Mobile Internet Boom Coming, but Challenges Remain

“Driven by falling handset prices and rise in Smartphone penetration, data subscribers in India are likely to grow an average 25% every year to reach 519 million by 2018 fiscal”, says Morgan Stanley.Regardless of how the U.S. multinational financial services company has forecast the situation in India, it goes without saying that there is a mobile internet boom underway all over our lonely planet, but hey, there is sting in the tail, too; devices and service challenges have put question marks on full-scale mobile surfing, especially in the developing countries of the world where cheaper smartphones often hinder help.

However, let us first take a peek at the brighter side of the picture with a few true stories. Yeishan Goel, CEO, Travel & Hospitality Representation Services, a Gurgaon–based consultancy reportedly spent New Year’s in Shanghai. Despite Mandarin not being his lingua franca, the young man never felt ill at ease in the land of the dragon. In fact, he was confident about everything, courtesy his iPhone5. Instead of asking people left and right for directions (using sign language, etc), he utilized the services offered by his Smartphone at random. Also, he made no bones about using Google translator to move easily around the city, locate places to visit and eat in, for hailing cabs, etc, etc.

Back home, he was equally jubilant about his iPhone5. “From the morning alarm to booking travel tickets, hailing cabs, eating out, shopping, to name a few, I do it all via the 20+ apps on my iPhone”, he boasts. “As long as I have data, I do not need to communicate via voice”, comments the busy CEO.Very soon, people like Goel are likely to swell to around 155 million, reaching up to 185 million and over. That’s the established base of mobile internet users in the country out of 875 million mobile phone users, as per information gathered from the Internet & Mobile Association of India (IAMAI).  

Says Viral Oza, director, marketing, Nokia India: “Even after 17 years of internet we just have 15 million fixed line broadband users. Mobile internet is the way to go.” Citing an Avendus Capital report Oza says, out of the 150 million internet users, 86 million surfed on their mobile devices in 2013. Consulting firm AT Kearney says by 2020 there will be about 400 million mobile internet users and 900 million monthly app downloads. By then 75 million children will use apps for education, from almost zilch at present. Already, about a third of Google searches land on mobile, a third of Facebook users log only from their smartphones and a similar number watches YouTube videos on handhelds. Adds Sashi Shankar, chief marketing officer, Idea Cellular: “The country is poised for a mobile broadband revolution.”

The Flip Side of The Glorious Picture

After the monumental pace of growth of the internet user base in India, it may be easily said that India will become the second largest internet user country, behind China, overtaking the US, which has about 170 million internet users. However, the quality of that connectivity may not ensure that everyone can do everything on their mobile, much like what users like Goel (who have high-end phones) can do. That’s because of the poor combination of the type of device and the use of services.

Most mobile phone users (about 90%) in India have devices that cost below Rs 5,000 and these are either feature phones (with no browsers) or good only for 2G services. Says Devsare: “Entry-level smartphones are 2G based. You won’t get a 3G smartphone below Rs 4,000 as the chipset cost is higher for 3G and royalty has to be paid to the service provider for a 3G phone.”