A surprise item in Kapil Sibal’s mystery wish list nearly ignited an unwanted debate just before the end of last week, prevented only by the fact that his statement didn’t seem to threaten any immediate upsets in the state of industry affairs.

Mr. Sibal reportedly said in a press conference that India should move to a state where voice was free and where the industry got its revenues from data.
No matter how much one attempts, it is hard to discover the basis on which Mr. Sibal might have rested the wish. Even countries like South Korea and Japan that are among the leading ones in Asia-Pacific in terms of data usage and revenues have not freed voice yet. In fact, mobile operators worldwide are worried about their networks getting clogged in the wake of rapid growth in smartphones and tablets adoption.
In markets like the US, share of data in quarterly mobile segment revenues grew from around 30 percent in 2010 to about 40 percent in 2012, at least for one leading operator. By comparison, the share of mobile data revenue has inched in the range of 13 percent in 2010 to 15 percent in 2012 for the bigger operators in India, despite best efforts by operators to grow it. Even the launch of 3G, supported by a near-desperate step of slashing 3G tariffs by 70-80 percent, has clearly failed to grow data revenues in any comparable proportion.
Incidentally, Department of Telecom, the licensing body that’s answerable to telecom ministry, has been asking the industry to stop inter-operator 3G roaming, a move that clips more wings of a segment that is already not flying.  Ironic, isn’t it?
Smartphone penetration, a key indicator of data usage and growth, too is much lower in India compared to the advanced countries.
Coming back to the free-voice wish, one would assume it applies alike to both fixed-line voice and mobile voice. Also, since fixed-line voice has been around for much longer, it would be logical to expect that being freed first. One wonders if Mr. Sibal thought of the implications for a state-run operator like BSNL, which continues to be a dominant player in the fixed-line voice segment.
It is notable in this regard that India has failed to achieve, year after year, its broadband target, which until recently has been dependent on wireline broadband. So when a country like South Korea that according to International Telecommunication Union (ITU) is among the very few to have wireline broadband penetration above 35 percent can’t mull free voice, could that be thinkable for India which has less than 1.5 percent broadband density?
Isn’t it more important to first spend a few years in growing data uptake, which even 20 months of post-auction 3G in India have failed to deliver?
(This article was first published in Light Reading India http://www.lightreading.in/document.asp?doc_id=225424&site=lrindia&)
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