By Dr. Sukant Khurana:
When we think of mobile communication there are a few images that flash in ones mind: one of the ongoing saga of telecommunication scandals, an image of people constantly talking on mobile phones and another of catchy advertisements inundating all forms of media. What gets hidden behind the curtain is the irreversible socioeconomic transformation of our society, hidden costs and benefits, changes in trade and foreign relations and most importantly the immense future possibilities. Here, we assess the road taken by the mobile sector till now, so that we can better shape the future. We ask if this technology can be the leading first sector where a currently non-existent dimension can be added to the Indian growth story; that of an innovation based economy.
First, let us look at the ways mobile technology has changed our lives. Primary service of the mobile technology, when initially introduced in 1999, was to provide voice communication but over the years, internet, mobile enterprise services, mobile-commerce and entertainment, are some of the services that have been added to the milieu. The reach of the mobile technology has changed accessibility and communication everywhere. Its use has spread in regions where the landline use is rather limited, for example even in a war-ravaged country of Afghanistan that has barely any landlines, 150,000 new cell phone subscribers are added every month. According to the telecom regulatory authority of India in October 2011, India had 600 million plus active wireless subscribers with around 65% subscription from urban areas. The evolution of wireless technology and the growth in data transfer rates has facilitated the spread of internet on mobile devices. With declining voice tariff, mobile operators have started providing entertainment services such as mobile music, mobile TV, mobile gaming, audios, videos and social networking etc. Mobile music that includes ring tone and song downloading is the most used service in India, primarily because of the urban youth use patterns. Rural sector usage is very utilitarian, with a whopping 40% of usage related to gathering agricultural information, while entertainment services are at a much lower 16%, and financial services such as mobile remittance and money at a healthy 8%, showing the pragmatic side of the country folks. This increased communication increases social mobility and are already proving to be a vehicle of social and economic transformation. In recent years, availability of services in various regional languages has made mobile services reachable to a bigger spectrum of people. To much chagrin of the political elites, mobile communication and internet have acted as a catalyst for social and political change, like the Arab spring, the Occupy movement, and our very own anti-corruption frenzy. The telecom industry currently directly contributes to more than 1.5% to the Indian GDP. When the tele-density saturates, then also for many years total usage will continue to increase, so this sector has immense potential for growth. More than 5 million jobs are created in India, directly or indirectly due to the telecom sector and this is expected to increase to 12 million soon but this is an underestimate of the true social and economic impact. This is the first time for many in the remote regions to know about supply and demand dynamics of their business on everyday basis and being able to talk to end user of their product. Urban migrant workers and troops stationed in remote regions can get in touch with their family on a regular basis now and financial transactions can be conducted at ones fingertips, bypassing the long queues and the customary bribing of the clerical staff. This transformation and mass empowerment is reflected by the fact that currently 1% growth in tele-density results in a 3% increase in the rate of GDP growth. Given such an important role of mobile sector in developing world, one can consider it a basic utility and should be vary of not repeating mistakes of US of letting some unaccounted monopolies develop in this sector.
Wait a minute; let us not make you feel that there are way too many rainbows in this sunny story of mobile revolution. There are dark sides of the mobile sector; some, where light can reach easily and some that would need novel solutions. These are two dimensions of negatives of this mobile revolution in India: one the negative impact of the mobile technology itself and the other where Indian society is specifically lagging behind in gaining from this transformation. In India, one undergoes an unabated harassment of unsolicited calls, texts, pop ups, and gets enrolled in unwanted services without ones consent. Even though National Do Not Call Registry has been set up to curb unsolicited calls and there is now a daily limit of sending 200 SMSs per number, spammers and sales people seem to be outpacing sluggish control measures. Indians are also yet to catch up with the global usage for smarter monitoring of constantly evolving situations like stock markets and developing news stories of their concern. Mobile commerce has enabled increasing number of Indians to do their money transaction in a secured manner using mobile technology, including buying or selling goods, financial services like accessing bank accounts, booking tickets, paying bills and stock trading but the segment using these services from mobile is somewhat limited due to unfamiliarity with the services and also due to security concerns. Bandwidth insufficiency and unreliable network connectivity are the limitations that cause security concerns in India. Mobile technology has a potential in healthcare and education but that potential remains largely untapped at present. Mobile usage and internet in general have changed the work habits for some people in negative ways and usage of mobile sets during driving has increased traffic accidents. Fixing the behavior of public and cops, who violate traffic laws alike, is an easier fix than the attention related issues and internet addiction. The use of current technology of batteries in mobile devices is a concern world over due to limited charge storage issues and dependence on rare earth metals from China for their manufacture. In a recent spat with Japan, China stifled the supply of these metals sending alarm signals all across the globe. Many emerging technologies that promise solutions to both issues are on horizon and these may not be long lasting concerns. India suffers from a lack of proper disposal of mobile parts in an environmentally sound manner, though higher second hand usage of instrument reduces the total environmental footprint.
Apart from the above-mentioned problems, there are some issues that are closest to our hearts. Despite 600 million plus users in India, double the size of total American population, leave innovation, even manufacture sector thrives mostly on compiling products manufactured elsewhere, instead of significant domestic production. This lack of high tech production and innovation is not unique to the mobile sector but a general plague afflicting India. Apart from the drawbacks of the industry that need fixing, the failure to innovate is in a bigger part a result of failure of the academic and the governmental research institutions. In US, Europe, Japan and South Korea, fundamentals of novel technologies are born either in the research universities or in the governmental institutions. Indian government and academic settings, especially ones located near centers of power, like the University of Delhi, a darkest example of what is rotten in Indian research, are a swamp for the talented to perish and a bottomless pit for sucking taxpayer’s money. These universities with departments conducting research, have politically appointed cronies in the positions of vice chancellor, dean of research, and heads of departments, people that have no single internationally known academic achievement or mentionable success in translating an idea to a commercially viable product. These small men who cast long shadows, meddle with research, play political games and harass academics to maintain their positions are frequently guilty of prolonging failed mega projects to fatten their chauffeurs. A vibrant industry and academia interaction is the backbone of an innovation-based economy and for such a healthy interaction to occur in India, a transparent process of depoliticizing academia and government run research initiatives is direly needed. We hope more Indians, whether in India or abroad would see this bad situation as a challenge and an opportunity, as we do, to lead innovation though efforts in basic research and industry. The business sector also needs visionaries and business leaders who can enable innovation by choosing to invest in the right people to do the right projects, more so in the times when there exists not much of a respectable academic research apparatus. Given that we have one of the largest mobile market in the world, and the presence of necessary expertise, the mobile sector has a very large potential to emerge as a leading light for India to be an innovation-driven economy. If India wants to shine, then we hope that becomes known for bringing the next G to the world and not just a scam associated with 2G.
Dr. Sukant Khurana is a New York based scientist, innovator and author of Indian origin. He is known for his research in the field of sensory perception, addiction, learning and memory, apart from his recent involvement in many high tech sectors of India. He is active in campaigning for issues of corporate responsibility, education, scientific thinking and improving affordable healthcare. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org