Friday, February 5, 2010

India- the new mobile frontier?

I just returned from India. The contrast between frenetic growth in the subcontinent and recession blues in the West is palpable. To be sure, India went through a mild downturn late last year. There was a slowdown in retailing, real estate prices came down a bit from speculatory madness, food prices skyrocketed and annual salary increases in the IT services sector came down to 7% and 10% from the 20's, 30's and beyond. But it is back to growth again for a billion plus Indians- in the number of automobiles, new highways and metros under construction, high rise buildings, and mobile phones.

With 500 million hand sets in use, India has more mobile phones than any country except China. It is adding to that base at a rate of around 35 million phones per quarter! Significantly, 92% of all phones are wireless- a clear indication that the country is leap-frogging the land line era. This in a country where in the not so distant past, a land line required a deposit payment and a waiting period of months (sometimes years) to get!

The phenomenon has benefited from a policy decision to open the industry to private sector competition, as opposed to domination by state owned monopolies as was the case with the wireline industry at the outset. Fierce competition has driven prices down to the point where many at the "bottom of the pyramid" can afford the service (BTW, C.K. Prahalad's book on the fortune at the bottom of the pyramid is a great read). Incoming calls and texts are free, encouraging consumer use, as well as businesses hawking all manner of products and services direct to the handset. Tata Docomo recently introduced a pay by second model at one paisa (about 0.022 cents) per second, which is bound to boost call volume.

In addition to mobile marketing, there are other mobile services that are poised to avail of the critical mass and growth in teledensity. Mobile banking is one area where we may very well see India leap-frog other countries. While only 1% to 2% of mobile subscribers use mobile banking services today, there is an enormous upside. Some of the common uses today are bill payments, insurance premiums, charitable donations, pre-paid mobile telephone recharging, and travel ticketing.

The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) has been both aggressive and strategic in building a regulatory framework to enable the growth of mobile banking. It issued guidelines for Mobile Banking Transactions in October 2008 addressing banking, money transfer, payments and commerce. RBI has since moved to swiftly revise some aspects of this guideline based on feedback over 12 months.

Arguably, the most well known example of mobile banking in the developing world is M-PESA in Kenya. It is widely used for money transfer by the unbanked and is run by the mobile operator Safaricom through a nationwide agent network. The RBI, however, wants banks firmly ensconced in the transaction stream, but with a twist. While funds have to be deposited at a bank branch, the disbursement of cash at the receiving end can be through an ATM or a bank-appointed agent. The RBI is thus ensuring the need for oversight through Know Your Customer (KYC) norms and the regulated banking system to address money laundering concerns in a part of the world where informal networks like "hawala" are rampant. It is also addressing the need for "last mile convenience" in a country with an evolving physical infrastructure. The not so invisible hand here is that of the RBI, nudging banks, mobile operators, and others with agent networks to partner to facilitate ubiquity and security.

Other RBI modifications include raising the daily cap on transactions from Rs. 10,000 (~$218) to Rs. 50,000 (~$1087), enabling larger purchases, such as airline tickets. At the other end of the spectrum, it also removed the need for end-to-end encryption for transaction below Rs.1000 (~$22) to remove the cost overhead on small transactions.

While the stage appears set for an upsurge in mobile transactions, led perhaps by funds transfers from banked urban workers to families living in villages, it is not easy to pick early winners in the race. Of the 32 RBI approved mobile service provider banks, 21 have launched services. The partnerships between banks and mobile service providers are yet to materialize. While India is known for its information technology prowess, most well known names are services companies. There are very few true product companies in the country that have embraced product management, development and delivery for general availability, and streamlined delivery and support of versioned products across large customer bases. That would spell opportunity for the many battle tested mobile banking product vendors in the U.S. and Europe, right?

Well, before you pack your bags for Mumbai, keep in mind that selling software into India is extremely challenging. Markets at the bottom of the pyramid are very price sensitive. They call for innovative price packaging like the one paisa per second model from Tata Docomo. In addition, while attitudes are changing, justifying value for software products in India is difficult. Races to the price bottom, regardless of other value attributes, are common. If your business model dictates recovery of Dollar or Euro based cost from Rupee sales, you can end up in a bind if you are not careful.

Despite the cautionary note, mobile services in general and mobile banking in particular are poised for explosive growth in India. We will see innovative services offered there before we see them in the West. It is a transformational journey of a billion people that will be exciting to watch and participate in. Mumbai, anyone?