With Airtel debuting its 3G services from Karnataka early this week, three of the seven operators who won licences in the auction in May last year now appear on the 3G map. The other two are Reliance Telecom and Tata Teleservices. While Reliance has launched its 3G service in nine cities across four telecom circles, Airtel has just begun. Both have got licences for 13 circles each.

Despite the initial hoopla surrounding 3G, the rollouts have been far short of the scales that were expected and are instead turning out to be low-key affairs. 3G spectrum seems to be gathering more dust than momentum, as the overall rollout situation resembles more that of an advanced beta rather than of a full-throttle launch.

At this rate, one doesn’t hope the 3G rollouts of all operators to be over before at least end of this calendar year. Such being the scenario, the ramp-up in the 3G subscriptions is expected to be slow. And if the uptake of 3G services by consumers is not strong enough, that would further affect the pace of operators’ 3G investments.

So what is the number of 3G subscriptions that India could be looking at by the end of 2011? For a perspective, let’s look at 3G uptake in China: At the end of 2010, China had got around 47 million 3G subscribers out of a total mobile service subscriber base of 842 million, according to industry reports. That translates into 5.6 percent of the total mobile subscriptions, after 15 months of actual 3G rollouts in China by the three largest telcos there.

In India, given that no operator has got a pan-India 3G license, a limitation that is further compounded by the rollout delays, one should not expect more than 2 percent of the wireless subscribers to be able to sign up for 3G services this year. Assuming that India would be having upward of 850 million wireless subscriptions by the end of 2011, can one still hope to see around 17 million 3G subscribers by December 2011?

Well, that sounds like a fair estimate, especially when new-generation smart phones and tablet devices are knocking at Indian shores sooner than expected. For example, there was a strong buzz that Apple would be bringing its iPad to India by the end of this week itself, an event that eventually did happen. Also, the launch of CDMA iPhone which got out in the US only last week is also expected to be expedited.

It is another matter that the iPad’s accelerated arrival could, at least in part, be due to the serious threat posed to its global supremacy by Bengaluru-based Notion Ink’s Adam tablet, which has received rave reviews worldwide. Also, the start-up is expected to be working on an India launch of the “iPad killer” device soon enough. Apple would therefore not like to risk being a late entrant to Notion Ink’s home market, India. Additionally, Dell has already launched its mini tablet Streak in India.

Tablets and tablet-inspired smart phones are the devices that would ignite consumer interest in 3G. It will therefore be important for operators to do attractive bundling of their 3G services with these devices. This is indeed not to write off the regular 3G-enabled handsets and smart phones. Those will continue to find takers and fill in the volumes, but it is the ‘stars’ that will draw subscribers to the 3G party.

(As published in Deccan Chronicle and Asian Age on 27 January, 2011; header changed.)

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