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Last Updated: Monday, 5 April, 2004, 13:27 GMT 14:27 UK
Youth drives India's mobile phone revolution

By Zubair Ahmed
BBC correspondent in Bombay

Girls using mobile phones
"It keeps ringing. It makes me feel somebody loves me, somebody cares for me in this world."

Time was when it took several years to get a new telephone connection in India. Now, there is less pressure than ever before for fixed landlines as mobile phone subscribers appear poised to outnumber those with a fixed line.

By year's end, India may become one of the few countries where the mobile revolution is complete and the mobile reigns supreme, just ten years after it was first introduced.

Every month, India adds another 1.5 million mobile subscribers to the 28 million mobile phone users registered last December.

In January 2003, one year before, India had just 10 million mobile subscribers.

Youth market

Growth was particularly fast and furious last year, especially after incoming calls were made free by service providers.

Mr Das:
Mr Das: "The under 25s are in a majority in India. They are mobile phone savvy."
"It's my belief that by the end of this year or early next year there'll be more mobile phones than fixed lines," says Kobita Desai, Gartner's principal telecoms analyst.

"And I think after the market stabilises, which will take some time, there'll be four major players left in the field."

And all of them will be focussed on the youth market, predicts Sandip Das, the head of Orange phones.

"The under 25s are in a majority in India. They are mobile phone savvy," he says.

"If you look at the things they like, it's Nike shoes or a motorcycle and now it's mobile phones as well."

Status symbol

As in much of the world, here too the mobile is the message.

Seventeen-year-old university student Gagan Barmecha admits his phone is a style statement.

Boys using mobile phones
"The better phone you have the richer you are."
"In some ways it's a status symbol. The better phone you have the richer you are."

Gagan's classmate, Shruti Panchal, says she can't imagine life without a mobile phone.

"It keeps ringing. It makes me feel somebody loves me, somebody cares for me in this world.

"And you can stay connected. I feel it's prestigious to have a cell phone."

Sixteen-year-old Saijal, one of the few urban teenagers not to have a mobile, says she feels left out of a privileged club.

"When I see people around me, talking on mobile phones, I feel left out."

Students say "mobile cheating" is on the rise, that is the text messaging of answers to knotty exam questions.

Business boost

But mobiles, or as India prefers to call them in the American way, cell phones, are not just an adolescent plaything.

For many, they are a lifeline.

RL Dubey
Mr Dubey: "Landline is just like a wall clock and mobile phone a wrist watch."
Estate agent Anil Singh says his mobile phone is three things rolled into one - office; address and livelihood.

Singh says he recalls the good old days, when he found it frustrating to travel to his clients.

Now a hefty chunk of his business is transacted on the mobile, and the phone never stops ringing.

"My earnings have gone up manifold since I started using this mobile phone, because I am always available to my clients, twenty-fours a day, and I save on giving up the office space I had earlier," says Singh.

Falling charges

India's mobile revolution is spreading from white collar workers like Anil to blue-collar workers.

Today, chauffeurs, plumbers, masons and even domestic maids in metropolises such as Delhi and Mumbai offer mobile phone numbers as a contact.

It was unthinkable just a few years ago.

When mobile telephony was introduced in India in 1994, there were just a few service providers, such as AirTel.

It was a heavily-regulated sector with prohibitive licence fees, high call charges of 30 cents per minute, and expensive handsets.

Then, only the privileged could use a mobile in India.

But in the last four years, call charges have fallen and licence fees have become more manageable.

Tough market

Competition is stiff as more players enter the market.

Orange, BPL, Reliance and Tata are just a few of the more popular mobile phone operators in India today.

Even the two state-run fixed-line providers BSNL and MTNL in Delhi and Mumbai jumped on to the mobile phone bandwagon.

In less than 18 months, they had six million mobile subscribers between them.

"MTNL and BSNL are planning to expand in a big way and by next year we are adding 20 million mobile phone subscribers," says MTNL Bombay chief R.L. Dubey.

Mr Dubey believes India will have 150 million mobile subscribers in the next few years.

Clockwork

But would that mean the fixed line is doomed?

No, says Mr Dubey, whose MTNL provides landlines to the Indian capital Delhi and the country's entertainment and commercial capital Mumbai.

"Landline is just like a wall clock and mobile phone a wrist watch. In any family, there is at least one wall clock, but each member has personal wrist watch.

"Similarly, a family will continue to have a landline, but it'll also have several mobile phones."

With India poised to introduce broadband next year, the landline is set to be in demand once again.

But not as much as before Indians made that crucial call to the mobile phone.


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