For the past eleven years, telecom companies have to pay 5 per cent of their adjusted gross revenues as a levy toward the Universal Service Obligation Fund (USOF). The purpose of setting up such a fund was to ensure affordable telecom services to all, especially to those in remote rural areas.
As it happens the telecom revolution since 2002 surprised everybody, and without any prodding, the telecom companies went far and wide, and deep into rural areas. All twenty-eight states and Union Territories have decent coverage. Hence the USOF lies largely unused. As of today it has roughly Rs 30,000 crore, which is 0.3 per cent of India’s annual GDP.
A big part of this fund will go toward the national fiber optic project, which aims to lay high bandwidth cable to each of the 6.4 lakh villages. Some money will be spent in putting up about 20,000 mobile towers in Naxal affected districts. The government wants every home in India to have a mobile phone with internet access. Hence it will give away free 25 million smartphones to those households who do not have any mobile access.
This includes a free phone with three year warranty, a SIM card and monthly free recharge of Rs 30 for two years. The phone-less households in rural areas will be identified through the NREGA rosters. This initiative will be executed through the Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL) and will cost around Rs 5,000 crore. This will also be funded by the USOF.
Every Indian is likely to get a mobile phone, before s/he gets an Aadhaar number or a voter id card! India has more than 850 million mobile subscribers, but they are distributed quite unevenly across rural and urban areas.
Thus tele-density (i.e. number of subscribers per 100 persons) in rural areas is only 41 per cent whereas urban areas is 147 per cent. Hence the BSNL initiative will ensure a rapid rise of rural tele-density, that too with an internet enabled smartphone. Imagine the impact of having every Indian equipped with an internet-enabled phone. The possibilities are limitless.
At the macro-level, according to one estimate, a ten per cent increase in mobile penetration can increase GDP by 1.5 per cent. Smartphone access, including through tablets like Akash, can impact literacy and women empowerment. The Akash movement is already spawning an industry of speech and video-based tutorials for everything from chemistry and calculus to programming and physics. The tablet in a rural household can be a home tutor.
The 2014 Lok Sabha elections will be the first one where mobiles and internet enabled smartphones will make a significant impact. With applications like SMS, social media and Youtube, candidates can talk to individual voters in a way that television cannot. Besides televisions stay fixed in homes, wheres a smartphone travels with you in your pocket.
The TV message can be seen only when it is broadcast, whereas the mobile phone message or video can be seen when it is convenient to the viewer, not broadcaster. The freedom that a mobile device affords is incomparable to television or indeed any other mass media.
For more than 50 per cent Indians, their first experience of internet will be through their mobile phones. This is a fact not sufficiently appreciated by the content developers of websites and web services. The web delivery has to be designed keeping in mind that the consumer is seeing it on a tiny low frills screen on a Micromax or a Samsung.
Most sites do not distinguish whether they are being browsed from a desktop, laptop or a tiny cell phone. Hence their content is too rich, too heavy and takes forever to load via a GPRS connection into a mobile. Once we realize the centrality of the mobile in the internet universe, the sky is the limit.