Published on March 19th, 2011 | by Alvin17
Look Who’s Talking – The Indian cut
My favourite telecom story involves the Philippines, ostensibly the texting capital of the world. Filipinos embraced the simple, effortless and inexpensive text messaging service with enthusiasm and took it to new heights when, in 2001, they successfully orchestrated 70 million text messages in one week as a demonstration against president Joseph Estrada, which led to his ouster from office. He was the second president in that country to be forced from office by people power.
Imagine that, a corrupt President SMSed out of office!
There’s a little aside here that is germane. The Philippines is made up of more than 7,000 islands but the bulk of its fast-growing population lives on 11 of them. A mountainous country, it has around 20 active volcanoes and often also plays host to typhoons and storms. SMS is not just a wonderful way to keep in touch across 7000 islands at phone speeds without phone costs, it is also very convenient when you are trying to speak loud enough to be heard above volcanoes or typhoons.
My other favourite telecom story is the observation I once read on the BBC site where their telecom correspondent posited that pornography is the handmaiden of technology. He was making this fascinating observation, and this was almost four years ago, that the new 3G phones with their superior video capabilities would be a boon for delivering all kinds of ‘rude content’ to consumers. I don’t think this is such a startling point of view because if we know one thing about pornography, it’s that pornography will adopt the latest of technologies to deliver content quickly, securely and privately to customers.
It gets interesting. Two weeks ago, a reputed Mumbai daily predicted that India’s mobile subscriber base will balloon to 200 million subscribers by 2010. You think that’s a big number? Get this: The Indian government’s official estimate for the same time span is upwards of 250 million and a global telecom watchsite puts it at 348 million. Let’s go with 200 million … and that is a lot of mobile phone users, my friend, if you consider that the entire population of the Philippines, the ‘texting capital of the world’ and the country that brought down a president on the strength of its SMS-ing talent, is in the region of 90 million.
And we’re ready to amass our own collection of telecom titbits.
Some years ago, a leading political party recorded a short speech by its leading spokesman, and millions of phones in India rang, only to have the recipient of the call hear the PM speaking in their ear. The political rally had been brought to the voter. I heard of someone who did not cotton on, was so elated at the privilege of getting a call from the PM that she tried to engage the distinguished gentleman in conversation till, confused by his apparent obliviousness to what she was saying, she realised he was not actually on the line.
At about the same time, a Delhi student used his mobile phone to record his girlfriend in the middle of an intimate moment and circulated it. The furore it caused meant that the mean clip circulated even more from phone to phone all across the country.
And every owner of a mobile phone will have a bunch of stories to tell about being pestered every week by a couple of pesky advertisements from their service provider.
On a saner marketing note, last week, one of India’s biggest telecom companies announced a tie-up with a film production house to distribute a short English movie to its subscribers.
And in the opening days of February, I just added a third little ‘favourite telecom story’ to my collection of telecom titbits: On Feb 1, 2007, at the very first national Mobile Security India 2007 seminar held to discuss issues related to mobile theft, the keynote speaker laid on the assemblage a rather startling statistic – that more than Rs 500 crore worth of mobile phones are lost or stolen annually.
Take the fact that incoming calls are free as long as the recipient of the call is within his home circle. Imagine an NRI son driving from Washington to LA in the USA, calling his father in a village somewhere in India. The dad takes the call at no charge, having been required to spend only enough money to be in possession of a basic phone and keep it active. Son and home can speak for as long as the son wills, with no financial repercussions of the call back home.
Hey, this completely robs distance of it sting. You don’t need absence to make the heart grow fonder, a good network can do the job.
This probably means that the emotional cost of the migration of peoples to places of opportunity will be vastly diminished. The terror of alienation, the angst of abandonment is gone. One call (speed dial, that too!) and you are listening to a loved one’s voice. The forces of change that tore apart the universe of the joint family system have been stemmed.
I watch it firsthand. My driver, Shiv, has family in Benares. He calls his young wife once in a couple of days to koochie-coo in chaste Bhojpuri. He speaks to his little children, squealing with delight on the phone. He speaks lovingly and reverentially to his parents. When his niece was born, his brother called and my driver beamed all the way home. He was particularly tickled that he knew within the half hour.
Often when I get into my car at night to go home, I can see Shiv has a happy air to him, and I know he’s called home that day. I realise every single time that the pain of separation has been completely removed, that there is now not just the delight of being able to stay in touch effortlessly, but also the pride of being able to do it with a new technology. And that pride should not be viewed as just a sweet little thing. It’s a very crucial phenomenon: Shiv and his family have something all the ‘padhe-likhe shehar ke log’ have, and they are a real, real-time, part of this great new world around them.
We can all debate and discuss the demographic implications of these developments. But what is even more fascinating is what a simple facility like this does to the basic sense of life of a human being. Do we realise what millions of people, who otherwise saw themselves as on the fringes, now feel because they can participate? Do you realise what a 10-rupee recharge means to someone who can only afford Rs 10? Think of it: because you cannot tell if a phone has a prepaid or post-paid number just by looking at the instrument, the person holding the instrument is entitled to an ‘equal-to-you’ feeling.
Right under our noses in the city, the doodhwallas and bhajiwallas and the baniya across the street all have mobile phones. That makes it possible for them to offer you ‘customised service’, for the cost of an old cycle and an errand boy. Let’s put aside the extraordinary world of convenience it brings to us and try and appreciate the extraordinary world of possibilities it brings them, not just financially but also in terms of self esteem.
Not so long ago, we self-importantly took a call on our mobile phone while we were buying our onions and potatoes, today the roadside grocer takes a call on his mobile phone with an expression shot at you that wonders why you didn’t call and were silly enough to walk all the way to his shop. I call the general store downstairs and order what I need; the boy in half pants who comes with a big jute bag to deliver them has a mobile phone! And if he gets a call, I adore the sheer élan with which he takes it.
I love it. Long live the revolution.
(The writer is national creative director)