The release of financials covering the three months to end-June by Bharti Airtel confirmed rival Reliance Jio had taken the crown of the largest operator in India by connections.

Airtel ended its fiscal Q1 (calendar Q2) with 281 million mobile subscribers in India (including M2M connections), a decline of 18.4 per cent year-on-year and well below the 331 million declared by Jio. With Vodafone Idea ending the period with 320 million connections, this leaves Jio in the lead for the first time since it entered the market in 2016.

The decline in Airtel’s domestic users offset growth in its South Asia segment and Africa, leaving it with a total of 383.3 million connections across its operations at end-June, down 12.5 per cent year-on-year.

Despite the decline, Gopal Vittal, MD and CEO for India and South Asia, hailed growth in ARPU, which was reflected in a rise in Indian mobile service revenue from INR104.8 billion ($1.5 billion) at end June 2018, to INR108.6 billion in the recent period.

Vittal attributed the rise to the success of a loyalty programme, Airtel Thanks, which forms part of a broader push to improve customer satisfaction by boosting network experience.

“We remain obsessed about network experience. As a result, we have refarmed spectrum from 3G networks to 4G across both the 900[MHz] as well as 2100[MHz] bands and begun the process of shutting down 3G networks in India,” he noted.

The executive remained confident Airtel’s “underlying operational efficiency and customer-first mindset keeps us on track to grow our market share”.

Among its businesses, only home services and digital TV services recorded annual declines in revenue, with the total in fiscal Q1 of INR207.3 billion up from INR197.9 billion in the comparable period of 2018.

However, despite increased mobile data usage and the hike in revenue, Airtel reported a loss attributable to owners of the parent of INR28.6 billion versus a profit of INR973 million in fiscal Q1 2019.