Last week’s two-day Mobile 360 India event, organised by the GSMA in Delhi, highlighted the vast contrasts in the country with 1.3 billion people, 616 million unique mobile subscribers and already about 280 million 4G users.
India is one of the world’s fastest-growing mobile markets in the world and will account for about a third of the one billion new mobile subscribers added worldwide by 2020, according to a report from GSMA Intelligence (GSMAi). An estimated 94 per cent of the country’s population now has access to a mobile signal.
Smartphone sales have been growing at a double-digit rate and penetration has reached close to 30 per cent. Earlier this year the country overtook the US to become the world’s second-largest smartphone market with an installed base of 275 million devices. Counterpoint Research said three out of four smartphones shipped during Q3 were made in India.
4G users have nearly doubled since newcomer Reliance Jio introduced its 4G service earlier in the year, and GSMAi forecasts the number of 3G/4G connections will jump from 430 million to more than 670 million by 2020, or 48 per cent of the population.
Affordability is becoming less of a barrier as the cost of handsets and services has dropped sharply – smartphones sell for $50, feature phones for $12 and 1GB of data is 75 cents.
Bharti Airtel chairman Sunil Mittal said in his keynote that India, which has clearly shown the benefits of scale, is the most affordable telecoms market anywhere in the world.
The country has nearly a billion mobile connections, but 870 million people live in rural areas, where only half the population owns a mobile phone. And while about 300 million use mobile broadband, a billion are not connected to the internet.
Neel Juriasingani, founder of app developer Boxer Internet, said 53 per cent of non-web users in urban areas don’t know what the internet is and 70 per cent in rural regions don’t know what it is.
India also has a wide gender gap, with women estimated to be 36 per cent less likely to own a mobile than men and only 27 per cent of women participating in the workforce.
Lack of local content
The country has 125 million English speakers, the second largest English-speaking population in the world, but that represents just 12 per cent of the population.
According to Juriasingani, less than 0.1 per cent of content on the internet worldwide is in Indian languages. The inadequacy of local language content makes the mobile internet much less compelling for non-English speakers, he said.
He cited stats that predict that more than half of data users will still use 2G devices by 2020.
India has 22 languages recognised in the constitution, but more than 200 languages are spoken across the country. J.S. Deepak, secretary of India’s Department of Telecom, said in his keynote that the government plans to offer all e-services in 22 languages within 18 months, which will be a huge step forward for rural populations.
Osama Manzar, founder and director of the Digital Empowerment Foundation, argued that digital literacy does not require literacy, which means people who can’t read can leapfrog to using a smartphone for all sort of applications. Only about 70 per cent of the rural population is literate, and the female literacy rate is 65.5 per cent nationwide.
Manzar said research shows that once a woman starts using a mobile phone, the impact is much greater than when a man starts using one, so recommends the government target women first in its campaign to expand mobile penetration in rural areas.
Harmeen Mehta, Bharti Airtel’s global CIO and director of engineering, summed up the country’s rapid progress by saying that in the urban world things like gender biases and inclusion are very much changing but “as a country we have a long way to go”.
Catch up on all our coverage from last week’s event here.