Monday, January 05, 2009

Mobility - social, economic and physical

When you read about mobile adoption and penetration, it's just numbers. It doesn't necessary mean anything real. But here's an observation as my Christmas and New Year break in India draws to a close... when I I last came out to India three years ago, the inlaws all had mobiles, but that was about it. We swapped mobile numbers, showed the aunts how to send an SMS and thought all was good.

However, now not only do all the inlaws have mobiles (and some of them have a Blackberry as well), but so do the servants and drivers! Now if you want a cup of tea, you don't shout out (or worse still actually get up off the chair you're lounging in!), you just phone one of the servants on their prepaid mobiles. When you're in the city and arranging with the driver when to pick you up (parking is a nightmare), no longer are you saying "see you back here in two hours" ... now you just take their number, give them a missed call to makesure you entered it right, and head off on the basis that you can just summon them when needed.

As if that's not enough, the roaming charges are also seeing people using multiple SIMs. Once you are 'out of station' (for example, you live in Bangalore but are in Calcutta for a couple of weeks for a family wedding as was the case for us), you just pop a local prepaid SIM into your phone so the innumerable wedding planning calls flying about are all at the local rate. In-country roaming is, therefore, also inflating subscriber numbers. Similarly the variation in coverage meaning that a phone that works well in the jungle of Tamil Nadu (typically CDMA WLL) isn't the best phone for use in the metropolis of Bangalore where GSM dominates, and vice versa.

The challenge, one suspects, will be in the success of operators in moving subscribers from prepaid to contract and in building a genuinely national mobile phone network where one phone and one SIM really will be all that people need. So while subscription numbers in total will continue to rise, a key metric to track will be the number of contracts a subscriber has, and the proportion of prepaid therein.

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