This country has for centuries lived with a stark division between the haves and the have-nots. Access to telecom has been no exception, though the line of division has shifted: whilst almost all of us have the ability to access basic voice services today, most are still without easy access to the internet. The 900 million mobile-haves of India are still chiefly data-have-nots. In a world where economic advantage and social connectivity requires data access, the have-nots stand to lose. They are in danger of falling foul of what is commonly referred to as the digital divide.
Cometh the need, cometh a smart phone revolution which promises to wipe away much of the digital division that stands shakily before us. Smart phones are set to become the new tool for democratisation. Much has already been achieved: the price point of smart phones has dropped dramatically from around INR 10,000 a couple of years’ ago for a reasonable smart phone to around INR 5,000 today, and high-speed networks are available in more places than before, and most importantly, people are beginning to use services. A few more developments are being seen too:
- The INR 2,500 smart phone is coming. Neighbouring Bangladesh already retails such keenly priced handsets, fully 3G capable, Chinese manufactured and locally assembled. Do not think that the Indian handset market has hit its price point low – there is still quite some way to go.
- eCommerce for buying phones. High-end phones are usually purchased in stores but amazingly, mid-segment smart phone buyers have recently taken to the internet for buying phones. This is surprising given the general lack of interest in eCommerce from spenders who do not have ubiquitous internet access or payment methods. Players such as Xiaomi are offering phones in India online for a much lower price than shop retail, cutting out expensive middlemen and agents, and providing what the Indian consumer wants: features and capability. So our value conscious buyers suddenly don’t see the internet as an obstacle to ignore but as an enabler to get involved with.
- 2G is the new 3G: Most rural parts of India have not seen 3G rolled out as yet. But in some areas, 2G phones continue to sell well, with new models better equipped with browsing compression technology that lets them operate pretty well on data. Given that 3G (or 4G) will not cover rural areas thoroughly for years to come, there is a prospect of the emergence of the smart 2G phone which can provide an acceptable user experience on data. The ultimate contradiction in terms: the 2G smart phone!
- Easier surfing for basic phones: When it comes to democratisation of internet access in developing countries, Google are evidently not ready to relax having announced Android One recently. This week came the announcement of a new browsing and search feature designed to work fast on basic phones by cutting out alot of the data-heavy detail that the standard Google search incorporates.
- What’sApp is driving high speed data demand because of video: Have you done it yet? Sharing video clips with friends and family over WhatsApp? Many of us seem to have discovered this trick, having given up with email with heavy attachments, and avoiding the perils of too much sharing if we use Facebook or other social media. In India, What’sApp is already chipping away at SMS usage but it is now giving operators the headache of consuming more network bandwidth than an instant messaging service normally would.
- The emergence of mGovernance services for making public services more accessible and transparent: The Municipality of Surat has launched a mobile-accessible portal which allows citizens to access various public services (such as information, bill payment) through their handset. This is just one example of a mushrooming of public services being made available through mobile, spanning from utility bill payment to reporting potholes in roads. mGovernance, once it matures, will be the arena where mobile-enabled democratisation really takes off. Give it five years of mushrooming, and then another three to five years of scaling of a few services which will really have the potential of changing people’s daily lives.
The result: as much as 20% of all data usage is now generated from India’s rural areas, where data is picking up, and a city such as Mumbai now has a higher level of data penetration than many European cities.
India’s democratisation project continues. After the spinning wheel, the railway and the printing press, the smart phone is the latest tool which will help it take the next bold steps.
(A note of thanks is due to Abhinav Jha for his contributions to this post).
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