Rural India can immensely benefit from mobile boom

Mobile communication, by bridging the digital divide has revolutionised the social and economic life across the rural and semi-urban areas and mobile phones represent the world’s largest distribution platform. The mobile phone market is especially important for developing countries, where it is growing most rapidly.  

Land phone revolution

India, which did not participate in the global land phone revolution, has seen unprecedented growth in mobile subscriber base, with over 450 million subscribers (by the end of 2009), second only to china. India’s tele-density (number of phones per 100 people) has grown over three-folds in the last three years, from about 13 per cent in March 2006 to over 40 per cent now. Mobile usage, restricted to urban India a few years back, has started penetrating the rural hinterland of the country at a good pace. The rural tele-density has grown at an impressive rate from 1.9 per cent in 2005 to over 15 per cent now. A  few  studies provide show a positive co-relation between Tele-Density and GDP growth. However, India’s Human Development Index stands at an appalling 132nd rank out of the 179 countries. With over two-third of India’s population residing in the rural India, a genuine effort is required from private public partnerships to improve rural India’s standard of living. Indian rural population has challenges in terms of low literacy, poor health care, low per capita income, and other infrastructure problems that inhibit development.

Communication is still a challenge in many of the villages and remote places. While Tele-density is a reflection of Voice communication alone, the actual benefit of technology positively impacting rural economy will be seen when data communication is used effectively. Since the mobile phone and associated wireless technologies can be used to tackle one of the problems, namely, literacy, it would certainly have a cascading effect on the economic development.

While at present, the telecom service providers concentrate on subscriber acquisition in the rural market, primarily for voice services, which has become commoditised due to intense competition in the sector, it is not the end. The low and ever-dwindling ARPU (Average Revenue per User, currently at around Rs 200 a month) can be offset by using mobile services not just for communication, but to more basic aspects of life such as education and healthcare.  In advanced countries like United Kingdom, although rural population is smaller compared with urban population, rural subscribers have over-taken their urban counterparts on many of the wireless and broadband parameters. In countries like the US and Australia, rural mobile health services have picked-up momentum.

Mobile-based systems

There are plenty of examples of mobile phone based services for rural environment. A simple Mobile based ordering system Collaboration@Rural project, enables small grocery shops in rural South Africa to sell the goods, their customers actually need –— through a mobile delivery system. Nano Ganesh, a trial project in Gujarat allows farmers to use their mobile phones to remotely control irrigation pump sets located in far-off locations.  
An mHealth project in Africa provides mobile phone owners updates on diseases via SMS. Advance warning of an impending natural disaster through mobile phones alerts have been implemented in many countries. In South Africa, SIMpill is a sensor-equipped pill bottle with a SIM card that informs doctors whether patients are taking their tuberculosis medicine. Nokia Life Tools provide market and educational information through mobile phones. Such rural specific value-added service applications can be implemented across the rural topography with region specific adaptations.

However, it is important that the target audience is trained and is adept at using the mobile applications for successful adoption. Imparting m-awareness will enable the users to understand and appreciate the value of these technology services and help increase the adoption rate. The Universal Service Obligation Fund (USOF) which has unused funds of over Rs 14,000 crores could be deployed for technology and infrastructure enhancement and maybe embark on a mission of increasing awareness of the mobile technology’s benefits among rural India with an active collaboration amongst various stakeholders such as telcos, learning content providers, universities and schools, and local administration.

The Telcos will have access to ‘m-aware’ rural population, which certainly would help in improving ARPU. TRAI has initiated actions in the right direction by creating an exhaustive connectivity-map covering over 6 lakh villages in India to estimate the available connectivity (coaxial cable, optical fiber connectivity, wire line and wireless) in Rural Areas. Satellite communication could be an alternate option for rough terrains that cannot be connected with wired or Mobile communication.

With 3G and broadband wireless access on the horizon, new opportunities abound to provide rich rural mobile applications. With the rapid fall in the cost of mobile hardware components, and the development of less expensive open source mobile software, the availability of economical feature-rich phones with high end graphic support would make easy adoption of mobile based rural applications. Solar powered mobile phones would be a boon for areas with non-existent/unreliable electricity.

With the next wave of exponential growth in wireless communication certainly coming from the rural segment, there is a huge opportunity to be tapped by the Telcos through innovative and ‘value-for-money’ solutions to address the needs of the rural population.
The writer is Director and Head of Engineering, Teleca Software solutions India.

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