Growth of Cell Phones in India

Every year I go home to Coimbatore, India. And each time, I come back amazed at the really rapid pace of changes and how they seem to be altering the fundamentals of society. Fortunately for me, I get to experience these changes almost first-hand since all of my immediate and extended family members are in India and are spread all over the demographic spectrum.

Usually, every trip has a few stand-out visuals that remain with me for a very long time afterwards. In that vein, the image that has stayed with me from my recent trip home is that of a teenager bent over a cell phone, fingers flying over the tiny dial pad, accompanied by a frequent beep that announces the arrival of a new SMS.

But, before I expand on that visual, here is a brief introduction to the growth of cell phones in India by way of a personal chronicle.

Cell phone adoption in India is quite an astonishing phenomenon, but one that does not come as a surprise to anyone who has ever had even a peripheral contact with the bureaucratic behemoth that was the Department of Telecommunications (DOT).

A few years back, one had to get on a never-ending multiyear waitlist to get a landline from a single government-owned telecom company. Now, one can walk into a showroom, purchase a cell phone, select a service provider, buy the provider’s sim card, acquire a telephone number, activate the card, select a pre-pay option, add money to it, and walk out ready to make or receive calls – all within thirty minutes. With the mushrooming of these “showrooms” came the first spurt of growth. (Side note – Showroom is an amalgam term that covers everything from large air-conditioned, door-manned offices with staff in uniforms to small ‘fancy’ stores with one display case dedicated to cell phone handsets and one desk drawer filled with sim and recharge cards.)

Most of the early adopters of cell phones were people who needed to communicate on the go and took to cell phones primarily for economic reasons. The experience that best illustrated this for me was the auto rickshaw driver who dropped us at an internet browsing center on one of my earlier visits (about two and half years ago – 2003). Overhearing us trying to figure out how to get back, he handed us his business card with his cell phone number and asked us to call him so he can come pick us up!

That auto rickshaw driver with a cell phone was the visual of 2003.

India has overtaken China to become one of the region’s fastest-growing mobile markets, with growth rates of over 90% per annum every year since 1999. With just(sic) total mobile penetration rates of just over 4%, potential for growth is enormous.
ICT Report from ITU

On my last trip home (about a year ago – 2005), it looked like cell phone usage had become more pervasive. Most families I know (or came across) had a cell phone that was being used mostly for essential or emergency needs. Everything was still quite expensive, from the handset to the per minute call rates. As a result, most people purchased the base minimum handset and charged up their cards only as needed. This meant a cell phone was a shared, utilitarian article that someone who is going on a long trip might take one day and another person who needed to do some business coordination might keep the next day.

My father probably was the last hold out, so we decided to buy him a cell phone. While all the youngsters were reading up the manual to figure out what the coolest features were, my aunt was giving my father a ‘here is how to use the cell phone’ training. “All you need to learn are two buttons” she said. “The green button is for starting a call and the red button is for ending it. To make a call, dial the number and press the green button. When you are done, press the red button. Same with answering a call. Green button to talk, red button to hang up.”

That event also had its own lesson for those of us who do any kind of technology training. Watching this whole interaction reminded me of the fundamental tenet of technology training that sometimes is overcome by my own fascination with the coolness factor – keep it simple. It does not matter that people leave the training thinking something is really cool if they don’t use it. Simplifying technology to its most functional level is the key to overcoming the first barrier to adoption – user apprehension about trying new things.

That “green button-red button” lesson given by my aunt to my father was the visual of 2005.

So, now, where is that teenager bent over the cell phone? We are yet to get to 2006. :) Wait for the next installment of this blog.

Cell Phone Prevalence and Growth in India

Mobile cellular, subscribers per 100 people (pdf format), By Country Statistics, ITU

Cell Phone 2001 2002 2003 2004
Total Subscribers 6431.5 12687.6 26154.4 47300
Per 100 Inhabitants 0.63 1.22 2.47 4.37
As % of total telephone users 14.3 23.4 38.4 51.8
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