A 23-year-old BPO executive, Dinesh Kushwaha was shopping in a South Delhi market. It was early on 22 July, his weekly holiday on Friday, when he saw a huddle of about 30 people before a TV at an electronics shop. A collective cheer went up among them but it wasn’t cricket for a change. Mukesh Ambani, Chairman, Reliance Industries Limited (RIL), had been introducing JioPhone–a 4G-enabled ‘feature’ phone which allows users to run essential apps, remains connected to the internet at all times, but with fewer features than a smartphone. Users may browse the internet and store media on it, and even stream it. Ambani said subscribers were to have unlimited calls and data for the nominal monthly fee of Rs 153. 

India was in its telecommunications infancy until 2012. This was when high-speed mobile internet had a few, mostly urban, users with their Blackberries and smartphones. There were no cheap smartphones. By 2013, India had outstripped Japan as the third largest smartphone market in the world, after China and the US–growth down to homegrown phone manufacturers such as Micromax and Karbonn. With good quality inexpensive handsets came more eager data users. That led to attractive pay plans from mobile service providers.

Now, in 2017, things look very different. Operators such as Airtel, Idea and Vodafone are rolling out 4G services widely, anticipating a deluge of takers.

Let us trace India’s transition from a data desert to data dump in five years, with the epoch-changing near-free Jio services.

The service’s launch in September last year triggered price wars with data rates reducing by half. Incumbents, fearing user migration to Jio responded by slashing data rates, from a relatively low peak of Rs 250 per gigabyte (GB) to as low as Rs 51 per GB. Not just that, for high-value customers, they were offering anywhere between 5-20 GB extra data on their tariff plans to retain users.

* – 4G
Source: Nokia MBiT Index 2017

Data in motion: Video is star

Cumulatively speaking, India’s consumption of wireless data increased over 6X on a year-on-year basis, growing from under 200 million GB in March 2016 to 1300 million GB in March 2017. So, what are the 112.5 million Jio users since its launch of September 2016 doing with access to unlimited, near-free data? For one, watching tons more video using their new feature- and smart-phones on platforms such as YouTube, and recently, on on-demand video services such as Hotstar. They are becoming serious internet radio listeners, too, on radio stations/apps such as Gaana, Saavn, etc.

According to official Jio estimates, nearly “15-20 million” of these first-time smartphone users were converts from feature phones. A “significant majority” it said, of these first-time users were rural and semi-urban folk who would normally—but not longer—patronise the video parlour/internet cafe.

AUTHOR

Venkat Ananth

Venkat is currently in his tenth year in journalism. Prior to The Ken, he was Deputy Content Editor at Mint as part of the newspaper’s digital team. He also wrote in-depth features on the business of sport for the newspaper. His earlier assignments include Yahoo! (as a columnist) and the Hindustan Times, where he began his career. Born in Mumbai, Venkat holds a Bachelor of Mass Media (Journalism) degree from SIES College of Arts, Science and Commerce, Mumbai and a Master of Arts degree in International Studies from Goldsmiths, University of London. He currently resides in New Delhi, where he moved nearly five years ago.

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