Pakistan’s Cellular Subscribers: What’s the Exact Number?

The PTA has continued its upbeat promotion of Pakistan’s cellular base into 2011, with another declaration of the crossing of 100 million subscribers in the country. A mighty achievement, no doubt! However, the underlying criterion for determining a cellular subscriber has become a hot debate in the recent period.

A December 2010 article in the DAWN provided the following definition as the current practice for the counting of subscribers:

“A subscription has a valid balance. A subscription would be counted as `Active Subscription` if the subscription that is registered in the internal subscriber system of mobile service provider (i.e. HLR) makes any revenue generating activity including Outgoing (Voice Calls, SMS, MMS), Incoming (Voices calls) and Others (Recharge activity, Roaming services, Data transmissions including GPRS/internet access, data transfers, receipt sessions), during last 90 days.”

The definition above is a segmented one. The first line provides the synopsis for a subscription, which is primarily a connection with balance. However, the industry has another segment under ‘Active Subscription’ which works around a 90-day cycle. Provided that a subscription is being used in any revenue-generating form for the operator within that cycle, it will remain active on the network. In this case, balance becomes irrelevant, as it is usage which will keep the subscription active. So, the figure that is quoted and promoted must be based on the former.

An interesting scenario that comes into play is at the conclusion of the 90-day cycle. If the definition is to be followed, a subscription would be suspended should no revenue-generating activity be performed in the period.

However, the subscription would still remain counted in the overall numbers for the operator, as business rules normally created by the companies have another 90 to 180-day cycle before a suspended subscription is cancelled and recycled.

Also, it remains within the realm of being a subscription as it is likely to hold valid balance. Even at the cancellation phase, the subscription having balance would still be counted in the overall numbers, despite being segmented as a churned subscription.

The subscription model used by cellular companies in Pakistan is resonant of international ones. Where the difference lies is the ability of regulatory bodies to be more in control of the defining criterion, as well as having an in-depth and segmented view of the numbers.

In some of the developed countries, operators look at two levels of revenue generation; by subscriber and by unit. One subscriber could have multiple services at any given time and be counted separately for each service. A unit, on the other hand, is counted once for all the services being utilized. In this case, if subscriber A has 7 connections on AT&T, it would be counted as 7 subscriptions but only one revenue generating unit. This helps in removing duplication of subscribers from a particular operator and providing a broader look at the consumer numbers.

For the PTA, there are several unique identifiers that could be utilized to allow for a similar model. The CNIC, which is a mandatory requirement for acquiring a connection, remains the pivotal form of identification, but is not being applied for report segregation by any operator in Pakistan.

Among the inner circles of the industry, the subject of subscribers is often suppressed the consensus on unique cellular subscribers in Pakistan is around the 30 to 35 million, or possibly lower.

There is no doubt that the PTA has made in-roads in becoming a strong authority on assessing and regulating the telecommunication industry in Pakistan, but it has remained hostage to the proposals of the large service providers, especially in terms of data gathering.

With the market entering a new decade, it is time for the authority to ascertain a model more suited towards the local consumer trends, as well as acquire detailed data on the subscriber numbers.