As Jio slows, Airtel becomes India’s No.1 mobile operator again

India active mobile users by operator (click to enlarge)

Five months after first losing its crown as India’s No.1 operator to upstart Reliance Jio, Bharti Airtel has again taken the top spot, aided by three back-to-back months of strong subscriber additions and slowing expansion on Jio’s side.

As of October 2020, Bharti Airtel once again recorded the highest number of active mobile users in India at 319.52 million, narrowly beating Reliance Jio’s tally of around 319.36 million.

Vodafone Idea is a distant third with 259.98 million.

It was in May that Reliance Jio, which entered the market just four years ago, first dislodged the long-reigning king of the Indian mobile market, Bharti Airtel, and emerged as India’s largest mobile operator by number of active (switched on) users.

This followed a whopping increase of 6.18 million in Jio’s active user count in the month of May, possibly because of the activation of many dormant connections by people migrating to rural home towns from big cities like Mumbai and Bangalore.

Before this, Jio was still behind Bharti Airtel by around 0.8 million in active user count. But in May, it zoomed ahead with a lead of around 5.5 million over Airtel.

However, since then, Jio’s subscriber additions have been erratic. In the five months since then, Jio has added only 6.77 million new active wireless users, while Airtel’s active mobile user base has zoomed by 12.43 million during the same period.

Vodafone Idea, meanwhile, saw its active mobile users fall by 16.75 million during these five months.

Bharti Airtel’s return to the top, therefore, is a culmination of two trends — slowing subscriber additions on Jio, and accelerating subscriber additions on Bharti Airtel.

The slowdown in Jio’s subscriber base is attributed to three factors — a decision to ramp down sales of low-cost 4G handsets called JioPhone, rising competition from Airtel and Vi, and finally, the narrowing of the price gap that used to existing between Jio and its rivals.

As a result, net user addition has plummeted in recent months.

Against the long-term average of around 6 million per month, the last five months have seen an average increase of only 1.35 million in Jio’s active user base. At the same time, Airtel added an average of 2.49 million active users per month during this period.

Strong subscriber growth has been the cornerstone of Jio’s strategy since it entered the market four years ago.

From the years 2016 to 2019, Jio went from practically nothing to over 300 million active users by adding an average of 6 million active subscribers per month.


Much of Jio’s slowdown is the result of market saturation.

It is believed that more than half the Indian mobile users have already purchased and tried Jio’s services.

Moreover, it will find it difficult to persuade the remaining users for various reasons: While some are satisfied with their current provider, others are wary of the company’s increasing dominance of the market.

Airtel, on the other hand, seem to be benefiting from other trends, including a migration of users from Vodafone Idea.

Going by anecdotal evidence, many Vodafone Idea users have been looking for an alternative, partly because of network issues.

Vodafone Idea, however, maintains that its network re-engineering efforts are behind it, and that it now offers the best data speeds in the country.

It has also slashed its data prices to roughly half that of Bharti Airtel and Jio, and is the only operator to offer data carry-over to the weekends for those who do not consume their full daily quota during their weekdays.

Perhaps as a result of such efforts, Vodafone Idea has seen a decline in the number users leaving its network.

From a peak of 14.01 million users leaving the network in April, the number has gradually fallen to 1.24 million in October.

Given that Airtel’s monthly additions have continued apace even when Vodafone Idea’s losses have narrowed, it would seem that the Sunil Mittal company is either able to attract the majority of new mobile users in India, or that a large number of unsatisfied users are porting their numbers to Airtel from other networks, including Jio.

Meanwhile, the Mukesh Ambani firm has also found itself attracting unwanted attention during the ongoing protests against the central government’s new agricultural policy that makes it easier for big conglomerates, including Jio’s parent Reliance Industries, to procure, store and trade in agricultural commodities.

Recently, Jio even complained to the telecom regulator against its rivals, citing what it called a “large number of port-out requests” it received in recent days, citing the ongoing farmers’ protest as the sole reason for leaving the network.

However, the impact of the protests, if any, would only reflect in December numbers, while TRAI has so far released only data up to October.