Reliance Jio overtakes Bharti Airtel as India’s largest telecom network

Newly launched telecom operator Reliance Jio has overtaken market leader Bharti Airtel as the company with the largest telecom network in India.

As of March 1, Reliance Jio had 4.48 lakh telecom base stations (towers) in India, compared to 4.31 lakh base stations for Bharti Airtel.

At the same time, Idea Cellular had 2.79 lakh base stations and Vodafone had 2.95 lakh.

The base station is the electronic equipment attached to telecom towers to generate cellular signals. A single tower can have 2-6 base stations on it from different operators.

A single tower can also more than one base station from a single operator to support 2G, 3G and 4G networks separately. However, operators are increasingly using base stations that can send out 2G, 3G and 4G signals at the same time.

Broadly speaking, the number of base stations in a network is an indicator of the wireless reach of the telecom network.

The numbers indicate the enormous distance covered by Reliance Jio since its launch in mid 2016. At the time, the company had only around 1.5 lakh base stations.

It also indicates that the company has not slowed down in its network capacity addition since commercial launch, but in fact seems to be using the data generated by its operations to identify gaps and weak points.

The company has stated that this year, it expects to bring more population under its 4G signals than the combined 2G, 3G and 4G signals of any other operator.


The numbers also indicate the enormous potential of the merger between Idea Cellular and Vodafone India.

The two operators have 5.73 lakh base stations between them, and once the merger is over, the combined entity will easily be the biggest telecom operator in India.

The combined operator is expected to shut down around 60,000 base stations to avoid duplication of infrastructure and take advantage of synergies. Even then, it would still rank as India’s No.1 operator by network size.

The second upcoming merger which would also change the numbers is the acquisition of Telenor by Bharti Airtel.

Like the Idea-Vodafone deal, the Airtel-Telenor transaction is also in the final stages, and awaiting the clearance of the Department of Telecom.

Telenor has 29,464 towers. However, most of the sites are on 2G, and in areas where Airtel already has a 2G network. As such, it remains to be seen how many of these sites are maintained and how many allowed to lapse.

Among the remaining operators, the biggest is BSNL, with 1,23,573 base stations, followed by Aircel with 59,336 cell sites.

Thanks to the shut down of tens of thousands of cell sites by Tata DoCoMo, Tata Teleservices had halved to about 28,000 towers by March 1.

It has been shutting down its towers to save operating expenses and moving its subscribers to Bharti Airtel’s network. The company’s deal to hand over its mobile business to Airtel is also pending regulatory approvals.

Reliance Communications, part of the Anil Ambani group, had 7,950 base stations still operational, down from around 65,000 at one time.

MTNL was the smallest player with just 1,803 base stations.


In terms of states, the highest number of base stations were located in Andhra Pradesh, at 1.26 lakh, followed by Karnataka at 1.24 lakh and Gujarat at 1.23 lakh.

The least number of towers were in Himachal Pradesh at 21,943, followed by the North East circle and Jammu & Kashmir.