Mobile phone operators are struggling to retain their active subscribers despite offering lucrative packages, including free minutes, SMS and extra data, as the coronavirus-induced economic downturn has affected all sectors and curtailed people’s income.
Though the government has declared telecom as an essential service during the lockdown time, more than 46 lakh active users, or 2.77 per cent of the total subscriber base, left the mobile networks in March-May, which the sector people term a rare phenomenon.
The slump in numbers is mostly from the low-income group, who were living in the city but left for their village after their livelihoods were wiped off by the pandemic.
Insiders said an increased tax rate from the second week of June also badly impacted the industry, which will be visible when the last month’s report on subscriber numbers will come out.
As of May, there are 16.15 crore active connections of all four carriers, which was 16.61 crore at the end of February, according to the latest report of the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC) published this week.
Industry insiders estimate that active connections might have gone down further to 16 crore in June.
In March, when coronavirus began to wreak havoc, the industry lost six lakh connections, and in April, when the countrywide lockdown was tightened, another 26 lakh numbers went off.
In May, 14 lakh active users stopped taking service, according to the BTRC report.
“We have long been saying that the coronavirus pandemic will hit the mobile phone industry hard,” said SM Farhad, general secretary of the Association of Mobile Telecom Operators of Bangladesh (AMTOB).
The downward curve of active users reflects how it has fallen drastically from early this year though the mobile phone is now the primary communication tool for all sorts of business, education and entertainment.
People’s income has gone down drastically as many retail stores were closed during the lockdown, while people had limited access to recharge points.
“So, it’s a cumulative effect that resulted in downward growth. I’m afraid how the users will react in the coming days as the government has imposed an extra tax on mobile phone use,” Farhad added.
Though the number of active SIMs has fallen, internet connections have increased both in mobile and broadband segments during the pandemic.
At the beginning of March, active internet connections were a few thousand less than 10 crore and at the end of May, the number crossed 10.21 crore.
Market insiders said people are using more internet than before but the use of voice call, which is still the main revenue spinner for the carriers, has declined.
A good number of users are now depending on various communication apps and they are avoiding voice calls, while low-income people do not have enough earnings to spend on services like telecom.
All three private carriers have been impacted though the state-owned operator’s number has remained almost the same, according to the BTRC data.
Grameenphone suffered a severe blow of losing 23 lakh of their active users between January and May; their subscriber base is now 7.43 crore.
Apart from the impact of the pandemic, the market leader has been facing some regulatory challenges since the beginning of the year centring an audit claim by the regulator.
The top player, however, declined to comment on what has taken a toll on their subscriber base.
Robi, the second-largest carrier, witnessed a negative impact on their customer base only in the last couple of months and had 4.80 crore users at the end of May.
As a growing carrier, Robi went very close to five crore subscribers and had taken preparations to celebrate the landmark but lost 17 lakh users in April and May, said Shahed Alam, its chief corporate and regulatory officer.
Like all the other industries, coronavirus has dealt a tremendous blow to the telecom sector.
“This crisis is also widening the digital divide in the country as people have to cut down on mobile phone use or completely stop using phones in many cases.”
On top of that, Alam fears the hike in supplementary duty from 10 per cent to 15 per cent will only exacerbate the situation.
The third carrier Banglalink has been stuck with about three-and-a-half crore users for long.
They have started March with 3.58 crore active connections but after three months 15 lakh users left the network.
“We believe that many potential subscribers could not take our service and many of our current customers had faced difficulties in recharging over the last few months due to the long nationwide lockdown and movement restrictions,” said Taimur Rahman, chief corporate and regulatory affairs officer of Banglalink.
This is the key reason Rahman believes their customer-base has shrunk, he added.
According to the rules set by the regulator, if a SIM is not used for 90 days, it is counted as inactive and if it remains so for consecutive 15 months, the operator can resell it.