Bharti Airtel, India’s largest mobile operator, posted a robust set of Q3 figures which saw its group net income more than double, year-on-year, to INR6.1 billion ($98 million). Revenues were up 13.3 per cent, to INR219.4 billion, over the same period.

Airtel’s improved performance was helped by strong growth in mobile data revenue across the group, a sharp drop in customer churn in India, and improved operational efficiencies.

The last time Airtel registered a year-on-year rise in quarterly profits was four years ago.

True, consolidated net profit was well below analyst estimates – INR10.44 billion according to Reuters – but strip out a one-off tax cost and net profit was INR8.32 billion.

Gopal Vittal, CEO at Bharti Airtel’s India Operations, said a focus on “superior internet experience” has turned mobile data into a “huge source of revenue growth.”

Consolidated mobile internet revenues during the quarter, at INR17.34 billion, was a 105 per cent jump compared with the same quarter the year previously.

Airtel said mobile data sales accounted for more than one-third of the group’s overall incremental revenue during the quarter.

Vittal added that efforts over the last 12 months to improve the quality of customer acquisitions have resulted in “significant reduction in customer churn”.

Airtel’s monthly churn rate in India averaged out at 2.7 per cent during the last three months of 2013. During Q3 2012 it was a much higher 5.9 per cent.

The operator’s subscriber base in India reached 198.5 million by the end of 2013, up 9.1 per cent from 12 months previously.

Reduced competition in India, where Airtel generates around 70 per cent of sales, has been another boost to the top line.

After a number of smaller operators in India fell by the wayside last year, Airtel – along with Vodafone – raised prices for the first time in three years and cut some discounts.

Those measures, along with mobile data growth, buoyed ARPU.

Airtel’s monthly ARPU in India averaged out INR195 during Q3, a year-on-year growth of 5 per cent.

Revenues from mobile services in its home market were up 10 per cent, to INR114.4 billion, over the same period.

Mobile data in India accounted for 10.3 per cent of mobile services revenue during Q3, up from 5.7 per cent in Q3 2012.

Airtel is proving adept, too, at running a much tighter ship.

Consolidated EBITDA, at INR70.9 billion, was a 22.8 per cent year-on-year jump. The EBITDA margin expanded from 29.8 per cent to 32.3 per cent over the same period.

According to Airtel, the margin improvement was primarily due to a better operational performance in India.

As far as its international operations are concerned, which include operations in 17 African countries, Manoj Kohli, CEO of International Operations, said there was  “steady revenue growth” – it was up 4 per cent, year-on-year, to $1.24 billion.

“Africa,” he added, “had another quarter of strong growth from the 3G/data and Airtel Money services across all its markets and we expect this trend to sustain due to large investments in brand and network. The market growth came back in Nigeria which is the largest telecom market in the continent.”

Data customers in Africa increased by 39.2 per cent, year-on-year, to 19.6 million. They now represent 28.7 per cent of the total customer base, up from 22.9 per cent during the same quarter last year.

Although Airtel managed to improve its net debt position, with net debt to EBITDA ratio improving to 2.06 times as compared to 2.20 times at the end of the previous quarter, that may change for the worse after India’s upcoming spectrum auction.

Bharti must buy new airwaves in the auction in at least two key cities it serves to continue operations there beyond 2014.