Usage of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) is a harbinger of development and progress. Such technologies has to percolate to the bottom of the pyramid if development has to come in its right sense. More than half the Indian population stays in rural areas and therefore connecting the unconnected becomes one of the primary challenges. With India soon to touch the 500 million mark in terms of telecommunications, it is indeed required to bring in a fruitful discussion on the major trends and challenges in the world of mobility and telecommunications. mServe India 2008 was one of the six main tracks of the e-India event, organised by Centre for Science, Development and Media Studies (CSDMS) and Elets Technomedia Pvt. Ltd. at Pragati Maidan, New Delhi from 29th – 31st July 2008 which brought to the forefront some of the burning issues in providing solutions of connectivity in the last mile.
Session: Mission – Rural Connectivity
The common inauguration of e-India 2008 was kicked off on 29th July 2008. mServe India conference started with a full house session on – ‘Mission – Rural Connectivity’ which was chaired by R N Prabhakar, Member, Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI). The panel had speakers from the diverse telecommunication fraternity. R N Prabhakar stressed upon the fact that information is critical to the development process and telecommunications is not just a means of communications, but it provides a link in the entire developmental chain. He further said that mission ‘rural connectivity’ is the most important task for the service providers and other stakeholders, as urban areas have already got saturated and the rural tele-density is still as low as 10 per cent.
Speaking on the topic, Administrator of Universal Services Obligation Fund (USOF), Government of India, Ajay Bhattacharya said that the funds are primarily working towards providing connectivity in the rural areas and for this purpose it is promoting infrastructure sharing. He said that the USO Funds has already set up 7,500 towers and in the second phase it plans to set up 11,000 towers.
Bringing in a cross-country perspective, Parvez Iftikhar, CEO of Universal Services Funds, Pakistan highlighted the telecommunications scenario in his country. He spoke about the telecom coverage in Pakistan and informed that almost half of the unserved areas are covered either through contract or auction.
Dr. D K Ghosh touched upon some of the practical aspects like providing services which are crucial at the grassroots is very crucial. He appreciated projects such as e-Choupal and stressed that the main aim of mobile services should be to improve the quality of life of the people.
Ajay Ranjan Mishra from Nokia Siemens Networks talked about a study conducted by Nokia Siemens Networks in Association with London School of Business in 9 countries. The study revealed that the rates of benefits derived from connectivity is not proportional to the rates of connectivity per se. He further said that Total Cost of Ownership (TCO), cash barriers for entry and the regulatory framework are some of the crucial factors determining universal access.
George Paul from Ericsson highlighted the salient achievements of the Gramjyoti project which is successful in terms of providing connectivity and other Value Added Services (VAS) such as e-Learning and tele-medicine in rural areas.
After the presentations, issues such as active infrastructure sharing was brought in. It was also said that the release of more spetcrum to the service providers will allow them to develop better business models for harnessing the connectivity process. Issues of broadband connectivity were also raised which is lagging behind for quite long due to the issues related to spectrum and 3G policies of the government. It was stressed that localisation of content which would cater to the needs of the rural masses would enable making rural connectivity a dream come true.
Session: VAS – Key Mantra for Rural Expansion
The second session of the day was ‘VAS – Key Mantra for Rural Expansion’. This session was chaired by Sudhir Gupta, Advisor (Mobile Networks), Telecom Regulatory Authority of India. He reflected upon the need to move beyond the regular voice services and concentrate upon adding value to the mobile services through localisation of content.
Aloke Bajpai from ixigo.com gave some practical examples such as localised information being provided to the fisherman community in Southern India through mobile phones. He further stressed that VAS bouquet should include localised language and geography.
Vinay Kaul from One 97 presented his company’s work in terms of value added services. He mentioned that VAS should cater to the needs of the local population. He also highlighted upon One 97’s work with Indian Farmer’s Fertilisers Cooperative Limited (IFFCO) and Airtel in providing a portal where agriculturalists in rural India can get information related to their crops.
Jagdish Mitra from CanvasM stressed that VAS companies should take lessons from FMCG companies who have dealt with localisation in a great way.
