lost revenue market share in the three months ended September, which analysts at Goldman Sachs attributed to "its reduced footprint going into the 2G auctions".
Videcocon group chairman Venugopal Dhoot did not respond to an emailed query sent by ET seeking information on its plan and potential job losses.
Tata Teleservices, however, said it is taking necessary steps with respect to employees, customers and business partners in the circles where it will stop operations. "TTSL will close down operations in these circles from January 18 and announcements regarding steps being taken will be made in due course," a company spokeswoman said. She did not give more details on the affected workforce.
Operator Sistema Shyam, a joint venture between Russian conglomerate Sistema and Shyam Teleservices that offers CDMA services under the MTS brand, may also lose 16 million customers next month.
The company, which has maintained that being a pure play CDMA operator, its legal case is significantly different compared to other mobile operators has filed a curative petition before the Supreme Court seeking restoration of its licences. The petition was filed on May 4 this year but has not been listed for hearing till date.
With no clarity on whether Sistema will procure spectrum in the next auction or whether its curative petition will be heard before January 18, the affected subscriber-base is likely to rise to 26 million.
Experts, however, are divided on whether telcos will go all out to grab new customers in circles where these operators are slated to shut down operations.
"The industry is now mature and mobile phone companies will thoroughly evaluate whether they want to grab more customers, and which ones in particular," said Ernst & Young's Prashant Singhal. "Since a larger portion of these customers would already have two to three SIMs and would be extremely price conscious, they could easily abandon their third or fourth service provider and stick with the ones offering the lowest call and text messaging rates."
Hemant Joshi, partner at Deloitte Haskins & Sells, added that market leaders are likely to do marketing in small pockets for potential customers and not incur heavy cost on dealer or retailers commissions.
But Mahesh Uppal, director of Com First (India), a consultancy dealing in telecom regulatory affairs, disagrees. "Most customers of the cancelled licensees probably do not generate high revenues. Therefore, most operators will not actively seek them. But they would not shun them either since they may be low revenue generating customers but are not "net cost" for a telco," Uppal said, adding that the incremental costs of expanding customer base in a wireless business as opposed to a landline scenario are negligible.
Analysts GV Giri and Balaji Subramanian of IIFL Institutional Equities said in a recent note to clients that the main beneficiaries of Uninor's revenue market share loss in the four suspended circles were Bharti Airtel (Karnataka and Kerala), Vodafone (Orissa), Aircel and RCom (both in Tamil Nadu). Telenor's India unit scaled down operations in these circles earlier this year to optimise costs.