Although the race is far from over, current subscriber numbers indicate close competition among 3G service providers. Current standings are: BSNL, Airtel, Reliance, Docomo and Idea, in that order.
Public sector units like BSNL and MTNL, which got 3G spectrum licenses a year ahead of private players and have been offering services for as long, failed to get many takers, which raised doubts as to whether 3G would be accepted by the masses.
However, those fears did not deter private operators from bidding heavily for 3G spectrum. Now they are heaving a sigh of relief with users opting for 3G services despite them being costly.
BSNL and MTNL, which offer 3G in more than 700 towns and cities across the country, have three million users, in which MTNL's contribution is minuscule, at a few lakh.
On the other hand, Airtel started offering services only in January this year and has gone on to become the largest private 3G operator with two million customers in the first week of April. According to some unofficial figures, Airtel now has close to three million 3G users.
The company has spectrum in 13 circles, has launched services in only 40 cities, and plans to reach 1,500 cities by March next year. From then on, the rate at which people adopt its 3G services is expected to be even higher.
Airtel is closely followed by Reliance Communications, which launched 3G services in November last year. Despite it not having been officially announced, we have learnt from reliable sources that RCom has two million users as of now.
Even though RCom is one of the biggest losers in the mobile number portability game, the early launch of 3G and rapid expansion to reach more than 150 towns and cities have helped it to attract a large number of subscribers fast. The operator plans to expand into more towns and cities soon. It has 3G spectrum in 13 circles across the country.
Tata Docomo is at the fourth place with 1.5 million customers. Docomo, Tata's Japanese partner, which is credited with the first 3G network in the world, also became the first private operator in India to launch the service. It has already launched services in all the nine circles with more than 100 cities already covered.
Tata Docomo's success can be attributed to its convenient tariff plans that include unlimited data usage options, along with some of the best value added services in the industry. Its VAS services have been very successful, which is evident from the fact the one of its subsidiaries ( TTML [S1] , which offers the same services,) earns 19 per cent of its revenue from VAS services (something all the other service providers want to achieve).
Idea Cellular is fifth in the 3G race with more than one million 3G subscribers. High decibel advertisement campaigns and a very aggressive launch have helped it to arrive at this number despite being one of the last to launch 3G services, at the end of March this year.
In some circles like Kerala, Idea offers almost complete coverage across the state. In its nine circles it has already launched services in more than 400 towns, which is far greater than any other service provider. It plans to add 10 cities every day for the next one year, which will make the service ubiquitous in all the circles where it has 3G spectrum.
Vodafone and Aircel have not shared their 3G subscriber figures. Given their success in MNP, the network desirability of Vodafone is high, but it has joined the party late and is adding towns and cities gradually, so we expect it to have significant numbers.
Aircel, though it might not be in the top 5, has healthy subscriber numbers as well. Just like Docomo, its focus on VAS services has paid good dividends, so we expect it to do well with 3G. However, we do not expect it to have a million subscribers just yet.
Stel, which has spectrum in three circles, has not yet launched its services.
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