clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

A Desk Is a Dangerous Place to See the World From

A mobile exec gets a chance to see India and its vastly growing pool of mobile and broadband users.

On April 8, my first working day in India after more than a dozen years away, two things happened: First, more than 800 million people started the voting process as part of perhaps the biggest act of democracy in history — more than 100 million of whom were added to the roster for the first time. Second, Facebook hit 100 million users within the subcontinent.

In some sense, they drew the boundaries for many of the things I was about to see over the next 30 days, as I traveled thousands of miles across India.

It has been said that India is more like 20 countries than one. For new executives joining Bharti Airtel, it’s all but mandatory to get out of the office and do “market visits” — a chance to see India and its vastly growing pool of mobile and broadband users, and to understand what and how they are buying to satisfy which aspirations. It’s also an opportunity to develop perspective built on first principles and actual field observations, so one’s contribution is substantial, not marginal. Employees jokingly refer to these trips as “Bharat Darshan,” or “Seeing India,” after the scene in the film “Gandhi.”

On a day that was doing to be about 110 degrees Fahrenheit in Chandigarh, I requested ChapStick from room service at 5 am. A few minutes later, a gentleman carrying a tray with chopsticks showed up at my door. Other than such minor snags, the past 30 days were a courtside view of the rapidly evolving story of mobile Internet growth in India.

MBs and GBs vs. Value

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, she heard, “I don’t need the Internet like you kids do, but just get me Facebook!” A broad takeaway in India is the lack of education on the transport layer, and a tendency to not want to pay for megabytes and gigabytes, given the culture of prepaid mobile accounts. What you see as a 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 has been around for years.

In Gangoy village, which is in a rural area outside Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh (the largest state within India, with a population of 200 million — bigger than Brazil), we met Yadav, who had just upgraded to a Micromax smartphone. 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 snacks (which would magically appear every time we started an interview, as the surest sign of Indian hospitality) that his motivation to do so was to get “izzat” — respect — within his community. He also confessed to being a sucker for music and Bollywood film trailers. What’s noteworthy was that he was a farmer with a daily income of INR 300/day ($5), and that he had upgraded to a smartphone worth INR 8000 (~$133). On average, smartphone users in India tend to consume three times more data.

Mobile = Opportunity

One of the most fascinating stories I had heard was about a user in rural Bihar, who purchased a 2GB plan and was renewing it weekly. Notwithstanding the obvious guesses, we were curious what he was using it for. As it turns out, he downloaded full-length movies at night (when he had free and unlimited data usage) from YouTube, and burned them on to SD cards from his Samsung smartphone for his customers. His day job was running a general store. By doing this, he had used the oldest trick in retail — use an exclusive product to sell high-margin commodity items. While the SD cards did okay, it also brought footfall into his store, which resulted in sales of groceries, soap and shampoo. Given the impact on his business, he was religiously topping off his mobile Internet connection to keep the cottage industry he had created going.

What was interesting to take away was that a user with absolutely no education had used smartphones and the Internet to achieve his entrepreneurial ambitions. Be it the growing venture-funded mobile apps industry or the cottage industries, these opportunities are for real and just getting started, as only 10 percent to 15 percent of the more than 900 million mobile users have ever tried using the Internet on their phones.

The Future of Banking

I discovered during my first week in Delhi that nobody uses a credit card or cash in the company cafeteria. No, the food isn’t free (it’s highly subsidized), but it is paid for with Airtel Money, a cash-alternative service in the same vein as M-Pesa, that has the potential to be the future of money and commerce. Already a way of life in Africa, it is becoming more and more accepted in India and other countries, with more than a 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 (right outside Bengalooru, India’s Silicon Valley), and many other states in the country, to transfer money to their loved ones. They are easy to spot in the company's analytics and reports — they frequently call only one number in a different state from their phone to reach their family.

Without this service, they would stand in a line at a bank, often starting at 6 am, to transfer money without loss of pay because they were late to work. With a service like Airtel Money, it’s simple, convenient, and most importantly, the money is instantly transferred. As I dug into the opportunity about financial inclusion, I tweeted the following series of facts about the financial system today in India.

Ultimately, Developers Matter

It is estimated that there are more than 300,000 developers in India building products for more than 50 million smartphone users in 2015. The top few of them are becoming well known, including e-commerce companies Flipkart, Snapdeal and OLX, which are fast becoming mobile-first.

But there are thousands who are toiling away, struggling to monetize their products — everything from convenience of buying movie tickets to purchasing a subscription to a regional-language newspaper. Watching 50 of these companies pitch their products at InTech 50, I was genuinely blown away by the potential. In the past, operators haven’t fulfilled a key role of being enablers and bringing humility and a spirit of learning. That can and should change, in order to bring the best products and services to the near-billion users in the country.

Anand Chandrasekaran is chief product officer of Bharti Airtel. Reach him @anandc.

This article originally appeared on

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.