Cell’s Mobile Story

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Despite barriers put up by the security establishment and special circumstances prevailing in Kashmir, the valley enjoys high penetration of cell phone connections.

In October when Idea Cellular, the youngest of the seven cell phone service providers in India launched its 3G service in Srinagar, one of its executives said the company understood the concerns of the security agencies have in the state. “We have learnt to live with the security apparatus and we are working closely with the MHA and other security agencies.” Anish Roy, Idea Cellular’s COO for north India. “It (market) is difficult but rewarding,” added his colleague.

Undoubtedly, the cell phone is J&K fastest growth story. The battle over its introduction, resisted by the security establishment, gave the service a hype that otherwise would have required millions of rupees for promotion. By the end of 2004 there were only two players servicing over 200 thousand users. Then there was no looking back. The numbers tripled in 2005, doubled again in 2006 and sustained a growth that eventually pushed it to reach half a crore in January 2010. However, by September 2010, the numbers had dwindled to 46 lakh.

Policy interventions contributed negatively. An outright ban on prepaid services on the request of the state government was the first shock. Second shock came when bulk SMSs were banned and later this service was totally withdrawn. Though the pre-paid service was resumed, they lack the SMS facility which forces the user spend more. Harsh verification procedures make operators cancel SIMs summarily, sometimes in thousands by a single stroke.

By the end of November, the cell phone penetration was more than 59,26,526 – which means almost half of the population living in J&K has access to the mobile phone. Currently it is the Barti Airtel that dominates the market with a share of 33.54 percent chased closely by Aircell (Dishnet Wireless) by 26.21 percent. The state run BSNL that introduced the service and owns most of the monitoring and the backbone has relegated to third slot with 15.38 percent. Vodafone controls 11.04 percent, Reliance Communications 9.21 percent, Idea Cellular has 2.56 percent share and Tata Services has 2.03 percent market share. Interestingly, though BSNL has its 3G infrastructure in place the launch has been delayed for unknown reasons.

On an average J&K users spend an estimated Rs 1000 crores a year on the mobile handsets and the services the operators offer. Of the entire clientele, around two-third is from Kashmir contributing most of the revenue. But all the operators have their main offices in Jammu, apparently for logistical and situational reasons. Interestingly, not many of them are interested in handholding the local economy. Barring Airtel that has a BPO working here and AirCell having a similar facility in Jammu, all others have diverted their customer care to other states, mostly to Punjab. An official intervention should have triggered a change in the mindset of the honchos heading these services. Is anybody listening?

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