Business Today

Mobile in the Spotlight

     Print Edition: Jan 6, 2013

For a middle-income economy with 1.2 billion people India has several paradoxes. One of them is India's low penetration of personal computers and Internet connectivity. It is home to just 40 million personal computers, counts around 100 million Internet users, and has not even 15 million broadband connections (measured by an anaemic speed of 512 kbps).

Talk to Sumit, a 22-year-old who does not use a surname, and you will see how that is set to change. A resident of Kusumpur Pahari, the biggest slum in New Delhi bordering the uber-swish Vasant Vihar colony, and a part-time driver - "I do it for pocket money" - Sumit is the go-to guy in his neighbourhood for all things Internet.

125 milllion the number of wireless internet users in India

His tool? A Nokia Music Xpress 5800 phone with a 3.2-inch screen. He spends Rs 49 a week to refresh a second-generation connection on the now-discontinued phone to crawl the Internet. "I use it to share pictures, videos, songs on Facebook and chat," he says in halting English. "I help low-educated families around me to access Gmail, YouTube and check prices on the Internet." The excitement is evident when he talks about the latest download on his well-thumbed phone: WhatsApp, a messaging platform that allows him to chat with his friends no matter which phone they use.

India's telecom regulator estimates people like Sumit who access the Internet and text messages on their mobile phones number 460 million. That number is inflated because the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India counts as a wireless Internet user anyone who has used his or her mobile phone even once to access the Internet or for messaging. A more realistic number of regular Internet users on mobile phones is about 125 million, reckons Mohammad Chowdhury, who leads the telecom practice at consultancy PricewaterhouseCoopers.

Smartphone users at about 50 million today and set to rise to 100 million by 2015 will rapidly expand the potential of Internet use on mobiles. The missing piece of the jigsaw today is speedy wireless data access. But, that situation will likely change the moment third- and fourth-generation mobile networks become more affordable in India and new devices proliferate - predicted for 2013 or a year after.

For millions and millions of Indians, then, mobile phones will become the first computer they have used. The customer experience may be difficult to imagine but there are, for instance, already well-documented cases of customers watching movies on tiny mobile phone screens. Extrapolate that to other sectors and India's data story, says Hemant Joshi, Partner at consultancy Deloitte Haskins & Sells, will steamroll through "mobile banking, health care, education and agriculture". The contribution of telecom could double to eight per cent of gross domestic product from today when that happens, he says.

The reaction of Sumit, the Kusumpur Pahari phone jock, is instant and infectious: "A speed of two to three mbps on the phone will be great, Sir."

Josey Puliyenthuruthel and Sunny Sen

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