Haven’t we all been hearing that the Internet boom in India is waiting to happen. We will soon get past the tipping point. We just need to overcome a few barriers. So what are these barriers? About 10 years ago, it was the lack of a broadband policy, expensive computing. Five years ago lack of availability of inexpensive broadband access. Finally, the advent of smartphones, it is believed would help India cross both hurdles of access and affordability. I remain skeptical.
I believe all these arguments have focused on the availability of technology itself, not how or why it is expected to be used by the people. It is overtly simplistic to assume that just because more and more mobile users have Internet enabled phones, they would take to the mobile Internet. This may remain a fond hope.
First, lets talk about the cellphones. No one in India or worldwide had expected cellphones to become ubiquitous. Far from it, they were thought to fail. Yet they found their most enthusiastic customers (surprisingly for some) in emerging markets of Asia and Africa, and not the US or UK. To me this was quite unsurprising.
Let’s examine the case of India. There were less than 20 million phones in the country at the time cellphones first arrived ( a teledensity of about 1 in 1995-96). This is 100 years after the first telephone exchange was setup in the country. The low teledensity was not because people did not want or could not afford telephones. Most people wanted one, and that too badly. With one state owned provider, you had to wait years ( often decades) to get a connection ( we got ours in 1994 after applying in 1985 because we were high priority customers, my parents being doctors).
Why did everyone want a phone? Because everyone had seen it being used. A worker at a grocery store and a restaurant had seen it being used by his owner. A clerk had seen it being used in his office. Even housewives had more than once flocked to STD /PCO booths to convey important messages. The phenomenal success of STD/PCOs in the late 80s and early 90s made every Indian aware of what the telephone can do.
The entry and falling prices of mobile phones was then a sweetly timed co-incidence with the need for a telephone. What more, no waiting lists, no favors to be offered to linesmen, yet you could within days ( or hours) get a working telephone. Soon, everybody knew somebody who had a telephone or a cellphone. Hence 100 years after its first introduction in the country, people were able to get a device they longed for. A device that enabled even the illiterate to communicate! They indeed embraced it, that too in no insignificant measure.
That this burgeoning cellphone population would start accessing Internet on mobile phones is a fairly rational thought. Accessible, affordable and reliable services further the case. Yet, there is one catch.
Unlike phones, most haven’t longed for the Web. Do they even know what the Internet is or what can it do for them? The computer for them is a device that banks maintain ledgers on or people in big offices use for some official work, or some students use in colleges. Everyone they talk to or want to talk to has a cellphone. By contrast 9 out of 10 people do not use the Internet, fewer use it more frequently than once a month.
Then what about the claim that companies such as Facebook claim that a large chunk of their users (even in India) use the service from mobile devices. These claims may be perfectly valid. However, how many of these users began using the Internet on their phones? My understanding suggests that most mobile web users are people who are already introduced to the Internet on a regular device, and use the mobile Web in addition to surfing the Web on the computer.
Agreed, for many the phone may have become a primary device for Internet access. However this does not mean that those who remain unexposed to computers and consequently the Internet, will also start using web services on their phone. They have to have the need for that service in the first place. How we develop that need is a matter of another post.Till then, good luck to all those waiting for the Internet in India to boom!