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Internet as a fundamental right

 The audacious pricing of Reliance Jio, notwithstanding,  mobile phone won't empower the mass of Indians  unless government puts its money where its mouth is
By Anand Parthasarathy
Bangalore, September 7 2016: Shortly before he passed away in 2002, Reliance Group founder Dhirubhai Ambani coined  a memorable phrase -- "Roti, Kapda, makaan aur Internet"  ( Food, clothing, shelter and Internet) to  dramatise his vision for  empowering   India's aam janatha.   It was left to his son Anil to  launch  the communication business of the group which by then had been split between Dhirubhai's two sons.  When Reliance Communications was launched a year later,  the new entity  took as its mantra another Dhirubhai vision: "Make the cost of a phone call cheaper than sending a post card and you will transform the lives of millions of Indians!"  
Reliance was indeed a disruptor in its time,  helping crash the cost of a mobile call to a fifth of what was then prevalent.  Other large operators like Airtel  played their part to ensure that mobile tariffs remained the world's cheapest for many years.
I remember Sunil Bharti Mittal  speaking in a panel of  cellular phone company heads at the Mobile World Congress discussing  how low the ARPU or average revenue per user could go before the business became unviable.  Companies like Verizon and AT&T  threw numbers like 10 to 15 dollars.  Mittal drew a gasp when he said  Airtel  ran a successful business with an ARPU of one dollar -- then worth about 50 rupees.  That is all an average Indian user spent on mobile recharge in a month.  Things have improved -- but the challenge in India remains: how to empower a population  exceeding a billion people whose ability to spend   on things like personal communications was so pitifully low even as their aspirations  were limitless.
The mobile handset has  become the  symbol  of such aspirations -- but in the decade and more since the Ambanis upset the telecom market with disruptive pricing, a subtle technology-fuelled  reworking of the  goal has  become necessary.  So- called Feature Phones ( a cynical branding for phones with minimal features)  could be had for well below a thousand rupees and indeed they served well for millions who learned to innovatively use its simple voice and texting features in a manner that ensured  'paisa vasool' and more. 
International television crews  for some months descended on a small tea shop in the crowded Chikpet market of Bangalore, where the owner  was on call to serve tiny lotas of chai   to hundreds  of  nearby cloth shops, without their having to spend a paisa to place an order.  All they did was make a 'missed call'.  The tea stall owner maintained a  directory of all  the phone numbers  and a boy was despatched to the  customer within minutes with a kettle of tea. The free 'missed call'  phone is  just one example of jugaad or frugal innovation  that Indians have overlaid on their mobile phones. Today even banks  encourage the technique -- though in their case the service provider  does  not lose revenue.
For all its versatility -- and a  prepiaid recharge  as low as  Rs 20 -- the mobile phone hits a wall without a new and increasingly crucial umbilical:  Internet access.  After some ideological dithering the present government in Delhi has  put its full weight behind the Aadhaar    ID system  and this has made it easier and safer to  use the mobile handset as a tool for financial transactions.  India has been slow to realise the potential  of microbanking -- till Bangla Desh showed the way with Grameen Bank and the African continent gave it a mobile edge with solutions like Mpesa.  But  push has come to shove here too, thanks mainly to private enterprise.  From taxi aggregators to hyperlocal  kirana suppliers to  doorstep medical diagnostic tests, innovative Indian companies have rolled out plethora of   services  all of which  need a 'connected' mobile phone  app as its lynchpin.  The tail is wagging the dog:  data which used to be a small and costly adjunct to voice calls, is now the  necessary and sufficient  technology which truly  makes the mobile phone  a tool of empowerment. 
When 3G morphed to 4G  this tilted the balance in favour of data over voice.  Indeed the latest technology being rolled out in India -- VoLTE   or Voice over Long Term Evolution--  uses the data speeds of LTE( another name for 4th generation mobile communication), to carry voice  traffic on its back.  The logical  conclusion to this  to charge for data usage and throw in voice for free  --- and that is precisely what  the 'other' Reliance company, the one controlled by Mukesh Ambani did  a few days ago when it formally launched   its brand Reliance Jio  with the premise: Voice calls free, no roaming charges, only pay for data consumed.   
And what data tariffs? At the Reliance Industries  AGM in Mumbai, Mukesh Ambani   said Jio would offer  best rate of Rs 50 per GB.  Admittedly this is only in the Rs 5000 per month subscription slab, but even if extrapolated to lower usage plans,  this is once more a case of history repeating -- and India offering the  world's  lowest cellular data service.  That is all good news. Now for the obverse side of the coin.
For  such compelling prices to be  commercially viable ( not just for one player with deep pockets but for all telecom service providers big and small),  the  basic  resource -- spectrum -- needs to be available at a reasonable cost.  Since it is everywhere owned and controlled by governments,    the impact of spectrum cost can be a maker or breaker of  mobile usage.  Sadly,  for at least a decade now,  successive Indian governments have looked on spectrum as a cow to be milked for all its worth  and  the  floor prices set at recent and upcoming auctions  are  rapacious and self defeating.  
Government which trumpets its many initiatives  for the aam janatha, all  rolled out through mobile phone apps,  is throttling  the very mechanism of   service  by  overpricing the only  part of the  ecosystem it owns.
The biggest ever auction of spectrum is due to be held  starting October 1 and industry estimates that it will have to pay  Rs 5.56 lakh crore  to get the bandwidth it requires. This is a windfall for a government. How much of this is it ready and willing to plough back to the tax payer and citizen as its contribution to empowerment through technology?  If past experience is a guide -- very little. 
India’s Internet user base is  already greater than that of the US and the second largest after China.   When India's development story in the 21st century is written, a big chapter  must speak of the role of Internet and the mobile phone and the part they  played in the lives of 1.2 billion people.  The hundreds of Indian companies  whose enterprise and innovation  made the revolution possible,  will form a proud segment of the story. But it is as yet not clear, if the record will reflect that successive governments, helped accelerate the process of change -- or merely made a fast buck in the process.

This article  appeared  first appeared on the website of THE WEEK





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Internet as a fundamental right
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