Having been privileged to be a part of the Great Mobile revolution in India through the years, I am often asked in several technology forums: what next? One attempts to answer this question by looking at the past through the prism of the major milestones, and then do a few extrapolations. To better appreciate the milestones, let me walk you through the 3 decades of Mobile, characterised by what I call the 3Vs.
The year was 2001. Mobile phone penetration in India was a meager 0.3%. Exactly 15 years later some time last year, India crossed a billion mobile subscriptions, hitting a 80% mark on mobile teledenisty. In the same time frame, wireline density shrunk from 3.5% to around 2%.
These 15 years also saw a whirlwind in the telecom industry across almost all possible vectors – varying market dynamics on pricing and consumption, the coming, collapse and consolidation of more than half a dozen operators within a decade, technology evolution from 2G to 3G to 4G, radical infrastructure and technology models with creation of tower companies and outsourcing of technology management, impact of consolidation in the global equipment provider landscape, rise of digital natives and mobile internet population, to name a few.
The big question now is how this hyper-dynamic and all encompassing communication ecosystem is going to evolve in the next 15 years. If we take a hint from the last 15 years, the roller coaster is not going to stop – but only if the coming crests, loops and falls are a bit visible, we might hold on to the rails harder.
Decade 1- The 10 years of voice
Connecting India – physically across the length and breadth of our vast country was the first feat the industry achieved in the opening decade of the century. The task was daunting, and the challenges were immense - from basic infrastructure like electricity to red tape around rights of way; from almost zero skill set in the country on mobile telephony to the massive costs around building of towers. India’s answer to this was as innovative as ever – we shared our towers to save costs, we allowed global companies to run our networks; and the result was more than fulfilling – we crossed the magical 50% mark on teledensity. India was connected for voice calls – something that was un-imaginable with less than 3% teledensity just a decade back.
Decade 2 – Video rules the roost
The famous 3G auctions happened in 2010. With more than 50% teledensity, the start of smartphone penetration and 3G as a stable technology, the stage was set for the mobile broadband revolution. The next five years would see India crossing the united states to “rightfully” gain its position as the second largest internet population – mostly mobile in absence of fixed infrastructure. These years would also see India embarking on a 4G journey, this time ahead of the curve and in step with one of the first 4G networks on the planet. The other big phenomenon, which drove this broadband penetration, was the coming of affordable smartphones. With speeds of 100+ Mbps per user available today, the 1 Mbps journey which 3G started will end the decade with the likes of 1Gbps speed per user. And the content that is the king in this hyper consuming customer base is video – already more than 50% of all data usage and growing.
Decade 3 - Virtuality all the way
With almost ubiquitous high speed broadband penetration, cat 9 and above devices in majority, internet of machines and things on the rise and almost all sectors leveraging telecom as their basic vehicle for consumption and fulfillment – from education to medicine, entertainment to banking, retail to hyper-data analytics; the writing is clearly on the wall. Anything that is possible to be done without a physical presence will be done virtually – almost collapsing the world of discrete consumption. Physical travel will reduce drastically, so will office spaces, retail outlets and physical classrooms – people will go out for sure, and interact physically, but more by design then by default. These will be the times when your child’s school bag will trigger the microwave to warm his food when he is in the lift and the microwave will text you an hour later that the food has not been eaten, as the oven’s door hasn’t been opened.
The technology is also changing the look and feel of the telecom network faster than ever. In this software–driven future, the milestones are unlikely to be marked by ‘decades’. Platforms will re-invent themselves faster and open sourcing will ensure that innovation approaches really work. “Software will program the world”. Well said, Marc Andreessen!