Speaking at the IAMAI Conference on Mobile Content & Services, Dr. Nadeem Akhtar of the Centre of Excellence in Wireless Technology (CEWiT) said that a new standard for sending SMS in Indian languages is likely to be implemented soon. “The new scheme was proposed to the standards body 3GPP, it has been accepted at the first level. We are expecting a final approval in the next couple of weeks. There’s a meeting from the 16th-18th (of September), and it’s likely to be accepted. It might take 2-3 years, optimistically, for the new schemes to be accepted in the market,” Dr. Akhtar told MediaNama.

Need For The New Standard

“Indic languages are complex, and the current standard specifies an encoding scheme which is unicode based, which is 2 bytes per character. You cant get more than 70 characters, or 7-8 Indic words in an SMS today, less than half the SMS size for English. The operators who deploy this in India use picture messaging, and send it out as an image, as an EMS. The receiver also has to be able to display that. The image is so large, that it has to be split into 2-3 messages. The cost of sending that 160 character message is thus tripled, and it’s Rs. 3 for an Hindi SMS in case of Indian operators. The other issue is of Keypad layouts – every vendor has his own way of indic keys, there is no standardization.”

CEWiT focused on Indic encoding part, and defined a 7 bit encoding scheme, which allows a 155 characters in an Indic SMS, and is comparable with an English SMS. This has been done for 10 major Indic scripts – Bengali, Gujarati, Hindi, Kannada, Malayalam, Oriya, Punjabi, Tamil, Telugu and Urdu – and it also supports transliteration. Akthar suggests that with 10 languages tables, all 22 official languages in India can be supported. Dr. Akhtar said that the company hasn’t tried to patent the standard, because they’re a government funded entity, and this is in public interest.

“More than Peer to Peer, we believe that push services will drive the uptake. Because now you have more space, you can push out more information. There’s 1/3rd cost reduction for them as well. Public service messages can now be in local languages – at least all handsets will be able to receive it,” Dr. Akhtar said.

Challenges & Need For Handset Manufacturers & Telcos

Most of the challenges are related to the acceptance of encoding among handset manufacturers. “Keypad layouts vary from device to device. We need vendor support, in 6 months, one year, two years – there needs to be support for this encoding in new handsets. This will incentivize people to use these handsets. There’s value for the handset manufacturers, particularly for rural areas. The manufacturers have to figure out how they will implement the solution. The challenge is that with the new handserts coming out, it should have both sending and receiving – encoding and decoding of the messages.”

“The bigger challenge is with the devices already in the market, which will not support this scheme. For them, we are trying to find a way by which we can convert from the new scheme to the legacy scheme. You have one mapping, and it converts for receiving. However, legacy devices will not be able to send using the new system, that conversion can be done on the network. Instead of the legacy support in the device, you can also do the conversion on the network, but that still means that 3 messages are being sent, and costs are higher. We feel that a terminal (Handset) based solution is most important.”