Vijay Shukla Issue: India 2005
Article no.: 13
Topic: Bridging the gap: SMS-based mobile data services for rural India
Author: Vijay Shukla
Title: Country Head, India
Organisation: ValueFirst Messaging Private Ltd
PDF size: 60KB

About author

Vijay Shukla is the Country Head in India for ValueFirst Messaging Private Limited. ValueFirst provides mobile messaging to a large number of corporations and enterprises. Mr Shukla is an engineer and MBA and has been a management consultant with a big four consulting firm. Mr Shukla has nine years of experience, primarily in mobile messaging based innovative applications and services. Mr Shukla is based in Gurgaon, India.

Article abstract

Short Message Service (SMS) lets users send messages from their mobile phones to other mobiles and to email, paging or voice-mail systems. It needs little bandwidth, works well in poor signal areas, is easy and inexpensive to implement. Users need only a mobile phone; a used phone costs only US$20 in India. SMS also deals easily with local languages–indispensable for reaching out to India’s masses. Planned SMS mobile applications include m-governance, m-medicine, m-weather, m-marketplace, m-education and m-disaster management.

Full Article

Background India has over 1.1 billion people with an average gross national per capita income of less than US$550. The Indian economy started liberalising in 1991. However, there are several factors responsible for the Indian economy’s slow movement and the difficulties it has reaching its full potential. The urban Indian economy is progressing faster than the rural Indian economy, but 80 per cent of the country’s population lives in rural India. There are several factors responsible for the slow growth of India’s economy, including the poor communication infrastructure in rural India. Internet and fixed-line telephone line penetration is low in rural India, so relevant information does not reach the masses; when it does, it does not reach there in time. Several types of media make information available to people in rural India. There are three major factors to consider when choosing a medium to deliver information: reach, cost and retention. The point is not to identify which medium is best, but to understand the dynamics of various media and use the media-mix judiciously. SMS-based mobile data services overview Short message service, usually called SMS, is a globally accepted wireless service that enables the transmission of alphanumeric messages between mobile subscribers and external systems such as electronic mail, paging and voice-mail systems. SMS services allow the deployment of various applications such as: √ Information services (loyalty card members, delivery confirmation, etc.); √ Real-time notifications and alerts (banking, finance and stock alerts, travel, sporting results); √ Direct marketing offerings (promotions, new product announcement, events and shows, m-coupons). There are two SMS point-to-point services: √ Mobile-Terminated short message (MT) ; √ Mobile-Originated short message (MO). SMS mobile-terminated (SMS MT) SMS (MT) consists of messages either originating at the SMSC (Short Message Service Centre) or sent to the SMSC by mobile subscribers, voice-mail systems, paging networks or operators. The messages are then forwarded to other subscribers’ mobile handsets. SMS MT applications include: √ Information services (loyalty card members, delivery confirmation etc.); √ Real-time notifications and alerts (banking, finance and stock alerts, travel, sporting results); √ Direct marketing offerings (promotions, new product announcement, events and shows, m-coupons). SMS Mobile-Originated (SMS MO) SMS MO originate from a MO-capable handset and are sent to the SMSC (Short Message Service Centre) and then forwarded to other mobile subscribers or to subscribers of such fixed services as paging, the Internet or even private email networks. Typical SMS MO services include dedicated requests, voting or feedback applications. A user can register his request for information, e.g. text ‘pension’ to 9899112233, to obtain pension scheme details or to simply key in a quick ‘yes’ response to confirm his presence at an event. Types of SMS-based mobile data services There are tree types of SMS-based mobile data services. Request services allow users to access data from databases–such as for prices–maintained by the system. Group transmission services let users send either individual or collective messages to all the members of a group at the same time. Push/Notification services send previously requested information at a given time or when a specific event occurs–a drop in a stock price, for example. Why SMS-based mobile data services for rural India? Mobile messaging can use 2G, 2.5G, or 3G–the simplest to the most sophisticated generation of mobile service. In fact, a few leading technology institutions in India are currently spending money in research on 4G, fourth generation advanced mobile services! Nevertheless, there is only one commercially viable service available in rural India today–SMS-based mobile data service. It uses standard communication channels for both GSM and CDMA networks and is operator network and handset independent. In addition, it takes little bandwidth and works well in poor signal areas. One needs only a mobile phone; a used handset costs only US$20 in India and monthly rentals are as low as US$4. One mobile phone can act as the window-to-the-world for many people. Benefits of using SMS-based mobile data services There are many reasons why SMS is especially effective in India. It is the most