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August 20, 1997



India's mobile phones can multiply. Really.

The number of cellular subscribers in the country is estimated to have crossed the half-million mark, placing it among the fastest growing wireless markets in the world.

Number of subscribers per circle (in thousands)
The cell phone user base, which was pegged at over 490,000 at the end of last month has scaled the crucial benchmark in the last two weeks, sources claim.

"The cellular network in the country has been adding 20,000 to 25,000 subscribers every month for two to three months. Going by that estimate, we have surely crossed the half-million mark. The networks in Bombay and Delhi alone activated 7,000 to 8,000 cell phones in the first two weeks of this month," says a cellular company's chief executive officer.

The half-million mark has been notched up in less than two years since cellular services were first introduced in the country.

GSM or 'global system for mobile communications' based cellular services first started in Delhi, Bombay, Madras and Calcutta in the second half of 1995.

The service started in the rest of the country geographically divided into circles, mostly analogous to states, late last year.

The growth in the number of cell phone users in the country is faster than that witnessed in the early years in comparable markets like China, Thailand, Brazil and Indonesia.

The Chinese cell phone market, for instance, touched the 500,000 mark in the sixth year of service rollout: late 1993.

Indonesia achieved the figure in 1996, almost six years after the service was introduced in the country. Similarly the Thai cellular market too was slow off the blocks. It reached the half-million figure in 1994, four years after two state-owned operators introduced cellular services in the country.

The only market that comes close to India in annual growth terms is Brazil. The South American country achieved the half-million subscriber base in the fourth year of operations. The half-million subscriber base is considered important in a growing cellular industry.

The analyst and industry sources label it the 'knee' of the market curve because the number of users tend to ramp sharply after it.

Consequently, cellular handset vendors have upped their projections for the Indian market by the turn of the century. "We expect the market to be about 4 million strong by 2000," says a senior executive of a handset maker.

The vendors had scaled down their projections to 2.5-3 million from an initially optimistic 5-6 million late last year. The growth in the cellular market, however, is mainly concentrated in the metropolitan cities. The eight providers Bharti Cellular, Sterling Cellular, Hutchinson Max, BPL Mobile, Skycell, RPG Cellular, Modi Telstra and Usha Martin account for over 400,000 of the half-million cell phone users in the country.

Delhi leads the number of cell phone subscribers in the country with 175,000. The two service providers, Bharti Cellular and Sterling Cellular, claim to have about a 100,000 customers each.

- Compiled from the Indian media

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