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Indian telecom market crowded by new entrants

india Updated: Dec 13, 2009 09:09 IST

AFP
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Stein-Erik Vellan, head of Norway's Uninor, the newest Indian mobile phone operator, insists his company will be one of the survivors in what has rapidly become a very crowded market.

Uninor, controlled by Norwegian telecom company Telenor, is the 14th player to enter India's cellular market, where subscriber numbers are rising so fast that in October the country added a record 16.67 million users.

But after soaring growth, industry revenues are flattening as rivals slug it out in a savage price battle. Analysts predict a brutal shake-out in the next 18 months.

"We know this is only the beginning of our journey -- we're here for the long term," Vellan said at Uninor's launch earlier this month in New Delhi.

Using the slogan "My time is now," squarely aimed at India's burgeoning youth, Uninor says it is unfazed by forecasts of consolidation in the market, which in 2000 had just two state-owned players.

"This is the fastest growing (mobile) market in the world. We want to be part of this story," said Vellan, managing director of Uninor, a joint venture of Telenor and Indian property developer Unitech.

Telenor is among a clutch of foreign telecom companies along with Britain's Vodafone, Japan's NTT DoCoMo and Russia's Sistema JSFC that have beaten a path to this country of 1.2 billion people in the past couple of years hoping to boost revenues and make up for saturated domestic markets.

The Cellular Operators' Association of India forecasts the country's mobile phones will number one billion by 2013, up from around 500 million currently.

Another four such launches are expected by March as new players tap the market. Among those in the wings are Emirates Telecommunications Corp, or Etisalat, along with India's Datacom Solutions and Loop Telecom.

But industry leaders and analysts say the market, even with leaping subscriber numbers, is getting too congested.

"The industry cannot support this many operators. Consolidation is the only way forward," T.R. Dua, director general of the Cellular Operators' Association of India, told AFP.

Already a no-holds-barred price war has driven down billing rates to under a cent a minute, hitting revenues and profits of market leaders such as Bharti Airtel and Reliance Communications.

Advertising billboards have sprouted everywhere offering new per-second billing plans.

"You're seeing subscriber growth, but profitability is under severe strain. It's not a good combination," Harit Shah, telecoms analyst at Karvy Stock Broking, told AFP.

Romal Shetty, India telecoms director at global consultancy KPMG, told AFP: "This is probably the most competitive market anywhere in the world with the lowest terriffs anywhere in the world, but this is not a sustainable model."

He predicted a "bloodbath" in the next 18 months as the sector consolidates. Smaller players will "get picked off but the really big ones, like Bharti, Reliance and Vodafone will survive," he said.

While Shetty sees the market shrinking to six or seven players, Dua, of the Cellular Operators' Association, says it could contract to four or five.

"Is India's telecom industry in trouble? The answer for the short term is, of course, yes," said Sanjay Chandra, managing director of Unitech, Uninor's part-owner.

Chandra said industry profitability "will undergo a correction and new operators will take longer to break even," but added that the potential over a three-to-five year time-frame was "tremendous".

KPMG's Shetty agreed that longer-term the sector "will be very attractive" as players gain from new subscribers and value-added services.

"We have 500 million subscribers now and we're expected to have one billion subscribers, and if 300 million to 400 million of the subscribers are middle class, the usage is going to be very significant," he said.