Democratic & Uniquely Indian Mobile Phone Use

Is the rise of smartphones helping society?

Smartphones and mobile phones are buzzing in India. And IDC reports that the country is currently among the fastest growing smartphone markets in Asia Pacific.

India has seen a 31% sales growth in the first quarter of 2014, which is even higher than China. The year-on-year growth stands at a staggering 186%. And it’s not just about 2014 or the year before that. All kinds of mobile phone sales have been breaking every type of record for several years now.

The IDC report indicates various reasons for this – availability of low-cost devices, sales emphasis of top vendors in the rural areas where traditionally the penetration has been very low, and the introduction of prepaid accounts that allow people with even modest incomes to stay connected. In some instances, they can pay as little as US$0.20 as advance and keep their mobile service active. More than 90% of Indian subscribers now have a prepaid plan. India, incidentally, is an extremely price sensitive market.

Manasi Yadav, who is a Senior Market Analyst at IDC India, feels confident that the mobile revolution is going to continue in India for a long time. “The Indian market will keep growing at a rapid pace for many more years because new vendors continue to launch low priced models”.

Even with this growth, India still has amongst the lowest mobile phone penetration at this time. But that is changing fast.

How Mobile Penetration Is Changing India

The mobile telephony growth story is a truly global phenomenon. However, there are important regional differences in how the technology has evolved in different countries.

Kalba International (an international telecom firm), has carried out a detailed study on the global diffusion of mobile phones. President of Kalba International, Kas Kalba, says in the report that there is a baffling degree of variation in how they have been adopted in different parts of the world.

There’s one striking difference between developed countries and the less affluent ones like India. Most of the mobile’s growth story in India is coming from the rural areas.

Interestingly, in India, particularly in the rural areas, mobiles were initially purchased not by individual people, but by households. Many of these homes never had a conventional landline. Getting a landline number was a cumbersome process, as they had to visit a big city and apply at the state-run telecom department. That meant a whole day away from work or home. It took a long time to get the connection even after that. Getting a mobile number on the other hand is very easy. And it is much cheaper too.

Mobile Phones Ushering In Digital Democracy

Mobile telephony is uniting a divided country. The India story is about a tremendous rich-poor divide. There are rich millionaires at the top, but there’s Dharavi too, the biggest slum in the world. In fact there are slums all across the country and close to 40% of the population live below the poverty line. The latest economic data seems to indicate that this rich-poor divide is actually widening in India.

But thankfully, the mobile phone is different. It’s working as the great leveler in divided India. Three out of every four Indians, from college going kids to octogenarians, now have a mobile phone. It is ushering in a tremendous change in the social map of the world’s largest democracy.

It’s not just an urban thing anymore. Mobiles have successfully penetrated deep into the villages as well. It has reached the remotest corners of the country, though the signal strength is often not as good as it ought to be. But service delivery is improving in the country rapidly. And so, people now have more confidence in getting a mobile phone, and finally, they are finding a cheap and practical way of staying connected. In fact, getting a mobile phone has become quite a priority for a lot of people in India, particularly those living in the more remote areas, because it is a key connector.

Robin Jeffrey, a professor from Canada, says in his “Cell Phone Nation: How mobile phones changed India” lecture series… “The cheap mobile has brought fishermen in Kerala, boatmen in Banaras, great capitalists in Mumbai and politicians and bureaucrats in New Delhi on the same platform, ensuring a democratic equality in communications”. The lecture series was organized by the Cellular Operators Association of India.

The professor also says in his lectures that mobile phone revolution in India has been peculiar. No country in the world has experienced one quite like it.

For instance, mobile phones are often meant for the entire home in India. They are used by all members of the family, mainly for emergency calls. Sometimes, the mobile is shared even with friends who need it in an emergency. A young person in the family will get it for personal use only on weekends or on a special occasion. That’s when it goes out of the house.

A recent study carried out by LIRNEasia agrees with this view. The study has found that family members in about 80% Indian homes at the bottom of the social and economic pyramid are sharing just a single mobile phone. And in about half of these instances, the family is sharing the phone with a non-family member as well.

India’s Version of Mobile Commerce Giving Everybody an Equal Chance

Mobile telephony is changing microeconomics in India. There are large shopping malls and grocery stores in India. But those are mainly in the big cities. India, to a large extent, depends on individual vegetable and fruit sellers, meat and fish vendors, and on the “kirana” or neighborhood stores.

There are so many of them in every neighborhood that the competition is often steep. So many of these fruit and vegetable sellers, vendors and stores have now found a unique way to sell their merchandise. They are accepting orders on their mobile phones and delivering the goods to the buyer’s doorstep. It’s cash-on-delivery. Buyers naturally love it because the system is so convenient to them.

Having a mobile phone has become absolutely essential for these small sellers because their livelihood depends on this. So mobiles have become an instrument of economics too in India. That’s another instance of how it is ushering in digital democracy. It’s not just the rich businesses and traders who are using mobile telephony to fix the supply chain, get customers and carry out business.

India is often very innovative in its approach. This is getting validated once more in the many unique ways in which mobile phones are being used in the country, and the impact it is having in the society.


Niladri Bose is a Post Graduate in Mass Communication and former journalist. Niladri writes on economic issue, and also on social, political and Internet trends