Let’s get fully digital

The future It's mobile internet V raju   -  THE HINDU

That will require deep customer insight, niche services and collaboration across the mobile ecosystem



When people hear the word ‘internet’, it’s likely they think of networks, websites, shopping, games, social media, chatting, photos, videos, news and so forth. For those of us who have had the benefit of growing up with the internet, we may see it as a conglomeration of digital products that educate and entertain, which supplement our already comfortable lives with convenience and connections.

But for the multitudes who are only now beginning to access the internet, it’s an entirely different experience. In the rural and lower income communities of developing markets such as India, Bangladesh and Myanmar, where the basic daily necessities are not always met, the internet is an unknown entity or something viewed with great scepticism.

When people are struggling to feed their families, enrol their children in schools or waiting hours at banks to transfer money to relatives, their first thoughts may not be, “If only we had an internet connection.”

Mobile is the way

The great irony is that for them, that’s exactly what they need. The internet could be more valuable and integral to their well-being than their more moneyed, connected counterparts. Particularly via mobile, which is the only feasible way most of these communities will be able to get online, the internet is so much more than websites and social networks.

Mobile banking services via mobile internet free up time and resources in waiting and travelling to banks to cash their small pay cheques. Health advice and childbirth registration via mobile for people whose villages do not have hospitals, clinics, or doctors. Educational information or even connections with teachers who can conduct lessons remotely. Daily crop price information or weather alerts for farmers. The list goes on and on. And still too few people in the very communities most in need of such internet services actually want them, let alone know they exist.

This is why the Digital India programme was launched. Its vision is to transform India into a digitally empowered society and knowledge economy, starting from the very bottom of the socio-economic ladder.

It is a key step that can truly transform the country, levelling the playing field for all and lifting India into the ranks of more prosperous, developed nations. And the backbone of this development will be the internet.

Increasing internet connectivity has a direct positive effect on GDP growth, creating jobs and new businesses. Studies show that 10 per cent increase in connectivity stimulates GDP and new business creation by 1 percentage point or more.

The efficiency gains the mobile ecosystem can bring to sectors such as healthcare, education and financial services come on top of that, as well as the significant potential to use digital solutions delivered over mobile to drive “maximum governance with minimum government”. A recent Deloitte report shows a potential of lifting 160 million people out of poverty — just by connecting them.

A business opportunity

Internet penetration is increasing in most Asian markets. Median data usage among our Thai and Malaysian subscribers more than quadrupled over the past year, and Indian consumers are not far behind in terms of data consumption. Serving the swelling middle classes of South Asia and South-East Asia with entertainment and socially-driven internet services is a business opportunity in itself.

But the long-term, transformative impact on society lies elsewhere. It is when low-income, low-information populations see value in and spend money on going online, that the internet can truly drive positive change.

At Telenor Group, we’ve witnessed connecting mass market consumers from scratch. Entering Bangladesh 18 years ago as an experiment, we built a mobile infrastructure and a mobile industry in country that was largely unconnected at a time when mobile phones were still viewed as a luxury even in Europe.

Today, we serve 50 million customers through Grameenphone, and 3G is spreading fast. That experience is now repeated in fast-forward in Myanmar, where we’ve added 2 million subscribers in a few weeks and deliver both voice and data services to a country largely cut off from the world over the past 60 years.

That said, the opportunity of connecting everyone — through the mobile phone, to the internet — meets many barriers. In broad areas of India, even if we could provide the internet for free, the consumers that would benefit the most have a hard time understanding what it is and why it matters to them.

Add to it that they may have limited literacy and not be comfortable in the on-screen language. Bringing ‘Internet for All’ requires concerted efforts from across the mobile ecosystem, including government and regulators. The Digital India ambition sets the bar and a direction, and needs policy and practice to follow suit.

Make them use it

First of all, we must enable use. Providing customised services on affordable devices tailored to a consumer’s purchasing power and daily use — like free data for use of Wikipedia, or a free farming application service — is one approach we are taking.

We have seen enormous success in our other internet markets in emerging Asia and this has been on the back of pre-paid data services. Like so many consumer industries in India, we rely on sachet marketing and extreme distribution capabilities, but also on an ability to operate our networks with efficiency. It’s a business model type that we develop and customise for our local markets in Asia — and it works.

Once we’ve established a way to make the internet accessible to the masses, we need to give reasons to use. Though not strictly speaking a daily necessity, Facebook and chat apps such as WhatsApp have become more widely known and highly popular among all levels of customers — whether a rickshaw puller, a local banker or a vegetable vendor. Zero-rating social communications services to let customers experience this enhanced connectivity first-hand is a way to educate them also about other opportunities of the mobile internet.

If the most digitally inexperienced become acquainted with such services, the value they see in being connected to the internet will grow, and they’ll open up to other relevant internet services we can offer their communities.

Beyond devices and prices, regulatory environments, local and regional conflict areas, geography, literacy, internet scepticism and business models all play large roles in how quickly and affordably internet access can be rolled out.

These factors vary in different markets and all ecosystem players, including regulators and government, have to work together to address challenges and offer tailored solutions that meet their needs.

The writer is the executive vice-president and head of Telenor Group in Asia

Published on December 16, 2014
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