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Total built by hike: The internet in sachets could drive India's next billion netizens

Total built by hike and its innovative model has the potential to be a formidable force in bringing the next billion internet users online.

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Highlights

  • Total built by hike enables citizens to come online with the lowest entry barrier of Re 1.

  • The vision towards bringing the next billion internet users online is shared by Google and Facebook as well.

  • The innovative model of a patent applied universal transfer protocol ensures access to information without a data connection.

At an event today, Kavin Bharti Mittal, founder and CEO of hike Messenger announced a product that brings it center stage in the pursuit of bringing the next billion users online. ‘Total built by hike’, as he calls it, is created with the objective of reaching the next billion Indians and bringing the internet to them. At first glance, it holds immense promise because it addresses three pressing needs – the need for services, the simplicity of use, and the ability to connect and use them – with or without data.

Indian internet demographics

Over the past couple of years, we’ve been witnessing an increase in the frequency of the term ‘next billion internet users.’ It seems the developed world is saturated with data and connectivity. The obvious avenue for growth ought to come in the form of the unconnected. That typically includes literate, and emerging users with access to a market of devices, services and connectivity. However fragmented and disjointed they may currently seem right now, the adoption of new internet-enabled technologies would catapult them towards the path of progress. Statistical data shared by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and Google CEO Sundar Pichai in past forums reiterate the opportunity in enhancing the quality of life of citizens by giving them access to the internet.

In a conversation with BGR India, Mittal shared a few insights about the internet landscape of India. He points out that in a land of 1.25 to 1.3 billion citizens, India currently stands at 750 million phones. There’s a split within, at approximately 350 million feature phones and 400 million smartphones. Late last year when I had conversation with Nunzio Mirtillo, Head, South East Asia, Oceania and India at Ericsson, he reiterated the promise and potential of the Indian market. As India looks at the potential growth market for 5G, it’s looking at crossing a billion connected internet users. With its rich pool of internet users, even its laggards and slow adopters form a larger base than the user base of Europe.

Connecting the next billion internet users

Through projects such as Internet Saathi, Google has, in its own way, tried to channel women and turn them into ambassadors for a connected India. It reached the interiors of the country, and imparted skills to train citizens in rural India on the benefits of being connected. Similarly, attempts by Facebook such as internet.org, which was later christened Free Basics was also aimed at a similar objective. Unfortunately, they were shrouded in controversy.

What was meant to be a solution to the problem of the masses ended up being the bone of contention between the service providers and the principled. It wouldn’t be wrong to say that the end consumer, or rather the potential end consumer missed out on one of the most fundamental needs in the digital age – a right of way to an affordable internet. And that’s what Mittal wants to change.

Total built by hike

If India does have such a large pool of smartphones and devices, then the nature of services ought to have been far better. It turns out that there’s a stark difference between the number of people who own smartphones, and the number of people who feed on the data market on a regular basis.

Mittal adds that despite the promising base of smartphone users at approximately 400 million, the number of monthly active internet users is 350 million. By monthly active users, he’s referring to users who practically use the internet about once a month. When the demographics is drilled down a level deeper, to daily active users, we’re looking at approximately 190-200 million users. The number of core data users in India is between 140-150 million, according to Mittal.

It appears that one way to get more Indians connected is to reduce the number of considerations and hurdles. According to Mittal, if an Indian wants to get connected to the internet via his or her smartphone, the journey isn’t easy. It begins with a device. As someone who lives every waking day on advice and news on choosing the best device for every price point, I must concede. Those in the hinterland, haven’t connected to the internet to read news and reviews on BGR India. Till they learn to connect, they wouldn’t have access to rich information online. And that’s the market and the audience that Mittal wants to capture.

If an Indian wants to get connected to the internet for the first time, the journey isn’t easy.

Once the hurdle of selecting a device is crossed, the new internet user has to face the dilemma of learning about the platform, the app ecosystem, and then worry about the best plans and data tariff which can be one of the biggest hurdle. Reliance Jio may have given away free data for over a year, but ever since it has started charging users, it is still a hurdle for the unconnected. And there lies potential for a practical solution.

Ironing out the obvious creases

In a very innovative approach, Mittal explains, Total has worked with five partners to begin with. These are Intex, Karbonn, Airtel, Aircel and BSNL. By partnering with these five companies, Total will be able to address the challenge of identifying affordable handsets and convenient data plans with a low entry barrier. To understand the product better, Mittal splits it into three components.

Services

For the unconnected telecom user, Total has a long list of services that includes News, Messages, Sports, Astrology and Payments. What’s unique is that these services can work even without a working internet connection. Yes, it’s possible to message your friends who also use Total irrespective of whether either or neither has a working data connection. Mittal’s team has been able to do this by very efficiently mapping a graphical user interface to a series of USSD commands.

In case you aren’t familiar with the terms, USSD (unstructured supplementary service data) are those unique codes with * and # we’ve used to see the device IMEI number or to request special services from our mobile service providers. USSD is a part of the GSM standard that enables a mobile device to communicate with a program on the network to issue commands and fetch specific information. Think of it as a panel and special triggers that initiate the process of fetching the information you need.

So when you are not connected to a data network and still want to follow the latest score of the ongoing India series, you don’t have to bother about what the USSD code is, or bother typing an SMS with words such as Cricscore and sending it to a five digit number and get charged astronomically. Total understands that you simply want to know the game’s latest score, or perhaps read the news that matters. And you would have an interface that resembles as app. All you need to do is intuitively tap on buttons and leave the rest to Total. In the background, a series of short codes are sent to Total, and your device receives the latest scores, or news stories and also fetches the messages you have received.

While demonstrating the product, Mittal transferred a photo while offline, and highlighted a key feature of Total – data sachets. Once you want to perform operations such as transferring files, photos or videos, Total will calculate the precise amount of data you would need and allow you to buy data just like how you would buy a sachet of shampoo, at Re 1. With its three operator partners, Total allows you to buy data packs starting at 20MB for Re 1.

You could continue to stay offline once you have sent the file, and consumed the 20MB you get for Re 1. In case you’re wondering how the user would purchase those plans without connecting to the internet, well, thanks to UPI and the USSD feature that it supports, even payments can happen online. The app has ensured the implementation of standard security features to ensure your payment details are secure. All you need to do is focus on your messages, and the memories you want to share with your friends.

Single login

Since all of these services lie within Total, you have one ID with which you sign in and continue to use the vast pool of services offered. But working with Google, Total has been able to bring services such as News, Sport, Payments and Messaging to the lowest possible level within the operating system, Mittal explains.

This takes away the challenge of having to discover applications for someone who is not familiar with how the internet works. As they learn the finer aspects of using data, they can choose to use applications such as WhatsApp and Facebook that need a working data connection. And to do that they could buy data packs starting Re 1, not fearing they just wasted a few hundred rupees for the month.

Use without data

At the core of the product is a user friendly interface that allows users to use the vast pool of services mentioned above, even without a data connection. Whether you are in a remote village, or whether you are travelling through patchy network with unstable data connectivity, you can still stay informed, reach out to your friends and family even without a data connection. As long as the mobile network is visible on your device and your device can send a standard text message, you could save yourself from isolation, and inform your loved ones of your whereabouts.

And if staying offline is what you prefer, then you have access to the news, sporting events, and the ability to make payments anyway.

Why it holds promise – and upholds net neutrality

Unlike past attempts at bringing the next billion users online, Total address the challenges across several levels. Initially, devices by its partners Intex and Karbonn will be launched within the price range of Rs 3,500 and Rs 5,000. Mittal said the devices will be available starting March 1, 2018. He also reiterated the seriousness of this effort while mentioning that the unique user experience offered by USSD in a friendly interface has been filed for patent as a universal transfer protocol.

In addition to solving the device challenge and the need for a simple user interface, Total has also addressed the challenge of data packs by working with telecom operators and providing an entry point at the lowest possible level – just a rupee to get connected online. In doing so, it is able to uphold the basic principles of net neutrality and offer an open internet without any vested interests.

  • Published Date: January 17, 2018 12:30 PM IST