Let Mobile Be Basic...

VoicenData Bureau
New Update

In the long run, observed Nicholas Negroponte, there would be no difference

between mobile and wireless. "Ultimately, all the spectrum would be

reserved for things that move," he noted in his celebrated book, Being



And people are essentially beings–if not things–that move. By the

extension of Negroponte’s logic, the primary means of connecting them to each

other is wireless.

According to ITU data for the year 2001 (the latest available), as many as 95

countries in the world had a higher penetration of mobile phones than fixed

phones. And not to mention, the mobile growth rate was much higher than the

fixed growth rate. But which are these countries? They, of course, do include

the mobile-savvy Nordic countries and Western Europe. But the largest group of

them, 31 countries to be precise, comes from one of the least developed regions

in the world–Africa. These are countries like Cameroon (teledensity 2.71 per

hundred people, mobile phone as a percentage of total phones: 75.3 percent),

Congo (teledensity 5.33, mobile phones 87.4 percent), Madagascar (teledensity

1.25, mobile phones 71.6 percent), and Uganda (teledensity 1.72, mobile phones

83.5 percent). They have realized that going mobile is faster, cheaper, and by

far, the only means for them to catch up with the rest of the world. While we in

India, with a similar teledensity of about 4 are busy debating what exactly

should be the difference between a basic phone and a mobile phone, for these

underdeveloped nations, the basic phone is a mobile phone. The two words are

just synonymous.

31 African countries, with lower teledensities, have decided to go for mobile as the primary means of connecting. Why can’t India do that?





Well, this column it is not an indirect way of introducing an analysis on the

great Indian telecom debate of 2003–the COAI vs ABTO. It is about a

realization–so accurately prophesied by Negroponte–that mobile is by far a

better mean to connect people, especially in the countries and regions where

they are not so well-connected. This is about a realization that if we have to

provide what NTP 94 called ‘telephones for all’ and ‘telephones within the

reach of all’, there is no way other than mobile.

That’s not a great observation. Everyone in the telecom fraternity, in

varying degrees, agrees to this. Of late, there also have been attempts to

measure the national teledensity taking both fixed and mobile numbers together.

But measuring teledensity is one thing. Promoting mobile as the primary

telephone for people is another. We need to be much more proactive on that

front. From the beginning, like the West, and unlike developing countries, we

have positioned mobile as a premium service–calling it a value added service.

Yes, it does a good value add by providing mobility. But as Negroponte says,

mobility is intrinsic to wireless and it is wrong to put a stamp of premium

service solely because of that.


That is exactly what the new Telecom Tariff Order of Telecom Regulatory

Authority of India has acknowledged while trying to make mobile more affordable.

That if you want to connect people, mobile is the way. Fixed phones connect

buildings, not people. The missing piece now for the mobile (no distinction

please between technologies) is the handset price. By making the users stay in

their networks and spend a specified amount per month, operators can subsidize

and/or arrange financing for the handset. This will lower the cost of

acquisition and grow the market exponentially.

Consider this: Many of our national highways and state highways are now part

of the mobile coverage map. Many villages are situated alongside these highways.

The cost to the operator for providing a mobile connection in such villages is

zero. So is the cost of maintaining that connection. Had the running cost for a

mobile user been a little low, many would have acquired a mobile connection in

those villages. And it is not too difficult either. By a simple decision, the

government can lower the tariff for villages and instead of compensating for

digging of streets, the USO fund could be used to subsidize services to an


Mobile actually makes it possible to ‘cover’ villages more easily and

makes that ‘coverage’ exactly measurable. At any time, if a village is

covered by a base station, it is covered by the telephone network and

theoretically connected to the whole world. It is a question of activating a

phone to avail of the services.

We love discussing issues that the developed markets are concerned with. But

probably we have much to learn from the African countries and even our neighbors

like Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, who have taken to mobile much more seriously. We

need a gameplan to promote mobile decisively–it does not matter whether that

is by using GSM, CDMA or both–as the primary mode of connecting people of


A mobile phone can be a basic phone. And a better one at that.