It is an intriguing phenomenon. Indians talk less on their mobile phones in the second quarter of the fiscal year. Both Bharti Airtel and Idea Cellular, India's leading telecom operators, reported a decline in the usage per minute in the July to September period. The operators said it was a seasonal phenomenon and has been happening for the past couple of years, mainly because mobile usage in rural India drops in this period.
Bharti Airtel reported a four per cent sequential drop in average usage per customer to 437 minutes while Idea Cellular saw a 7.6 per cent fall to 368 minutes. Uninor's average minutes of usage per subscriber was marginally up, but muted compared to the previous quarter. It grew 1.8 per cent to 434 minutes, compared with a growth of 6.2 per cent in the quarter ending June.
Consequently, both Bharti Airtel and Idea reported a drop in average revenue per user (ARPU). Airtel's ARPU dropped four per cent to Rs 192 while Idea reported a six per cent fall to 164. Uninor's was constant at Rs 103.
"This quarter always sees a reduction," said Gopal Vittal, CEO of Bharti Airtel's India operations, after declaring the second quarter results. Rural customers spend a lot on mobiles but between July and September, they spend more time in the fields and hence the drop, he explained. The quarter is the sowing season for kharif crops because of the southwest monsoon.
About 45 per cent of Airtel's 193 million subscribers come from rural India while the figure is 54 per cent for Idea Cellular. Rural customers are growing the fastest for Idea among all operators. In September alone it grew by 1.26 per cent, followed by Uninor at 1.08 per cent.
"We are servicing such a large base of rural subscribers and their usage or non-usage affects minutes consumed," said Rajat Mukarji, Chief Corporate Affairs Officer at Idea Cellular. With the urban India market almost saturated - with close to 100 per cent penetration in metros - operators see a lot of headroom for growth in rural India which has a penetration of about 40 per cent. "Rural is where the next phase of data growth is coming from," said Mukarji.
Agriculture accounts for almost 14 per cent of India's GDP. It is bound to have an affect on the mobile economy, which according to Boston Consultancy Group contributes 5.3 per cent to the GDP. Phones are used less when people are spending time in the fields, point out analysts.