People Ready, Policy Lags

The Indian Express - November 26, 2012

Indians are using mobile and digital services in innovative ways, but policy must ensure low prices

Indians, rich and poor, educated and uneducated, have all discovered the magic of mobile and of internet enabled services. 'Product-based' metrics like internet penetration, number of users and their activity levels or even share of smart phones to total phones nowhere near tell the story of the how central these services have become to Indian society. A people-based understanding will reveal a very high 'digital quotient' for all Indians, including the less privileged ones. Policymaking around issues that will impact the pricing and regulation of these services must fully take into account why and how this 'public good' is truly for the public's good.

In India, in addition to personal or household 'ownership', there is 'regular access though I don't own it'— my cousin has it / he created my email ID and manages it for me — and there is an amazing amount of access when it is needed. The last one happens, for example, when someone in, say, a rural modest income family is really ill, and somewhere, somehow, in the extended community, someone will access the internet and get the relevant information for them, or get a second opinion on the papers from some helpful doctor somewhere, and so on. Access happens through formal and informal community use models of various kinds: kiosks, my neighbour charging me for using it, my cousin's son's sister-in-law will get it for me, and so on. In this way and many more, awareness of what is possible is ever growing in all sections of society. The nature of mass-market usage in India of everything is — and will remain so for a while — a lot of people using a little bit each, once in a while, and paying accordingly. Pricing of public goods right from spectrum to devices must take this into account.

Why is this particular public good so important to the health of our society? Because physical infrastructure is so pathetic and the country so large, and margins for doing business — even more so for the small person — so thin, that any and all cost-saving methods must be made available widely. Viewed against the backdrop that almost all of India is self-employed and has to fend for itself, whether you are doing carpentry work or CA-type work, you could do with ways to earn more and spend less. Because there is no formal way in which information is organized and the chaos out there.

Try asking for directions and you will get spun around several times before you get there — because information asymmetry has led to middlemen making so much money, that people are now wise to it, whether it is agri-produce prices at the mandi or plane ticket prices. Because everyone is now talking so much to everyone else, that we have indeed become a nation of determined talkers. So, as we get more busy and our neighbours and people in bus queues don't have time to talk to us, we aren't becoming a more self-contained individualistic society; we are becoming a cell phone-connected community.

We are too crowded or too scattered, depending on whether you look urban or deep rural, to have well-developed public spaces offering a variety of public entertainment. The digital and mobile world can offer all that and more. If you believe only the young and modern Indian is on YouTube, just look at how much classical and devotional music is on it — with lyrics and translations. What is actually amazing is how much India-specific content is available on the internet now — something little for everyone for all the material, spiritual, social, 'logistics of living' functional and entertainment needs. And people know it exists. This virtual world is just perfect for catering to all our diversity, and making us become an even more many splendoured beast.

Indians have no problem with technology adoption. The learning is quick. Just look around and look back at the things we have adopted. Starting with text messaging and ringtone downloads to ATMs. Move on to internet-accessible temples to buying plane tickets to finding matrimonial matches to finding prices to good old email. It isn't confined to one section of society as the ownership and personal access data seems to suggest. It is available through middlemen enablers. That doesn't make digital benefits any less real. In fact, the striking thing is that with the many community-use models that have evolved, the digital divide is actually not something we have to worry about.

The best news is that there is a large user' base that is now comfortable and aware and has seen enough and wants to upgrade to doing more. The myth that voice is for the poor and data for the rich is demolished. Poor people with scattered families and little money need Skype and will pay. As companies and governments and utilities get more and more digital as they indeed have and are with acceleration, every Indian is inches away from getting drawn into the digital and the internet driven world; and once they are in it, the magic of it makes them want more and more. We have already seen that. Just as we were poised for the big leap in the digital quotient of all Indians, we have had a stalling of the supply-side engine. This is indeed the story of our recent times — demand and supply just don't seem to come together at the right times. Now is not the time to stall this onward march. It is one of the few things we have got totally right so far, from the peoples point of view.

"The internet is becoming the town square for the global village of tomorrow." – Bill Gates, Businessman, Philanthropist, Co-founder of Microsoft.