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Monday, September 17, 2001

WAP still nascent in India
Sonal Chawla

THINK of a life when you could check your bank accounts even while dancing at a disco and not having to bear the hassles of going there personally. Does it seem incredible? But well no it isnít. This is what is being promised about the life that is going to in India in the days to come. Mobile Commerce involves powerful channels like mobile phones, Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs) etc. for scratching the surface of the limitless world of mobile applications for the delivery of products and services.

Though the latest technology called "Mobile Commerce" that has hit the wireless market the world over is knocking at the Indian doors too yet India is probably not fully geared to meet this "technology burst."

The evolution of Mobile Commerce in India dates back to 1995 when the Indian telecom sector opened up and major telecom giants like AT&T, France Telecom etc. came into the scene. For the next five years they remained busy setting up their networks and rolling out simple plain cellular services. At the same time in the other corner of the globe consumers in Europe and the US were being exposed to new services like WAP and 3G. Without exception the cellular operators in India launched services with an enormous airtime tariff.


Although these services had been launched in India with high hopes and had been touted as the next most happening thing in the Internet-enabled services yet they could not take off. The Indian market till date has not seen much movement and not many know the true potential of the mobile telephony.

Worldwide technology is believed to have brought down the cost of services but service providers in the Indian sub-continent have tried to reverse the process by pricing it beyond the reach of general consumers. What they actually forgot to look at is that the per capita income of an average Indian is still $ 111 per annum. So the capacity for maintaining mobile phones has become the privilege of honoured few with a monthly income of $ 300-350. Thus, the major chunk of the Indian market is still to experience the use of PDAs. As a result, technologies like mobile commerce have just been introduced in the Indian market. Consumers now have the options of WAP-based services in a few parts of the country. Admittedly, the available content and services for these devices is sparse right now but we are seeing an increasing number of wireless service providers gearing up.

It is predicted that the largest and the fastest growing markets in the world for the wireless Internet is right here in Asia, especially East Asia. Thus, the Indian sub-continent will be an important market for any player offering WAP-based hardware, software and content provided they believe in volume as the growth and affordable prices as inevitable.

There are other psychological hurdles for the development of this market. The first and the foremost being the subscribers themselves. India is a country that has 50 languages with English speaking population less than 20 per cent of the total. Voice mail and Interactive voice response systems that were introduced here could not pick up due to poor penetration of English. With most of the data on the mobile available in English there are chances of the masses being reluctant to use these systems. The unavailability of local language software and the content has become a major reason why a very few banks in India offer Mobile Commerce services.

On the other hand, the scene is not very rosy for the service providers either. For them the revenues are not much as those few who have WAP enabled mobile phones use it for very small transactions. Barring less than 1 per cent of the cellular subscribers in the metros, people prefer to pay their telephone or electricity bills in person. Also the cellular operators cannot part with the personal and credit card details of their subscribers to any business portals due to security reasons and without these details transactions fall to a bare minimum.

A survey conducted in Chandigarh revealed that the consumers are not convinced of the advantages of mobile telephony. As many as 26 per cent of the respondents cited lack of interest or perceived need as the single largest reason for not intending to purchase the products and services via their mobile devices whereas 16 per cent were concerned about the data security when transacting through their PDAs.

Presently cellular telephony is still immature in India and it will take some time before people get familiar with the cellular services. Opportunities however abound. Mobile Commerce must overcome its own set of hurdles ó competing wireless standards, secure payments, high speed wireless access, culture, privacy and limitations of the device. Many of these shortcomings are temporary of course. It is predicted that by 2003 A.D., the number of PC Internet users will be outstripped by mobile devices, including cell phones.