Mar 172010
Mobile phone subscribers per 100 inhabitants 1...
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550 million people in India have phones

Last time I was in India I wrote about the amazing business model innovation that had allowed telecom operators to make money on a paltry $6 a month per average user. That compares to a desired average monthly payment of $50 or more in the U.S.

The results have been phenomenal—550 million people in India have phones, and it has transformed the poorer service economy by giving them an affordable way to be reached and arrange jobs. Just last month, nearly 20 million new mobile accounts were opened. That’s more than double the people than have high speed Internet in the entire country. Even in slums where people live on less than $2 a day, everyone has a phone. If “Slumdog Millionaire” was more accurate, Jamal wouldn’t have had to go on TV to find Latika. He could have just called her, or worst case, called a few friends until he found her number.

It’s unequivocally India’s most successful infrastructure achievement —despite some mounting concerns about the effects of all those towers dotting nearly any urban rooftop that can hold one. And a host of exciting applications are being built on top of this invisible thread that connects a disparate country with a vast terrain and even bigger gulfs in language, literacy, income, religion, language and living standards

But amazingly, when Rajiv Mehrotra (pictured below) looked at the existing telecom penetration in India, he saw failure. What about the people who can’t afford $6 a month or live too far to get service? Don’t they deserve to be connected as well? The result was VNL, a company that’s already gotten a good deal of press and acclaim for its dead-cheap, low-maintenance, Ikea-like easy-to-assemble, solar-powered base stations that extend existing mobile footprints into rural villages for a fraction of the price, allowing the remotest, poorest villages to have mobile phones in every household at drop-dead low prices. “We are the bottom of the bottom,” boasts Mehrotra, practically daring competitors to try to play his low-cost, super-durability game.

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