without saying that rural India is the next frontier for telecom operators. Now that India has more than 200 million mobile subscribers, the next mobile revolution is going to come from smaller towns and villages. Currently, industry estimates show that 35-40 per cent of mobile customers are from rural areas.
In a step up, telecom operators and content providers are now looking at more than just handing rural audiences a cheap phone connection. Their view is driven by the premise that the rural mobile revolution is not going to be just about communication, but about information that empowers. With no access to the Internet, the only way a person sitting in the hinterlands can get access to instant information is through his mobile handset.
Naturally, a large audience in the rural region is the farming community and mobile applications that let them remain updated on commodity prices are the most popular. Companies like Reliance Communications, Reuters and Ericsson have already caught the wind and are actively developing their information based mobile services.
Value-added services for rural India
Reliance Communications launched Live Mandi in collaboration with commoditiescontrol.com, a mobile service through which farmers can get real-time prices of commodities on their mobiles. The service is available on Reliance's GPRS portal, Reliance Mobile World, accessible in 10,000 towns and 300,000 villages. According to Mahesh Prasad, president, applications, solutions and content group, Reliance Communications, the company plans to increase the reach of this service to 20,000 towns and 600,000 villages by the end of 2007.
"The B&C circles (non-metros and rural towns) are very important for us, especially for value-added services," says Prasad. The company plans to launch Live Mandi on a voice portal.
Reliance Communications is also planning a contest for mobile software developers in October, where the 10 best applications for rural customers will get cash prizes and a share of revenue. Prasad adds, "This could include city-specific applications or tools that could be used for small businesses." Apart from the contest, the company is planning to launch services in e-medicine and financial loans. "We are planning to cater to the language requirements in various parts of India on our Reliance Mobile World platform, and adapting applications developed in metros for rural customers," says Prasad.
Bharti Airtel, which recently reached the 50-million subscriber mark, is also setting its sight on rural customers to continue the momentum. Though the company has not specified its plans, it will focus on local content and services for these customers. It is also planning a WiMax service to provide wireless Internet connectivity in rural areas.
Elaborating on the RML pilot, managing director Amit Mehra says, "In the evidence collected from the customers, some have increased their profits by up to 23 per cent by selling their produce in a different market, and in some cases, they have employed less labour (and hence saved money) based on weather forecasts." Reuters is planning to extend the model to other states in India at a rate of Rs 60 per month. Eventually, it plans to expand RML to other countries.
More conventional Internet companies are also interested. Yahoo! is believed to be working on an information system for rural areas. It has already tied up with mobile operators for services like e-mail and instant messaging.
Technology players weigh in
According to P Balaji, vice-president, marketing and strategy, Ericsson India, "(The project) involves creation of a self-sustaining rural communication ecosystem that provides benefits from applications like e-governance, telemedicine, e-learning, entertainment, video conferencing and surveillance to rural communities." Balaji adds that the technology works best on a 3G telecom network, which is yet to be rolled out in India. However, "this technology can be adopted over the existing 2G telecom infrastructure, saving huge costs and time".
Gramjyoti includes a mobile TV service through which farmers can get the latest news on demand. Ericsson is also providing entertainment videos and music as part of the project. Ericsson is counting on working with operators to roll out similar networks in other parts of the country. It has tied up with mobile VAS company One97 Communications and TV channels Cartoon Network and CNN for the project.
One97 Communications has developed the application for Gramjyoti which tracks the prices of commodities in the local markets, though an IVRS (interactive voice response system). Pushpinder Singh, GM, sales, says, "Apart from commodity pricing, the other information which could be of use to the rural community is advice on soil types and fertilisers. We could develop micro communities that could be updated on important information in a particular area, like power cuts."
Perhaps the only alternative to this model is that of kiosks, pioneered by ITC through its e-choupals, which brought information to the doorstep of 3.5 million farmers. Reliance Money is also setting up 10,000 kiosks in the country to provide financial information.
Whether it is through the mobile or kiosks, wireless Internet is the way forward for a large part of India and could be a determining factor in an all-inclusive communication revolution, for the second time round.