I use the Airtel GPRS service very heavily. Because in Pune, it’s unlimited (in terms of volume and time) as long as I pay Rs. 150 per month. I use it for checking email, catching up on blogs, and using it as a Bluetooth modem for my Thinkpad so I can dial into my corporate network. It’s cheap, I’m connected, and I’m happy.
However, I’ve learnt that almost all other GPRS plans (even Airtel in other locations) charge based on volume, typically a paisa per kilobyte. That works out to Rs. 10 per MB. And I think that’s prohibitively expensive, something like twice the average broadband tariffs. Besides, the speeds aren’t anywhere like broadband, in fact far closer to the dialup speeds circa 1998. In addition, the mobile phone doesn’t offer you the user interface that a PC can, so what would compel a user to sign up for a scheme like this?
This is the same problem that’s hampering the widespread adoption of broadband in India. I had referred to this once before , and I have personally seen plenty of families I know, who haven’t signed up for broadband because it’s “expensive”, or won’t fit into their exact usage pattern. The same is set to happen with the mobile date market in India.
We need to remember that the mobile phone is to India what the PC is to the United States – the most widely used medium for data access. There is a tremendous market for mobile data services. We need to stop thinking according to the scarcity mentality – that is, to try to extract the maximum revenue from a small market, and begin to take bold steps to expand the market. There is huge opportunity in the latter.
Best phone for the Indian Market?
Smartphones such as the Nokia 6600 are cheap today, and will be real cheap in the near future. I am of the firm opinion that it’s going to be this model that can be a game-changer as regards hardware. Once this piece reaches Rs. 5000, once there is a critial mass of people using it, mobile data usage will explode. This phone can do most things that a rich data experience needs – for connectivity, we need Bluetooth, USB – this phone has it. RealPlayer for videos, an MP3 player, FM radio (although I think this isn’t stereo output), decent amount of storage, document viewers, Java – the works. It even has a camera, but this is exceptionally poor and isn’t any real use. But a little amount of tweaking can make this a dream phone. It could be the iPod of the masses, the Simputer of the masses, and the PC of the masses too.
What kind of applications would people use? For one, we need a kickass web browser for the mobile phone platform. I’d expected the Open Source Community to put together a mobile Firefox for at least the Blackberry or an O2 or a Treo (since that would probably be easier – more computing power, more disk space, more memory) than a Nokia, but then Opera beat everyone to it with the Opera Mini. That simple application has the potential of being a total game-changer. It runs on any phone that can run Java apps – any phone! Also a similar Java-based, small footprint Instant Messaging application – something like Migg33. Another thing would be a service like iTunes. We have a Jurassic version of that with Airtel’s Easy Music service. But that requires you to walk into an Airtel outlet. What we need is true download-via-GPRS, just like iTunes. With more and more phones having lots of storage, a file management application that lets you use your phone as a portable drive would be real cool. Again, it needs to be Java-based so that the interface would be the same no matter what phone it was installed on.
So it’s clear that we have the building blocks in place. But for the market to really take off, it needs a big gamble from a player who’s willing to change the rules of the game by making sustained investments for some amount of time. That is what Reliance did in the early 2000s, and today it can afford a 40 paise per minute tarriff within the Reliance network. Right now I would think only Reliance and Bharti are in a position to make that kind of investment.