Saturday, December 04, 2004

New India Glimpses

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New India Glimpses

India is witnessing amazing change. While life on a day-to-day basis
still has its challenges (poor road infrastructure, erratic power,
limited bandwidth, growing urban-rural divide, quality and
availability of education, a population that is still growing more
rapidly than available resources), there is a lot that is happening to
augur well for the future.

Cellphones: Recently, the number of cellphones in India passed the
number of landlines. This is not just a statistical milestone. It
signifies the choice that Indians are making. By leapfrogging to a
wirefree world, communications in India is being transformed, and so
is life. Hoardings in Mumbai announce the availability of TV via EDGE
networks and railway reservations via the handset. About 2 million new
users a month are being added to the current base of about 45 million
cellphone users. India has one of the lowest tariffs in the world for
mobile telephony. Text messaging has become a way of interaction for
many. Value-added services like ringtones and gaming are growing.
State-of-the-art networks and feature-rich handsets across India are
beckoning the next set of users. Cellphone companies are profitable at
average monthly revenues of Rs 400 ($9) per user.

Cable TV: A hundred channels for all of Rs 250 ($5.50) – that's what
about 55 million households pay to enjoy their television. And there
is no dearth of new channels launching every month. I still remember
the launch of Zee TV, India's first private channel – it happened just
over a decade ago. A mélange of cable companies are now tying up with
Internet Service Providers to offer "broadband" (more like, always-on
narrowband) Internet to homes.

Wireless Data: Reliance Infocomm's CDMA-based wireless data networks
covers more than a thousand towns and cities across India. Lottery
terminals, ATMs and even credit card authorization terminals are using
it to connect to centralised servers. Providing speeds of 30-60 Kbps
(versus a theoretical maximum of 115 Kbps), these data networks are
also providing laptop users the ability to connect to the Internet in
under five seconds for 40 paise a minute (less than a penny) from
almost anywhere in urban and semi-urban India.

Cybercafes: Even as the cost of ownership of a computer remains high,
thousands of cybercafes function as "Tech 7-11s" in neighbourhoods.
Sify's 2,000 iWays offer not just Internet access, but also Internet
telephony and video conferencing.

Internet Telephony: I still remember the time a few years ago when
phone calls to the US cost nearly Rs 100 a minute. The other day, one
of the VoIP company sales representatives came calling offering calls
for less than Rs 2 a minute. Smart Indians are also buying by Vonage
boxes in the US and getting them to India to make calls to the US for
a flat rate of $30 (Rs 1,350) a month. Geography indeed has no

eCommerce: For all who think we have been left behind in the b2c
revolution, think again. Indian Railways and Deccan Airways have
proven that Indians will pay for transactions over the Internet. The
Indian Railways website address one of the major pain points in the
life of many – booking train tickets and checking the reservation
status of waitlisted tickets. Deccan Airways, one of the new low-cost
carriers, does bookings of Rs 1.5 crore ($330,000) daily over the

Matrimonials and Jobs: The way people find lifemates and new employers
is changing. Sites like and offer to
connect prospective brides and grooms. Job portals like (which also owns JobsAhead) and have
increased liquidity and fluidity for people seeking new career

Retailing: India is witnessing an unprecedented retail revolution as
malls and chains proliferate. Investments in IT are helping them not
only manage their supply-chain effectively but also build and maintain
customer relationships. The malls and multiplexes are becoming new
hangout places. With the boom in outsourced services, a growing
youthful population has more to spend. Easier access to credit is also
fueling an appliances and automobiles boom.

The Rs 500-a-month PC: Recently, HCL launched a computer on
installment payments – Rs 500 per month. This is a good start, even as
computing by itself faces challenges of affordability, desirability,
accessibility and manageability. The computing industry is not
learning two important lessons from the telecom industry – that of
zero-management user devices and subscription plans (as opposed to

Rural India: For a variety of reasons, rural India still remains
frozen in time. As governments start believing that free electricity
to farmers can be a passport for electoral success, investments in
other areas are likely to get compromised. There are a few signs of
hope – ITC's eChoupals and n-Logue's kiosks are providing a platform
for trade and services. But rural India still has a long way to go.

India is arriving as a market for global companies. Virgin is
considering investments in telecom and low-cost airlines. Cisco closed
a $100 million deal with VSNL for metro Ethernet. Most luxury brands
are already available or will be. India is a melting pot for many
simultaneous revolutions across multiple industries. As urban incomes
grow, a generation seeks to race ahead. With one of the most youthful
populations in the world, aspirations are on the rise. The next few
years are critical. If we can do things right, we can unlock the
potential of millions. If not…it will be yet another case of so near,
yet so far. The race is not with China, it is against our own
mindsets. Tomorrow's world is happening. Our actions can hasten it or
delay it. Hopefully, this time around, we can cross the chasm. For
that, India needs to build its digital infrastructure right.

As HP's Carly Fiorina wrote in The World in 2005: "Getting there is
going to require the right blend of realism and optimism. We need to
be realistic that none of this is going to be easy. But we also need
to be optimistic, because if we get this right, digital technology
will make more things more possible for more people in more places
than at any time in history. That alone is worth the journey." The
next Google will come out of the opportunities that technology is
creating in the context of the next users. What can we do to build out
tomorrow's world first in India and then across other emerging

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