The session concluded with a common view that for value added services to become fruitful there is a need to bring in seamless, easy to use, and simple technologies and applications. It was also agreed upon that content for urban masses and rural masses is different and providing value added services on the mobile device to the rural masses is much more of a challenge because there are issues involved in terms of cost of delivery, distribution and content. Therefore, special business models need to be developed. There is also a need to strengthen the relationship between the service providers and content providers.
Session: Workhop – ‘Connected Communities’
The closing session of the day was a workshop on ‘Connected Communities’ hosted by Intel Corporation. David Fosberg from Intel Corporation moderated the session. The objective of this workshop was to look at connected communities as a model in connecting the rural population through tele-centres. David pointed out the fact that tele-centres prove to be a great model for connectivity, but the main issue involved with it is sustainability. The session had participants across the spectrum.
Parvez Iftikhar from Universal Service Fund (USF), Pakistan highlighted the country perspective in terms of broadband penetration and Internet connectivity in the far flung areas. He said that broadband penetration in Pakistan does not represent a very encouraging image. He said that USF is targeting to add 1.6 million new connections by the end of 2010. He mentioned that the gap which exists between access and affordability is huge and needs to be reduced for connectivity reaching to the underserved population. The country shows a penetration of approximately 0.14 million in March 2008.
Vineeta Dixit from SW Applications, a World Banks Project was one of the eminent speakers. She spoke about the Common Service Centres (CSCs) of the Government of India which is primarily entrepreneurship driven. She also mentioned that tele-centres is a good model for connectivity, however, there is a need for evaluation of the functionality and value additions, to identify the loopholes.
Anamoy Ranjan from Comat Technologies presented a case study of the Common Service Centre (CSC) run in Karnataka and Haryana. They have the plans to scale it up to other states such as Uttar Pradesh. He emphasised the importance of connectivity in spreading education, providing health services in rural areas and the last mile. It has been mentioned that development models talk about several verticals in terms of health, education etc., but these verticals needs to integrated and this can happen through a horizontal intervention of tele-centres. It was also pointed out by one of the panelists that technology, especially, in terms of Information and Communication Technology is fast changing. Therefore, there has been a shift towards capacity building for skill development in order to streamline the benefits to the bottom of the pyramid.
Session: Convergence – Trends and Challenges
The last day of the mServe 2008 begun with the session – ‘Convergence – Trends and Challenges’. The session was chaired by S K Gupta, Member (Convergence Networks), TRAI. The chairperson gave an insight into the trends and challenges of convergence in the telecom sector. He said that the consumer today demands a seamless delivery of number of services on a single device. A mobile device can now provide multiple services such as Internet, television and payment of bills. However, the broadband and Internet connectivity in India is still low. He called for a thoughtful planning of convergence.
Hemal Patel from Elitecore gave a generic perspective in terms of convergence, where he touched upon convergence of networks such as wireless, wireline, cable and convergence in terms of services as well. He further talked about the need for convenience and the ease of use as the basic tenets of convergence.
Sudhakar S Marthi from AdveNet gave a presentation on how the mobile phone will become an on-demand application, thereby replacing the personal computers.
Yogesh Kochhar from Tata Teleservices talked about social convergence whereby he touched upon some of the primary aspects of telecom convergence such as affordability, accessibility and application. He talked about social drivers such as right to information, information availability in terms of providing converged services to rural counterparts.
The session witnessed several issues being raised such as security and reliability in terms of convergence networks. Some of the key points being highlighted were – ease of use and affordability. A much agreed upon view was that – technology in terms of convergence should have value additions in order to sustain itself in the ever changing mobile market.
Session: Broadband for All – Myth or Reality?
The second session of the day was ‘Broadband for All Myth or Reality?’. This session was chaired by R N Padukone, Senior Deputy Director General, Department of Telecommunications, Government of India. Dr. DPS Seth, ex Chairman and Managing Director, BSNL was one of the distinguished speakers who talked about India’s broadband policy of 2004. He said that the policy had targeted to bring 9 million broadband subscriptions by 2007 end. However, in reality the figure stood at 3.3 million by the end of 2007. He further discussed some of the bottlenecks in terms of broadband penetration in the country such as non-accessibility in the last mile, content, illiteracy and non-availability of the right device for the customer. In his opinion there is a need for availability of more spectrum, policy on 3G, copper accessibility for private operators to make broadband penetration a reality in our country.
