New Delhi: Each year often brings technology-driven changes—most incremental and some big leaps. In 2008, there will be easier ways to pay bills, better avenues for comparison-shopping, and more efficient methods of hiring. And, this (Chinese) Year of the Rat will have more than its average share of big changes on the technology front for the average urban Indian. Expect changes in the fuel that powers your car or bike; the way entertainment—and work—happens while on the move or in so-called dead time, as in waiting for traffic gridlock to clear or a plane to take off. And, even how your office and, perhaps, home is lit.
Let’s start with mobile phone networks that service 220 million customers (statistically, that is equivalent to one in every Indian home, though that’s not quite the ground reality). Despite the acrimonious pull-and-push by various business and government lobbies, we will most likely see the ushering in of what is called 3G, or third generation, mobile-phone services in India as also, in small pockets, so-called fourth generation phone services where voice communications can be offered for free.
Such services will mean that phone companies will have to hard sell these offerings to improve their average billing among customers notorious for wanting everything on the cheap. Bharti Airtel Ltd and Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd (BSNL) are clear that’s the path to improved profitability. Meanwhile, while 3G and Wimax technologies will let users download data, including music and video files as well as live television on their phones, another offering by telecom providers—Internet protocol television, referred to as IPTV, will allow subscribers to watch their favourite TV programmes as and when they want to.
BSNL, India’s biggest phone firm by revenues, plans to launch Wimax-based services in at least 1,000 villages and two large Indian states, including Punjab, by the first half of 2008. Wimax will offer broadband, high speed Internet access to mobile users in urban areas, predicts one company executive, adding that it would also be used to provide connectivity in community service centres in villages. “Wimax allows five times faster data download than 3G technology,” he insists.
The spread of Wimax offerings, yet, will “become a mainstream technology only after operators are able to make money out of 3G services, which looks more immediate,” says Deepak Kumar of tech research firm IDC’s India unit. He expects the launch of 3G services by late 2008.
With the Union government planning to auction radio spectrum for 3G services, operators are readying their roll-out plans. In phases, the millions of mobile phone subscribers in the country will have a choice to access and download music and video files by paying an extra fee to their telecom operators.
“We have already done our pilots and can launch the services within six months of spectrum allocation,” according to Abhay Savargaonkar, senior vice-president in charge of 3G services at Bharti Airtel. Customers in large cities are ready to pay for high-end data services, he said back in October.
The average revenue per user for 3G services “could range anywhere between Rs500 and Rs700 depending upon the pricing strategies adopted by the operators,” said a telecom analyst at a Mumbai-based financial brokerage house, who expects some 15 million 3G customers in India in the first year of launch. And, if operators hungry for market share subsidize 3G handsets, research firm BDA China Ltd says there could be around 30 million customers for the service by 2010.
IPTV services, already running as pilot projects in some Indian cities, are also set to become less esoteric. Some 105 million Indian homes have TVs, a market growing by 20% annually, presenting an attractive market for telecom operators who have the benefit of fibre?and other potentially-high bandwidth networks running into a significant chunk of those households. “Apart from television services, IPTV will include video-on-demand, digital video recording, instant channel changing and personal media sharing services,” says Usha Rajeev of consultant PricewaterhouseCoopers.
BSNL, which started offering IPTV services to 1,000 trial customers in Pune, Bangalore and Kolkata in 2007, expects to cover 55 cities by June and sign up a million customers by end of the year. India’s second biggest mobile services firm by subscribers, Reliance Communications Ltd says it intends rolling out its IPTV services in early 2008, having earmarked up to $500 million, or about Rs2,000 crore, to buy technology from Microsoft Corp. Bharti Airtel, which is testing its IPTV offering with about 1,000 customers in New Delhi, is expected to launch the service by the first half of the year.
“IPTV will be the most exciting thing to expect in 2008, especially since operators are already talking of networks with 2MB per second (mbps) to almost 8mbps kind of download speeds,” said Kumar of IDC India Ltd. Experts point to the sharp increase in direct-to-home satellite TV customers—more than three million paid subscribers—as a proxy indicator of demand for TV delivered on media other than the most-common cables.
Meanwhile, technology leaps won’t just happen with cellphones, Internet access and TV, but also with your set of wheels and the fuel that drives it.
Hydrogen-powered and so-called hybrid cars may be the first, important tangible breakthroughs that come out of India’s private research labs in 2008. Watch out for the hybrids first (as early as next Wednesday), which come with two ways of powering the wheels: a petrol engine as well as an electric battery, combining the mileage and power of a petrol engine with the environment-friendliness of an electric vehicle.
Auto maker Mahindra and Mahindra Ltd, for one, is ready to showcase its hybrid cars at industry event Auto Expo starting 10 January in New Delhi. “We are testing the mild hybrid version of the Scorpio,” said Arun Jawar, research head at the company. In mild hybrid versions, the driver has to manually switch from engine to motor, and this is expected to be cheaper than automatic versions, though the company has not decided yet by how much.
A local unit of Honda Motor Co. Ltd, too, is readying its plans for bringing in a much-publicized hybrid model from its stable into India. “We have plans to launch the Civic hybrid in India by (late 2008),” says Jnaneswar Sen, senior general manager of marketing at Honda Siel Cars India Ltd.
Hydrogen-fuelled vehicles are a little further away. The Tata group recently announced plans to partner with the Indian Space Research Organisation to develop hydrogen-fuelled buses. Bajaj Auto Ltd, which displayed a prototype of its hydrogen-fuelled autorickshaw at an industry event in September, said it is working on developing a “fleet” of such vehicles later this year. Says Shubhangi Chiplonkar, a researcher at Bajaj Auto: “Our next step is to develop suitable hydrogen dispensing pumps and we hope the government is looking into this.”
The Delhi government is. “We are looking to initiate a pilot project, wherein hydrogen fuel dispensing stations will be set up with, in Delhi. While the prototypes are ready, the locations should be finalized by the middle of the year,” said N.P. Singh, adviser to the Union ministry of new and renewable energy.
Yet, it will be a while before hydrogen-pumping stations and cars dot the country’s cities. Before that, a more likely scenario will be ethanol blending in petrol and diesel. In a bid to bring down its fuel subsidy Bill, the government has mandated that 10% ethanol, high-purity alcohol manufactured from sugar cane in India (it can be derived from maize, potatoes, tapioca...), be added to every litre of petrol or diesel sold in the country.
Oil firms are sceptical of the October deadline, but the effort is likely to make a small beginning this year with three effects: more demand for sugar cane cultivated, lower vehicular pollution levels and less burden on government budgets.
Another green initiative, with promise to become larger in 2008, is playing out in rural Maharashtra. In hamlets close to Otur town in Pune district, light-emitting diodes (LEDs), for years used in display panels, have been used in 10,000 homes for lighting. Powered by solar panels, LEDs have provided these homes with light, a task administrations across the country have failed in.
“Within two-three years, CFLs (compact fluorescent lamps) will be on the back-burner. The US is already experiencing a major shift towards this efficient lighting system,” insists Jasjeet Singh Chaddah, founder?of?Surya Bijlee,?the rural solar lighting project, which uses LEDs. CFLs are slowly replacing the common incandescent, yellow light bulbs.