Vantage point

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Whose phone is ringing?

The latest series of ads from India's biggest cellular service provider, Airtel, tell a very interesting story.

In one ad, a well dressed young man locks his car and starts walking. A ring-tone is heard, so he checks his phone, but it isn't ringing. A group of auto rickshaw drivers is standing nearby and one of them whips out, very Rajnikantically, a cellphone, but even that isn't ringing. Then a cycle-rickshaw driver passes by, and it is his phone. He answers it and starts talking, as the other people stare at him, presumably surprised that he has a cell phone.

Another ad has a similar theme, set in a barber shop, where first the customers check their phones, then the barber checks his phone, but the ringing phone belongs to a boy delivering tea for a road-side tea shack.

Then a voice-over says - "Jab mahiney mein mobile rehney lagey sirf 200 rupaye, to fir har koi kyun na le Airtel"(i.e When an Airtel mobile costs only 200 rupees a month, why wouldn't everyone have one?)

The ads give two messages.

The first message is not that obvious. The ads show auto rickshaw drivers, barbers, panwallahs whipping out their mobiles, but no one reacts with surpirse. This means that mobile penetration in several cities is now so high that no one feels surprised about barbers having one. Gone are the days when people used to tell each other with great amazement "You know, the driver of the auto I was travelling in actually had a mobile!!". That apparently is old news. So the class of our society which has a low but steady and constant income, like autowallahs, barbers, panwallahs, can now easily afford a mobile phone. And why should they not? These people have a fairly steady source of income though it might not be very high, and with the CPP (Calling Party Pays) policy introduced a couple of years back, it is possible to own a mobile phone and use it judiciously.

The second message is quite obvious. That mobile phone connections are now becoming so affordable that even some of the poorest people in our society can now afford one.

The first few times I saw this ad, I thought it was an exaggeration. Well, obviously, it is an exaggeration. Everyone doesn't have a cell phone even now, even in our cities. But not even the staunchest critic of liberalisation (except maybe Arundhati Roy) can deny that the privatisation of telecom has provided the poor an opportunity to better his life using a cell phone.

I had an experience like the people in the Airtel ad last week. Early morning, some kids and a woman come to collect garbage from every house. That morning they rang my bell and I woke up groggily, picked up the garbage bin, opened the door and handed it to the kids. Suddenly the phone rang. I reached for it, pressed the answer button and said "Hello". But the ring tone continued. I looked around puzzled as the kid fished out a mobile phone from his pocket, answered it and started talking. It was apparently the driver of the garbage van telling him that he would reach our building in ten minutes and he should be done with all the houses by then.

The kid finished the call, smiled at the surprise on my face and started walking down the stairs with his garbage drum.