Revenues count for more than subscriber numbers in operator rankings

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Ranking mobile operators is more complicated than one would expect, with subscriber numbers being important as is year-over-year growth in new customers.

However, using these metrics provides little, if any, guide to the revenues being achieved by an operator.

For example, look at the France Telecom Group. The company has managed to claw its way back to being ranked the No. 12 global operator by total connections after dropping off the list a year ago. The rankings are drawn from a report by research firm Wireless Intelligence. France Telecom achieved its ranking by disposing of minority holdings (which are not counted toward the overall numbers), and increasing its stake in others.

Over the past 12 months, France Telecom pushed its holdings in Orange Poland and Egypt's Mobinil to above the 50 per cent threshold, allowing over 46 million customers at the operators to be recognised under France Telecom in the rankings.

Also of note is the continued rise of India's Bharti Airtel, which was up one place to the No. 4 spot position, and overtaking Telefónica in the process.

And this is where the rankings table skews customers over revenues with Bharti's second-quarter mobile revenues of $3.04 billion (€2.33 billion) falling significantly behind Telefónica's $11.4 billion (€8.75 billion) in the same period.

There is little wrong with how the Wireless Intelligence report presents the data, bearing in mind that six of the top10 operators have hundreds of millions of customers that today generate significantly lower revenues than operators in more mature markets.

However, I think this "low revenues/developing market" model could be about to change, if what is happening in France is a harbinger of the future. The local telecoms regulator, Arcep, states that French mobile users consumed nearly 30 billion voice minutes in the second quarter, an increase of 11 per cent compared to last year.

Arcep believes this rise in usage has been caused by the entry of low-cost provider Free Mobile, which has triggered the three incumbents to hurriedly launch their own low-cost tariffs.

This activity, while boosting traffic, has driven average revenue per user down by nearly 11 per cent in the second quarter compared to the same period a year ago, with total revenues falling around 6 per cent in the quarter as against the preceding three months. 

So, is France about to shift from being a "high revenue/mature market" model to something closer to what is currently seen in India?

Probably not, but what is happening France must be causing sleepless nights for operator CEOs elsewhere that don't yet need to combat the mayhem being inflicted on their profits by Free Mobile. --Paul