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India’s Potential Data Dividend – Kushan Mitra

KushanEasily available as well as reliable data services in India can have a huge impact upon the country both politically and economically. Kushan Mitra scrutinises the multiple facets and consequences of the mobile data revolution in India

A week of driving across India’s most populous state of Uttar Pradesh with the general elections around the corner, is a fascinating experience. It also leads to a humbling experience to realise just how large India is and how big cities and rural India are still so different from each other.

But there is one thing that seems to be the same across the country, and that is mobile data connectivity. The story about India’s mobile revolution is an old one now, every second Indian has a phone and mobile towers rise from each and every nook and corner of the Indian countryside. But these unsightly steel towers have, in the past four-odd years powered another sort of revolution, a data revolution.

India’s lack of wired broadband connectivity is lamentable. Nearly two decades after the Internet as we know it was first delivered into Indian homes through telephone lines, which evolved into the internet over cable, Direct Subscriber Line (DSL) and fibre, the number of wired internet connections is just about 15 million.

While it is true that several connections at offices are used by several users, hundreds in case of some, residential wired connectivity is poor and while it is available across the country, it is in fact very often restricted to neighbourhoods usually at the heart of the cities.

The auction for India’s 3G licenses took place in 2010; and the initial rollout of 3G services took months even in the big cities. Data connectivity was patchy even in major metropolises like New Delhi and Mumbai. Yet, the telecom operators did manage to get their act together slowly but surely. Although niggling issues and data “black hole” zones still exist, overall data connectivity has improved dramatically in cities. Out in the hinterland though, data connectivity was until recently limited to larger towns and highways.

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The State Highway 79 in Uttar Pradesh almost straddles the UP-Bihar border. While it remains for the best part a well-surfaced track, it is not an arterial road with the golden fields of wheat on either side separated by just a narrow strip of tarmac. This is a part of the country where power supplies are limited. Therefore, throughout the journey there are few shops selling consumer durables. However, virtually everywhere there are adverts for mobile phones. Both for handsets and for operators, and the latter are not promising cheap calls. Far from it, every operator is promising cheap data services for smartphones.

Across small towns, when we stop to talk to people about politics, invariably young people whip out touch-screen smartphones showing pictures and Facebook posts. The iPhones and Google Nexus that that we are using become a point of conversation beside politics.

The social networking site Facebook, is poised to cross 100 million users in India, if it has not done so already, a majority of them accessing the service over mobile devices. Sitting in Delhi, Mumbai or Bangalore, that number might seem oddly disproportionate. But a drive through eastern Uttar Pradesh puts that all in perspective. Younger people everywhere don’t just use Facebook, popular messaging service WhatsApp is being used by youth to spread political messages. Videos of the BJP’s Prime Ministerial candidate Narendra Modi and links to his speeches are being shared like wildfire.

There is also the talk of a ‘Modi Leher’ (Modi Wave) in Uttar Pradesh; that wave may not be spreading over the popular mass media, but is spreading over online services. One could have doubted the impact of social media on national and regional politics two years ago, but the scenario has changed dramatically in 24 months almost exclusively due to the penetration of mobile data services across the country.

How will this reach translate into votes? That is a question that can only be answered on May 16, the day India’s votes are counted. However, make no mistakes, the mobile data revolution will not just change politics but will also change the way Indians across the length and breadth of the country, and not just in urban agglomerations, conduct business and consume media and entertainment.

Facebook has been around in India as an open network for almost eight years; the network has grown rapidly in India, but looking at the rapid penetration of data in India, it will likely add the second 100 million users in India in two to three years. The spread of data has enabled services such as WhatsApp for which Facebook just paid top dollar, in villages across India WhatsApp is replacing the SMS as a mode of communication.

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And it is not just Facebook, thanks to the reach of reliable mobile data networks, YouTube has become India’s most popular entertainment channel. Political parties use YouTube to spread videos, YouTube marketing campaigns for movies are de rigueur nowadays and every entertainment channel uploads full episodes onto YouTube which garners thousands, often lakhs of views, possibly more online than they get on traditional TV.

There are opportunities for this space to grow faster. There are still some areas where there is poor connectivity and of course, despite the rapid rollout of services some areas have no data coverage at all. The next-generation 4G services which ought to start soon could well change that, as could any future auction of spectrum at lower frequency bands such as 700 Megahertz which will dramatically improve access as lower frequencies involve less investment in physical infrastructure as they propagate further.

And this change is happening at a speed that is beyond the comprehension of many Indian companies and policy makers. In five years the story has moved from India’s mobile voice revolution to India’s mobile data revolution. Easy availability of mobile voice services gave the Indian economy a slight bump as studies have shown, but easily available and reliable data services can have an even bigger impact. Both politically and economically.

The original post was published here.

Author bio: Kushan is currently Managing Editor, Digital and New Projects at The Pioneer and takes an active interest in digital issues. 

(c) published with permission from the author.

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