So you want a revolution?

Everyone knows India has changed in very obvious ways since the explosion of the technology economy. We have seen the gleaming office complexes in boomtown Bengaluru and the new world-class air terminals in Mumbai and Delhi. But what haven't noticed is the revolution that mobile technology is bringing about in the small towns and rural areas of India.

Anand Chandrasekaran is chief product officer of India's leading telco bharti airtel
Anand Chandrasekaran is chief product officer of India's leading telco bharti airtel

After over a dozen years of working in the U.S., I joined the Indian workforce in April 2014. I was fortunate to spend a month traveling around the country on "market visits" – trips designed to meet mobile and broadband users and to understand their usage of technology.

The journey provided a firsthand glimpse into the rapidly evolving story of the mobile Internet revolution happening in India today. Consider the power of these five market drivers:

Social Interactions

One of my colleagues shared the story of getting her mother to upgrade to a smartphone. After pushing her hard to get a large screen phone with an Internet connection to no avail, the mother explained, "I don’t need the Internet like you kids do. Just get me Facebook!"

Despite the culture of pre-paid mobile accounts, most Indians do not want to pay for MBs and GBs. The result is intuitive pricing, with value being sold instead of the quantities of data. It’s like Amazon’s Prime "Sponsored Data" program, except it’s been around for years. In fact, on average, smartphone users in India tend to consume 3x more data.

Personal Image

During my trip to the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, I visited Gangoy, a village, on the outskirts of the provincial capital Lucknow. There I met Yadav, who had just upgraded to a Micromax smartphone. He is a farmer with a daily income of INR 300 per day (< $10) yet he had upgraded to a smartphone worth INR 8000 (~$125).

We met him at the village retail store where he had activated his phone and purchased a mobile Internet connection. He shared over tea and that his motivation to do so was to get "izzat" or respect within his community. (He also confessed to being a sucker for music and Bollywood film trailers…)

Small Business

One of the most fascinating stories I heard was about the owner of a general store in rural Bihar. He purchased a 2 GB plan and was renewing it weekly so we were curious what he was using it for. As it turns out, he downloaded full-length movies from YouTube at night (when he had free and unlimited data usage), burned them on to SD memory cards from his Samsung smartphone, and offered them for sale in his store.

He told us that even though sales of the SD cards were only okay, the movies did a great job at bringing regular foot traffic into the store. These visitors often purchased groceries, soap and shampoo while they were checking out the movies. In other words, the savvy businessman had deployed the oldest trick in retail: use an exclusive product to lure customers to buy high-margin, commodity items. Given the positive impact on his business, the storekeeper was religiously topping off his mobile Internet connection to keep his cottage movie industry – and marketing strategy – moving forward.

It was fantastic to see a mobile user with absolutely no education using a smartphone and the Internet to achieve his entrepreneurial ambitions. Be it the growing venture-funded mobile apps industry or this kind of cottage industry, the opportunity for mobile entrepreneurism is very real and only beginning: currently only 10-15% of India’s 900 million mobile users have ever tried using the Internet on their phones.

Cash Alternatives

During my first week in Delhi, I quickly discovered that nobody uses a credit card or cash in the company cafeteria. No, the food isn’t free (though it is highly subsidised). Everyone pays with Airtel Money, a cash alternative service that has the potential to be future of money and commerce.

Like M-Pesa which is already a way of life in Africa, Airtel Money is becoming more widely accepted in India and other countries with more than 1 million users today. Beyond the convenience of using it to transfer money to friends and pay bills, it also enables migrant workers like the ones in Jigri, Karnataka, and many other states in the country to transfer money to their loved ones.

Without this service, migrant workers would be forced to get in line at a bank at 6 am in order to transfer money before they had to be at work. With a simple, convenient service like Airtel Money, the money is instantly transferred at any time of day.

Startup Economy

It is estimated that there are more than 300,000 developers in India building products for the country’s forecasted 50 million smartphone users in 2015. The top few of them are becoming well known and making mobile a priority, including Flipkart, Snapdeal and OLX. But, there are thousands of start-ups toiling away, struggling to monetize their products – everything from convenience of buying movie tickets to purchasing a subscription to a regional newspaper.

As exciting as it is having a ringside seat to watch India’s mobile economy take flight, I am just as excited that India will "homegrow" many of the companies that will supply the products and services to its billion mobile users. That’s what I call a revolution.

Anand Chandrasekaran is chief product officer of bharti airtel. Opinions expressed are his own. Follow him on Twitter @anandc.

 

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