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India's big leap in the mobile world

tech-reviews Updated: Oct 03, 2009 16:42 IST
Prasanto K Roy
Prasanto K Roy
Hindustan Times
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We’re less than three months from a year that could be the busiest ever for mobile telephony. It will see landmarks, milestones, new tech, and major products and services centered on the mobile.

The half-billion mark: India will cross 500 million subscribers in the first quarter. And at the end of 2010, we could be touching 600 million – which would see one in two Indians with a mobile phone. Ten years ago, just one in 20 Indians had a phone. It isn’t just the giant leap: it’s the sheer penetration, which means that the mobile is by far the biggest information channel available in India. Any information product or project has to keep the mobile in mind. So if the government wants to provide a universal identity to citizens, they have to ‘think mobile’.

3g: Finally! So what if it’s over 10 years old and long in the tooth; or if the world has moved on to 3.5G and is testing 4G? If the spectrum auction happens in December, you should see 3G services from Airtel, Vodafone and others a few months later. You can use 3G today for data – with cards from Reliance and Tata Indicom – and for voice, with BSNL and MTNL (but there are few takers for the 3G services of these two government-protected monopolies). In 2010, the 3G spectrum will also be used heavily for voice, to free up the really crowded 2G space. But 3G will also make mobile web browsing, and a range of other data apps, practical.

Data and multimedia apps: We’ll see data taking off: maps, location software like Google’s Latitude, clients for mail, social networking, video, and, of course, voice-over-IP (VoIP). The latter will help commoditise voice further, also pushing down the cost of regular long-distance calls on the mobile – and therefore on landlines too.

Cheap long distance calls: 3G means you can run VoIP on your phone (unless you’re an iPhone user in the US, for Apple has been busy blocking Google Voice to protect its partner AT&T’s revenues). In fact, many mobile phones today let you choose between a regular call and an Internet call. Today, I can use that feature only when I’m in a wi-fi area (or roaming in a 3G area), as my data service is too slow for VoIP. But with 3G around, and the ability to call long distance free (with unlimited-data plans), you don’t even have to use VoIP to get cheaper long distance. Market forces will drop the cost of long distance calls in 2010.

Mobile Number Portability: MNP should be in place as we enter the new year. So you can change your mobile service provider while retaining the same number. There are caveats. After a switch, you have to stay with the new telco for at least three months before you switch again. And you can be sure the telcos won’t make it a cakewalk for you to switch.

But overall, MNP is a good thing. Many users don’t change service because they’ll have to give up their number. MNP knocks down this barrier. I don’t know the level of churn it will cause – given that if one telco has a service quality issue, the other has billing problems – but the mere fact that you can switch easily and retain your number, will force telcos to improve their quality of service and billing.

The Smartphone: Of the eight to 10 million phones selling in India each month, every tenth is a smartphone: Internet and apps capable, with a memory card. Smartphone sales grew nearly 80 per cent last year, and will grow more. As prices drop, every fifth phone sold will be a smartphone in 2010. Also on the shelves will be smartbooks and netbooks with built-in 3G.

What are the barriers? I can think of two.

Pricing: The 3G licence will cost over Rs 3,500 crore ($722 million), making it difficult for telcos to price unlimited 3G data plans cheap. But our telcos are innovative, and manage to make money from millions of low-paying users. So there’s hope.

The battery: The mobile phone’s Achilles heel: it will be pushed to its limits by always-on 3G data. You’ll have to charge your phone twice a day. But they’ll come up with better batteries. So overall, the best-case scenario is: no gains in battery life.

Remember 2010: Odyssey Two, Arthur C Clarke’s visionary sequel to 2001: A Space Odyssey? Up ahead is the real 2010, which promises to launch the second part of India’s mobility journey. The mobile phone will become the universal, personal-connectivity, information and entertainment hub that it has long promised to be – for nearly half of India’s billion-plus people.

And so, when when you buy your next mobile phone: make sure it’s 3G ready. The author is chief editor at CyberMedia, publisher of 15 specialty titles such as Voice&Data.

pkr@cybermedia.co.in, twitter.com/prasanto