cost effective way to communicate to any mobile audience. Messages can be sent automatically to large groups of recipients so fewer resources are needed to communicate. The operator investment needed is also extremely low. In India, there are very few Internet connections, less than 10 million, compared to the 50 million mobile connections now in use–five times as many people can be reached with SMS than with email. Mobile networks now cover a significant percentage of India’s population; they should reach 95 per cent of the population within the next couple of years. Typically, an SMS delivery only takes seconds. Because messages are sent, ‘pushed’, by the SMSC to the mobile handset and do not rely upon the recipient to retrieve them, it is an extremely reliable way to deliver time-sensitive messages. This is particularly important for large scale emergency related messaging. Automating SMS is easy. It works with existing, legacy, database environments. Generic protocol integration, with the mobile data service providers’ email, HTTP, SMPP, XML and windows application systems servers, is quite straight forward. SMS, which has excelled since its beginnings as a reliable communications medium, is widely accepted as a new business communications channel. SMS deals easily with local languages and dialects. Many handset manufacturers and mobile operators have already started, or will soon, support vernacular languages such as Hindi, Bengali and Tamil. This makes SMS a powerful, efficient way to communicate with the masses. Applications of SMS-based mobile data services for rural India m-Governance–mobile governance applications using SMS will greatly help the millions of people visiting or calling government departments daily for routine information about the status of pension schemes, income tax returns, house registration, birth/death certificate or government-policy related information on special topics. It is time consuming and expensive for the citizen to travel, wait and deal with bureaucrats. The ability to obtain routine information from the government using SMS can be quite helpful to the people of rural India. m-Medicine–people in rural India have limited access to expert medical opinion or advice. With SMS-based data services, users can send any sort of medical questions via SMS to experts in urban areas. The response can be relayed using SMS or by voice. m-Weather–farmers in India depend upon rainfall since many villages do not yet have irrigation systems. They can get local weather information, rain forecasts, temperature, humidity and the like via SMS. This can help rural inhabitants manage their crops and other activities. SMS can also provide early warnings and guidance regarding impending events such as heavy rains, earthquakes or storms. m-Marketplace–rural buyers and sellers rarely get the best prices since they do not have access to current market prices when they make a decision to buy or sell. SMS-based mobile data services can exchange and match prices with buyers and sellers at far-off places. In this way, people in rural India can make better deals for the goods and services they buy or sell. To buy using SMS, a villager sends his bid to the ‘mandi’, the local commodity market in a city. He will receive an SMS on his mobile when his bid is matched in the marketplace, so he can strike a deal at the desired price. Likewise, to sell his produce, a farmer can send the price, quantity and quality data–via SMS–to a city market. Buyers interested in his offer contact the seller on his mobile phone to close the deal. m-Education–government departments can use SMS to spread awareness of topics such as AIDS and population control. NGOs can use SMS-based mobile data services as an alternate channel to target specific audiences, such as women in rural areas, using such techniques as ‘tip-of-the-day’ messages to provide information to all those interested in a specific topic. Low-cost LED displays connected to mobile phones can serve as substitute classroom blackboards and display distance-learning programmes to large groups of people in remote areas. This can change the way education is currently imparted. In addition, the same LED display can act as a dynamic hoarding/sign-board or as a medium to communicate to the public in open areas. The content of the board can be updated remotely via SMS. m-Disaster management–the Tsunami disaster, in December 2004, killed many and caused immense damage. Many lives could have been saved and, at least some of the damage averted, by warning people in advance. In situations such as these, SMS-based mobile data services can get in touch with millions of people in minutes. Pre-established emergency routines can be put into action by sending messages to specific user groups, such as disaster administration teams, volunteers, health workers, fire fighters and the like. An SMS help line can disseminate appropriate emergency information, such as evacuation routes, to each region affected. Mobile data services are just starting, but considering the ease of implementation, the need for little or no additional investment and the compelling benefits, it is little wonder that operators throughout the world, including India, have started exploring the use of SMS-based mobile data services. Organisations focussing on rural development in India need to complement the conventional radio and television communications with SMS-based mobile data services to empower the rural population. Adoption of SMS-based mobile data services will certainly boost the economy and bring many other advantages to rural India.