By Deepak Gopalakrishnan Nov. 22, 2019
A rise in mobile tariff might not impact you and me. I’d be more mindful of downloads and use WiFi more often. But it’s going to hit the watchman, whose shift is made tolerable with YouTube, and the rickshawallah whose long rides are made less dreary because of live cricket commentary, hard.
If you’ve been reading the news, you know we’re facing a looming crisis. No, not that climate one. Not that economic one either! I mean, those too, but this week, a new crisis joined these looming ranks — the telecom crisis. A quick recap for those who joined in late: Despite their ubiquity through advertising, all telecom companies are losing money. This was exacerbated by Jio pulling the rug from under their feet with cutthroat pricing in 2016, and some incredibly heavy fines imposed by the government in 2019. Vodafone-Idea, the product of a celebrated merger, faced India’s steepest ever quarterly loss, enough for Vodafone’s global CEO to consider pulling out of India. Before we hark back to the 2000s and being charged for incoming calls, the sector is in damage control mode, with almost everyone from Jio to BSNL mulling tariff increases.
This news reminded me of a design conference I attended recently in Bangalore, where digital anthropologist Payal Arora spoke of the “next billion users”. As she outlines in her book, people lower down the economic chain use mobile technology primarily for entertainment. She spoke about how the drivers of content were what the industry calls ABCD — Astrology, Bollywood, Cricket, Devotion (and needless to say, you can add “P” to that mix; most marketers are too shy to include it in their presentations).
This should not be a surprise to any of us. My building watchman says that a large part of his shift is made tolerable with YouTube, live cricket, and most recently, TikTok. Payal’s point was that we “elites” tend to think of mobile technology as more empowering or transformative for these groups — a farmer getting instant crop and weather data, or a poor student suddenly getting access to lots of material that helps him top the class (an image perpetuated by Idea Cellular’s horrid IIN ads from a few years ago). This is unfair and places an undue amount of responsibility on such people. All they want, like the rest of us, is entertainment. Not more work.
The ramifications of mobile tariff hikes are going to be far-reaching, as India is often sold as a destination for technology, content, and e-commerce on the basis of an increasing percentage of its 1.3 billion people taking to the internet, aided in no small part by Jio-esque pricing. Could higher prices derail that train?
Well, honestly, not for you and me. My current Vodafone postpaid bill works out to ₹950 a month, and I assume that could peak at ₹ 2000 (at worst). I’d sacrifice a few beers, be more mindful of downloads, and use WiFi more often. As, I suppose, most of you would.
But, as always, the poor will be hit more adversely. The mobile has come to mean their only source of entertainment, and you can see this in the way telcos brand their low-end recharge packs (Monsoon Dhamaka! Dhan Dhana Dhan!). While studies don’t exist, you can see mobile entertainment positively affect their lives. Shortly after Jio launched, an rickshawallah told me how he doesn’t mind his long dreary rides as he now has music while riding and videos during downtime. Recently, an auto driver in Versova asked me how to get his videos online, after being inspired by Hindi content creators on YouTube.
Lastly, my own feeling is that people move up a technology adoption curve, and entertainment has the lowest entry barrier.
During her talk, Arora spoke about how, contrary to conventional wisdom, the poor spend a larger proportion of their money on discretionary spends, with mobile and data taking up an increasing part of that pie. A rise in tariffs is not going to help matters.
“Ah, but they will go back to doing what they were, pre-Jio,” one could argue. But I find this flawed, and frankly, elitist. Human beings, by nature and evolution, react badly when things they like get taken away from them, and seek alternatives. It’s easy for the privileged to move on. Gig got cancelled? No problem, catch a movie instead. Favourite sushi joint shut down? Bummer, but pizza will do. There’s a certain cruelty to getting the poor hooked to cheap entertainment and then taking it away.
For many people, this is the only entertainment they know. Walk by a slum in Mumbai, and you realise the kids have nowhere to play. Public places are becoming increasingly gated or encroached, leaving fewer distractions for those living in crowded, noisy settlements. The six-inch screen then becomes a gateway to another world, a brief respite.
There are other dangers. In a podcast with Amit Varma, the researcher Snigdha Poonam spoke about how a lot of unemployed Indian male youth felt compelled to join mobs or some such tribe, to derive a sense of belonging. Surely, that feeling of belonging could also be had via an online game or TikTok.
Lastly, my own feeling is that people move up a technology adoption curve, and entertainment has the lowest entry barrier. If you first used a desktop, chances are you navigated to Pinball or Solitaire first, not MS Excel. Depriving the poor of entertainment on mobile now means fewer people getting comfortable with technology enough to use it for news and education tomorrow.
Along with fixing the ailing telecom sector to make it sustainable, the government has a responsibility to help the poor as well. While it is well documented how free WiFi can help end poverty, the role of entertainment should not be discounted. As an old article researching how India’s poor uses in the internet says, “progress, often, is the collateral benefit of the pursuit of pleasure.”
The rise of mobile rates, an unfortunate inevitability, will signal (pun maybe intended) a new chapter in the much-written Indian telecom story. This could mean everything from a change in user behaviour (using… ugh.. SD cards) to bigger, industry-level shake-ups (one player exiting will strain the rest of the sector). There are several industries who made business and marketing plans thinking that India’s cheap data party would last forever. Alas, this will not happen. More details of this will be covered in business dailies by authors with more expertise than myself. But the saddest story might be denying entertainment to those who cannot buy their way to another solution.
Deepak 'Chuck' Gopalakrishnan is a freelance writer and marketing guy who lives in Mumbai. He runs two podcasts (Simblified, The Origin Of Things) and a satire newsletter (The Third Slip). He used to work in advertising until his soul couldn't take it anymore, and now spends all his time annoying his cats, listening to prog-metal, cycling and writing bios of himself in third person. He has an irrational love for cold water and Tabasco.