CS Rao representing Wimax Forum and Intel, said that broadband being a myth or a reality is directly dependent upon literacy levels in terms of Information Technology and the affordability factors.
Rajesh Chharia from Internet and Service Providers Association of India (ISPAI) put forward the case of Internet Service Providers. He said that ISPs should get some of the benefits of using unused copper, more spectrum in rural araes and allow USO fund to be used in rural penetration for ISPs.
Protip Ghose from Telsima spoke about the urdles in terms of providing broadband connectivity in India. He said that there is a huge digital divide amongst the Indian population in terms of rural – urban, rich – poor, literates and illiterates. He also spoke about the economics of providing broadband for all. On one side is the demand factor and on the other is the technology factor. There is a need for a synergy between the two to arrive at providing broadband for all. He said that WiMax is the right technology for broadband and will go a long way in reducing the digital divide.
Sujata Dev from Time Broadaband highlighted some of the key drivers for broadband penetration such as VAS, technology, price, content, regulation and investment. She said that a converged network will make broadband-for-all a reality.
Session: m-Commerce – Is it Happening?
The session saw a thoughtful discussion upon some of the major issues in terms of broadband penetration such as policy, targets and achievements, key drivers, what needs to be done in terms of policy changes, innovations and the right use of technology at the right place for making broadband a reality.
The closing session of mServe India conference was marked by a session on ‘m-Commerce – Is it Happening?’. With mobile being used as a key tool in commercial activities, this session was an important ingredient in the conference. This session was appreciated, as some fresh and young faces who are the prime stakeholders in the mobile commerce industry were the speakers. Unlike the other sessions, we chose not have a chairperson for this session and allow our speakers to share their thoughts and opinions to a open house.
Naveen Surya from ITZ Cash said that with the high rates of mobile subscriptions there are high chances for mobile becoming a 24 X 7 equipment. This makes the mobile device market oriented. He emphasised that the collaborative task of the entities in the m-Commerce value chain is to deliver security, interoperability, transparency and speed in real-time across various payment technology modules.
Ajay Adiseshann from Paymate presented the work of his company. He said that Paymate is one of the main entities behind the growth of mobile commerce.
Abhijit Bose from ngpay stressed upon the key drivers for m-Commerce such as easy to access, best services at minimal cost and provision of utility for the user. He also raised the issues of security and reliability associated with mobile commerce such as encryption, security of financial data, fraudulent access to information and data.
Ruchi Mishra from Atom Technologies brought in the advantages of using mobile commerce over traditional means such as credit cards, cheques etc. She also emphasised upon mobile being the next generation device for mobile transactions especially with unprecedented growth in mobile subscriptions.
The recent Reserve Bank of India (RBI) guidelines is an indication that m-Commerce has finally reached a critical mass and momentum such that there is a need for a minimum standard of security that must be enforced. The session highlighted the issue of security as a serious concern from the customer perspective. However, the speakers said that transactions over the mobile are fool-proof. Since the technology is new, therefore there is much hype about it.
Conclusion of the Event and mServe India Awards
Overall, the conference ended successfully with participants from across the spectrum – government, service providers, telecom and mobile associations, academia and students thereby bringing in meaningful thoughts and provocations upon the telecom industry going rural. It also highlighted that factors of accessibility and affordability are some of the key concerns, which needs to be kept in mind while preparing a sustainable business model for rural connectivity. Although, mobile subscriptions are multiplying at rocket speed each day, the question still remains about how far will it benefit the population apart from its primary role of connectivity. Therefore, value added services in terms of mobile payments, information availability to the farmer’s community or the fisherman community need to be developed.
The conference was concluded with a common valedictory session. The valedictory session marked the announcement of several awards being given track-wise. The mServe India Award for Best Innovative Service Provider of the Year went to One 97. One 97 has developed and deployed the VAS platform for the Airtel IFFCO Krishna Sanchar project to connect farmers. The project provides a platform where people of a region having relevant information can share it with other members of a group. A person can share information with others by simply dialing a short code and recording the information, which is then sent out to all registered group members. Currently, 1 lakh plus subscribers are using this service. The summary for all the tracks were done in the valedictory session which marked the successful completion of the e-India event.