Matthew Hill Lusaka

MTN Group leapfrogged India’s Bharti Airtel to become Zambia’s biggest cellular operator by subscribers at the end of March, figures from Zambia’s telecommunications authority show.

MTN Zambia, a unit of Africa’s biggest wireless operator, had a subscriber base of 4.26 million people, compared with Bharti’s 4.04 million, the Zambia Information and Communications Technology Authority said this week. Bharti had more registered customers as of March 31, with 3.54 million against 3.49 million for MTN.

The regulator ordered cellular network operators to terminate the services of customers who had not registered their numbers by January 31.

Bharti had more subscribers in rural areas who took longer to register or did not comply with regulations, Joseph Kafwariman, the customer services director at the Zambian unit of India’s largest cellular operator, said on Tuesday.

“We realised after the cut-off date that people in a number of rural areas weren’t aware of the registration requirements,” he said. “We are planning to go deep into these areas and get these customers back.”

MTN Zambia, a unit of the JSE-listed telecommunications company that has assembled an emerging markets cellular empire through acquisitions, declined to comment.

Zambia had a mobile penetration rate of 73 percent last year, down from 78 percent in 2012 because of a 1.2 percent drop in subscribers and a growing population, the Finance Ministry said in a report in March.

Bharti’s subscribers fell 3.8 percent last year, while MTN grew customers by 7.5 percent because of an improved network quality, the ministry’s 2013 annual economic report said.

Kafwariman said Bharti planned to increase its registered subscribers to more than 4 million by the end of March next year as it built more towers and boosted network reach. The company also planned to introduce fourth-generation services by September.

MTN and the third-biggest operator, Zamtel, both say they have already introduced the technology, which provides faster internet connections.

Bharti would boost revenue in Zambia through increased data usage and services such as mobile money, Kafwariman said. Nearly all of its registered users had signed up to its mobile money service, allowing them to transfer cash and pay accounts such as satellite television and prepaid electricity, he added. – Bloomberg