Mobile Data Tales From Rural India

One of the rather unfortunate aspects of most of us switching to air travel as a primary mode of getting to places in the country is that we miss out on a lot of what goes on in vast regions of the country that don’t fall into the urban/metro bucket. It is important know what goes on in these regions because unlocking the potential in our billion-plus market has a crucial dependency on producing products and services that make sense for this market. With travel being sparse this year, it was a pleasure to hit the highways once again a week ago and we traversed some rarely-visited parts of Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh and Haryana. It was back-breaking in parts due to the road conditions, but it was, as always, extremely informative.

State of Rural Mobile Data

At least in the regions we covered, mobile data was fairly ubiquitous. The speeds were not much to write home about. Outside urban centers, 3G in India is a joke, so I’ll not even try to address it. Airtel offers up EDGE wherever it can get a signal to you (which is, commendably, almost everywhere), but possible peak throughput on the network is often thwarted by abysmal backhaul. At one place (in Chakrata, Uttarakhand), I was getting 30000 ms pings to Google’s servers. Even 1997-era wired internet in India didn’t have to put up with something as terrible as that.

BSNL provides a service that is mostly there to make up numbers. If you put up a tower on a hill that can cover four villages, you’d be technically saying you cover four villages, but if within those villages you reception is limited to certain areas, what good is that service anyway? Similarly, they do offer data in these remote places, but they are often only GRPS services and not even EDGE. Then there are the longstanding complaints about the generators that power the towers running out of diesel and going offline for big chunks of time.

Low Data Usage In Low End Smart Phones

Between Airtel, Idea and Tata Docomo, you can now travel the country and stay connected with a barely-acceptable level of service. The modern, full-experience web is unusable under 20 Kbps and that is exactly the kind of data quality/speed on offer in a big chunk of the country. If you keep this in mind you can imagine why data services have not taken off at the lower end of the market. The first problem is cost, which I’ll tackle later. The speed and quality is so awful that it won’t be possible to even download apps that are less are 5-10 MB in size.

The small towns work around this problem, to an extent, with “mobile downloading” shops that sideload apps. This will work for the popular apps, but for ones that don’t fall into the popular bucket, you’ll be out of luck. And then there is the case of app discovery, which will be non-existent in an environment like that. Next time you feel like making fun of people using nearly zero data on lower end smartphones, do keep in mind that this is not just because they may be stingy (compared to the high-end smartphone owners), there are also other factors involved in it, which you won’t be aware of unless you travel regularly out of well-connected cities.

Form Factor, UI/UX Comfort

What was heartening to see, though, was that the newer devices have catapulted over a lot of interface-related issues that has hampered PC penetration in these areas. Even now, many decades after its introduction, the PC is still not an easy device to master or interact with. Even experienced users have a degree of discomfort in using a PC, which is hard to explain. Mobile devices, somehow, have seemingly decimated this problem. Even the lousiest tablet interface is picked up easily in no time by a user who otherwise has a lot of trouble using a PC.

Is this because there are fewer things — couple of buttons and a touch screen v/s mouse, keyboard, screen — to coordinate? I’ll leave that to the interface and UX experts to determine, but the change is palpable. It was interesting to see a bunch of soldiers in the small tea shop that we were in had one in their group who was immersed in his 7″ tablet. Compared to previous years, the mobile phone shops also seemed to market and stock a lot more of the 4-5 inch screen phones. Three-years-ago, such a thing was a rarity.

Where Are The Products?

The adoption gap, in terms of time, between rural and urban areas, for smartphones may be reducing, but we still don’t have products that mean much for them. Most of the existing products address either extremes — the really upscale and urban audience or the other extreme pushing alerts about agriculture and similar things — and there is really no product that is available that makes sense for the consumer in those markets. So, we wind up again with a situation where content served up on these phones are basically pushed in through the aforementioned “mobile downloading” centers that has been the perennial revenue leakage fountain in India.

Cost Of Data

Every year we have big numbers that are put out by different agencies about mobile data usage in India, but I have a hard time buying that. A remotely usable data plan in India will cost at least Rs 200 a month, even now. And that’s on EDGE and not even 3G. Considering that there’s still major resistance to a wired data connection at the Rs 500-Rs 600 price point, the Rs. 200 per month cost is non-starter. A wired connection can potentially be reused by members of the family, while mobile data is rarely shared.

Even if you consider two as an average number of devices in a household, it is a Rs. 400 outlay on a fixed cost basis for a family. In a market that is a price sensitive as ours this is not a good thing. Mind you, even at Rs 400 you are not going to get the full speed experience, which means that the user is more likely to try it and not continue because of the poor experience.

Data On The Move: Lava W150 + Tata Indicom 32GB Plan

If you move around a lot, being able to access data on your phone alone won’t cut it for long. There is the option of tethering your phone for that, but it eats up your phone battery pretty quickly if you are dependent on the phone for things other than using it as an access point.

After trying out various approaches — dongles, tethering — I have figured that the optimal solution is to carry one of those pocket wifi routers. They cost little and tend to be stabler than tethering your phone and saves you the trouble of installing drivers and horrible dialer software that data dongles usually require you to do.

I had picked up the Lava W150 in November 2012 along with a Tata Indicom (Docomo for the rest of India) dongle. The device is Huawei-made and branded as Lava (as it is the case with most of the cheap Indian phone devices these days) and runs embedded Linux.

The Web admin UI is powered by the GoAhead Web Server and it provides for a advanced options. It is not the most user-friendly experience that you can have, but it does its job quite well, even if it has a bad habit of restarting everything for major configuration changes.

The device is only one part of the data-on-the-move equation, the other (and the more important part) is finding a data plan that won’t ruin you. I have a preference here for pre-paid plans as my usage is erratic and I don’t want to pay a fixed high amount for capacity that I’ll rarely use.

The golden rule with pre-paid data plan pricing  is that you have to hit the road and find out from the vendors what is the best available plan. The ones that companies advertise online is not often the best ones out there and I went looking for 30 GB for Rs 5000 plan and found one that gave me 32 GB instead.

The other issue with picking a provider is knowing your travel pattern well. The overall coverage and quality of coverage differs from state-to-state and provider-to-provider. My strategy is to use Airtel on the phone (2G plan that has a quota of 2GB of transfer every month at Rs 149), Indicom on the pocket router and a backup on the Micromax A73 with a 1.1GB 3G plan on MTNL.

It has been a good experience overall and with controlled usage I have finished only 8 GB of data of the 32 GB that I am allowed. The good thing about the Indicom plan is that it has a validity for a year, so I can probably use it all year at the current burn rate that I have.