April 04, 2020
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Calling Rural India

Villages, long neglected by DoT, go cellular as private operators tap a nascent market

Calling Rural India

The creased forehead with sweat pouring down his face tells the story of the long day he has had. The grey hair makes Nathi Singh, farmer at Pisawa village in Aligarh district of Uttar Pradesh, look older than the 50-something summers that he has lived. But Singh exists as a mere statistic in government records, taken into account only when it's time for his produce to be bought by the government for storage in its warehouses. Better prices, better markets were only a dream. To find out the trend of prices, the farmer would have to travel all the way to some of the nearby markets. At times, after he had found out the prices prevailing on one day, he'd despatch the goods the next day only to find that the prices had fallen marginally. The village had no means which could help Singh get the information. And so, market forces played havoc with the meagre earnings of Nathi Singh's family.

Today the scenario has changed. Even as his produce is being loaded on a truck, the farmer calls up various wholesale marketsóJaipur, Delhi, Agra, Palwal and sometimes Mumbaióto find out where he can get the best price for his produce. Every market is just a call away, often at a cost that is less than the fare buses or trains would have charged to ferry him there. As soon as the deal is struck via cellphone, the truck heads out in the right direction. With cellular phone in hand, Singh is always in control, at home or in the fields. And of course, an added advantage is that the entire village knows that farmer Nathi Singh has a cellular phone.

Courtesy the cellular phone, Pisawa, 'a village in the middle of nowhere' with its population of a few thousand, is getting connected to the global telecommunications network. Private cellular companies are emerging on the rural landscape, long neglected by the department of telecommunication (dot). Apparently, dot assumed that telephony would serve little in improving the lot of the villagers. Surely the grapevine would suffice?

The situation is similar in several other hamlets and villages. None of the 100-odd telephones in Gonda, a semi-urban village, have been functioning for over 15 days at a stretch. And no one is sure when, if ever, they will begin functioning again. It was only after local newspapers carried reports that there was no electricity at the exchange that the 5,000-odd residents of Gonda got to know why their communications were cut off.

In such areas of rural India, it doesn't really matter whether you have a telephone or not. It simply does not work. 'When it does, strange sounds are heard more than the person you are talking to,' says Babu Lal, a chemist shop owner in Gonda. The non-availability of telephones was a great leveller. Managers of the all-important Galloping Acres Stud Farm in the village - which supplies horses to elite buyers in India and abroad - say they had to travel long distances, often an hour away, to make a telephone call in case of an emergency. Though one fixed line telephone has been available at their farm for 11 years, the days it has worked can easily be numbered.

Now that cellular phones have made their appearance on the stud farm, it's a lot easier for prospective clients to get in touch. Says Prakash Kumar, one of the farm hands: 'Nothing could have been better than making a telephone available for us. Earlier, we had to go nearly 16 km to make a telephone call.' Not anymore, as a yes-td, a public cellular phone booth, has been installed just a stone's throw away.

Having heard of horror stories of owning a telephone connection from dot, it was not surprising that villagers were cynical about technology and its promises. So, when executives from Ushafone, one of the two cellular licencees in the western Uttar Pradesh telecom circle, carried out a demonstration for the village, the Pisawa village folk found it more than a little hard to believe. Told that they could use a phone which would function without any physical wires, the villagers were convinced that it was another attempt to take them for a ride. 'I thought they were trying to make fools of us,' recalls Nathi Singh with a wry smile. Till someone talked to his son in Mumbai. And another dialled Jaipur to talk to his recently wedded daughter. Hearing, in this case, was believing. Now, Nathi's telephone is at times used by the village folk in case of an emergency and, clearly, the need for better communication is being felt.

Within 10 months of Singh having bought a telephone, his brother has bought another. They are now experiencing the benefits of being connected round the clock. Says Yogendra Sharma, owner of a yes-td booth, promoted by Ushafone: 'The dot phone works only for 10-15 days in a month. Sometimes, even less. Now the cellular phone booth is a great relief for all because connectivity is never a problem.' There have been times when the connection is disrupted because of heavy fog, and there are a spate of complaints since, at least, there is someone who lends an ear.

It's a win-win situation for Sharma, dot and the cellular operator, a very huge revenue for dot in fact. While dot has done almost nothing in ensuring quality of telephony in the region, it is earning huge revenues from the calls being made to all parts of the country. For, private operators are still not allowed to carry calls outside the circle where they are operating.

Koshika Telecom general manager (marketing), Sundeep Saksena, is very clear. 'Village phones have to serve as community phones. Only then will the revenue projections per line be realised,' he says.And it's not just plain talking. Koshika is working on its strategy to build up a huge subscriber base and to take the cellular telephone to the masses. That would mean low airtime charges. Thanks to its peak tariff of Rs 2.70 a minute (against

Rs 16.80 by operators in the metros), 2,000 yes-td operators are reaping the benefits of connecting villages which were never on the telephone map of the country. In addition to the telephone booths in the villages, these have also been made available in Shatabdi Express trains. On a trial basis, a Delhi-Bareilly air-conditioned bus has also been provided with a gsm (or cellular) payphone.

Says Saksena: 'It was only in June last year that we installed the first yes-td booth. In just over seven months, the daily revenue from one yes-td has increased from Rs 25 to Rs 60.' He also say the monthly airtime usage at the pcos is now as high as 400 minutes a month. Compare that figure with the Delhi operators' average monthly airtime of 120 minutes and 180 minutes in Mumbai.

The rewards of planning on the mass scale seem to be coming now. dot has recently written to Koshika Telecom to buy bulk airtime to help in providing its Public Call Offices (pcos) in the rural areas. The telecom company is also in the process of finalising a deal with the UP government to provide the gsm payphones in 80 per cent of its 120,000 villages of which 30,000 are already on the telecom map of the country.

Just how successful has rural telephony been for Koshika? Saksena says if 200,000 yes-td pcos can do regular business in its four telecom circles-UP (East), UP (West), Bihar and Orissaó'we will probably not need any subscribers.' That would be a world first.

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