The Telecom Commission plans to use Rs.3,000 crore from the Universal Service Obligation Fund (USOF) to provide mobile connectivity to 56,000 villages identified as mobile and telecom shadow areas.
While USOF does that, we should not ignore the fact that out of the 867.02 million mobile subscribers (as of April) in the country, not more than 26% are unique users (as per GSM Association).
Even if we take other stats and the growth of mobile users in 2013, the absolute number of unique users may not be more than 30% of the total subscribers, which means India has no more than 260 million unique mobile users across its cities and villages. No wonder that the total number of handsets counted in 2012 was just 221.6 million units.
Since rural mobile penetration is about 40%, the number of unique mobile users just about 104 million. According to the Internet and Mobile Association of India, as of June 2012, out of 38 million Internet users in rural India, only 12% could access the Internet on their mobile phones. Let’s find out as how non-Internet connected mobile subscribers use their mobile devices.
Bablu Lohra and Bablu Oraon, both 18-year-olds having similar first names, are school dropouts. They belong to two different sects of the adivasi community.
They stay on the outskirts of Ranchi, capital of the tribal-dominated state of Jharkhand. Both are good friends and spend all their time together.
They work as road construction workers, earning Rs.6,000-7,000 a month. I bumped into them two weeks ago when I was in Ranchi at a roadside dhaba, where they were listening to very loud music being played on the mobile phone of Oraon. I went to them and requested if they could share their experiences in using their mobile phones.
I browsed through their devices—both smartphones of different sizes, Chinese-made and with extraordinary speaker capacity. They had procured the devices secondhand or may be even third hand for just Rs.300 and Rs.600. Both had dual SIM card slots but no GPRS or 3G subscriptions.
However, the mobiles had 2GB and 4GB micro SD (secure digital) cards inserted that had innumerable songs, videos, full-length films and animations. Oraon informed they get the SD cards filled at a local shop at a rate of Rs.40 per GB per card each time. If they get just one song, it may cost Rs.2, while a full-length film costs Rs.5-10.
Quickly browsing, he showed me several films on his mobile’s micro SD card. And guess what? He spends anywhere between Rs.1,000 and Rs.1,600 every month on his mobile and the entertainment content.
Their trend of using mobile phones convey three messages: First is use, reuse and multiple use of mobile devices and, thus, the recycling market or the used-device market; second is the usage of mobile devices without being connected or Internet-enabled, thus leading to assume the size of digital revolution among the unconnected; and third, the entire market around entertainment for the youth and the economy around SD cards as a medium and carrier of information and content.
Considering that mobile culture is synonymous with youth, the 240 million people in India in the age group of 15-24 (according to the 2011 Census) are going to be the primary target of mobile adoption in the near future. Also, the median age in India is 25, which leads to an assumption that half of the country’s 1.2 billion people are of the median age. Hence, we are poised to have a country of youth with geometric progression of mobile adoption by them, though not all of them are going to be Internet-connected mobile users.
Are policymakers and government planning as to what kind of content these youngsters should be consuming and what medium we should adopt to reach our youth through mobile phones?
Osama Manzar is founder-director of Digital Empowerment Foundation and curator of the mBillionth Awards. He is member of the working group for Internet proliferation and governance, ministry of communication and information technology. Follow him on twitter @osamamanzar.