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NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Top mobile phone carrier Bharti Airtel (BRTI.NS) signed up 2.5 million subscribers in March, its highest monthly addition in a year, partly helped by the Supreme Court's order revoking the licenses of its smaller rivals.
Carriers including Telenor (TEL.OL) and Sistema's (SSAq.L) India units, Idea Cellular (IDEA.NS) and Tata Teleservices are set to lose some or all of their zonal telecom permits after the Supreme Court in February ordered cancellation of all licences awarded in a scandal-tainted 2008 sale.
Analysts expect older and established firms such as Bharti to benefit if some players exit the ferociously-competitive 15-player market. The affected carriers have the option of bidding in a state auction to win back the permits, but not all are expected to bid.
Bharti boosted its total subscribers in India to 181.3 million as of end-March, data from the Cellular Operators Association showed. This is the highest monthly addition for Bharti since March 2011, when it had signed up 3.2 million users.
It added 1.8 million subscribers in February and additions were on average 1.5 million a month in 11 months to February.
"The recent uncertainty with licences is bound to help incumbents," said Mahesh Uppal, director at telecoms consulting firm Com First (India).
"My sense is that uncertainty maybe spurring people to move to an established player like Bharti," he said. India allows mobile subscribers to switch carriers without having to change their numbers.
Mobile phone additions in India, the world's second-largest mobile phone market after China, have slowed in the past year as the market shows some signs of saturation after high growth and also as carriers have started disconnecting inactive users.
Many people in India have subscribed to more than one mobile phone accounts, but do not use all of them regularly. Carriers are deactivating subscribers who have not used their phones for six months in a row in a clean-up exercise.
Vodafone's (VOD.L) India unit, which is No. 3 carrier by subscribers, signed up 1 million mobile subscribers in March to take its total to 150.5 million, data from the Cellular Operators Association of India showed.
Fourth-ranked Idea Cellular (IDEA.NS), which had outpaced bigger rivals in subscriber additions in the past several months, signed up 2 million mobile subscribers in March to have a total of 112.7 million. March additions were lower than 2.6 million subscribers it had added in February.
Seventh-ranked Aircel, majority owned by Malaysia's Maxis, lost a net 0.7 million mobile subscribers in march to have a total of 62.6 million, but eighth-ranked carrier, Telenor's (TEL.OL) India unit, gained 1.3 million mobile phone users in March to have a total of 42.4 million.
The Telenor's India unit had signed up 2.3 million in February.
The industry association does not release data on monthly additions by No.2 mobile carrier Reliance Communications (RLCM.NS) and sixth-ranked Tata Teleservices.
The telecoms regulator will later release detailed figures for all companies and the sector. As of February, India had a total 911 million mobile subscribers.
Reporting by Devidutta Tripathy; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani