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India Connects - (Mobile) Internet Revolution

 The Indian mobile telephone subscriber base is growing by double digits. By the end of 2010 India will have nearly 700 million mobile telephone subscribers, out of a population of 1.15 billion, making India the second largest mobile telephone market behind China and the fastest growing. The growth of Indian mobile phone penetration intersects the worldwide trend away from land-line internet connectivity towards internet connectivity through all types of mobile devices, so it should not be surprising that India's mobile internet traffic growth is among the highest in the world and places India second behind only the United States in mobile internet traffic (according to Admob). What this all means is that the Indian internet space, particularly mobile internet, provides wide open possibilities.

While Indian mobile internet connectivity is growing quickly, the current active user base is low – about 11 million users compared to about 51 million land-line connections (according to JuxtConsult). However, device manufacturers are bundling social networking applications and internet browsers into new phones (about 30% of mobile phones are internet ready, Admob), and many people believe India's active mobile internet user base could reach several hundred million users within five years.

The growth of mobile internet connectivity in India has implications within India and outside. I am aware of at least three new North American mobile social networking and commerce platforms that are making India a key part of their strategy – one chose India as its first and primary market; the second is looking to India as a significant target market behind the U.S.; the third is receiving requests from clients that it provide an India solution (names cannot be disclosed due to confidentiality). Established players, such as Facebook, Google, YouTube, Wikipedia and Linkedin are seeing some of their highest traffic growth from India and are responding by increasing their local presence. The unique circumstances that make India an attractive (mobile) internet connectivity market are its large population and its openness to information in comparison to other developing markets, some of which regularly seek to restrict citizen connectivity (to their own long term detriment). And further, given that many of India's users will interact in English, India is set to have a significant and disproportionate impact on the mobile internet globally.

From an investment standpoint entrepreneurs with a scalable web-based business model would do well to factor in India as a target market. Or going further, you might do well to specifically target India with a product or service that provides a solution tailored for the local population – at this early stage there are likely few competitors, so the opportunities are wide open for first movers to hitch themselves to a high growth user base. Finding local partners may be key for entering the Indian market, but identifying such a partner is not a significant barrier. For example, from the world of application developers who find it daunting to approach mobile service providers, they can choose to identify and reach an agreement with one key Indian VAS (value added service) provider that can assist with the launch of a product across several mobile carriers. These VAS service providers will already have relationships and agreements with the major mobile telcos, and it can all be accomplished under a revenue share model. Of course, your product or service should be something that can gain significant traction across a large user base to be attractive to the telcos, otherwise it will rightly be relegated to channels where it can be downloaded and/or subject to traditional marketing methods where it may get lost among a forest of competition.

But there is more to the mobile internet revolution than application development for social media, games and the like. At the highest level, all services available on the Internet can, should and will have to be provided via mobile devices, a space that covers all information and commerce. The easy ones are being done – information about weather, news, social networking, sports and entertainment – but sometimes not done well. Commerce/shopping remains at an early stage as vendors, service providers and consultants work out kinks in mobile internet payment processing and transaction systems, but these solutions are coming. And when they do India will open its vast “unbanked” consumer market to mobile internet commerce.

But while the mobile internet trend overtakes India, businesses and investors ought not to neglect existing opportunities open through land-line internet connectivity and telephony. India earned a positive reputation as an outsourcing hub for information technology and BPO (business process outsourcing), which includes the gamut of IT, back-office/middle office/front office development and management. More recently India has become a hub for research, including tech and pharma, among other industries. And increasingly you can see captive and non-captive India based service providers in the fields of law (eg. document review and drafting), accounting (eg. bookkeeping and financial statement preparation), medicine (eg. file management, limited diagnosis and medical services “tourism”) and engineering.

So it appears that if you have not considered BPO for some of your company functions or, even more significantly, if you are a professional firm, it is an issue which should be put on the schedule for your next corporate strategy session. Admittedly, results from BPO can be mixed for a variety of reasons, (according to several studies), but I believe the best way to view an India BPO strategy is to evaluate not only the savings that might be realized but what additional opportunities might open by creating a footprint on the ground in India. Those opportunities include new business derived from your home country clients themselves seeking to move into India and new Indian clients seeking assistance for ventures abroad. This may sound all too intangible, but measure it against the cost of seeing your competitors entrenched ahead of you.

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