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Updated: May 17, 2013 09:17 IST

With second highest tele-density in country, TN set to give m-commerce a big boost

M. Dinesh Varma
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Ezhumalai, who works as a cashier in a tea shop in T. Nagar, also doubles up as a banker for scores of migrant sales staff working in commercial establishments who want to send money home.

Most of these staff hail from places like Tirunelveli and Tuticorin and their long duty hours leave them little time to go to a bank or a post office.

Instead, they simply hand over the money to Ezhumalai who retails an m-commerce service of a private mobile operator.

All he does is to push codes on a mobile handset and the money is instantly deposited in a designated bank account.

Highway Patrol cars of the State police use a GPS/GPRS technology that enables the instant location and despatch of a vehicle that is closest to an emergency site.

South of Chennai, in Veerampattinam, just beyond Puducherry, fishermen venturing into the seas use an application called BREW that improves their catch (by mapping locations of school fish), enables safe navigation (with weather warnings) and also fetches a higher price (with price listings of neighbourhood markets).

Mobile phones and wireless telephony, which were once inaccessible to most, are now not just ubiquitous communication tools across the population; they are changing lives in ways hard to imagine even a decade ago.

Mobile phone penetration, which has grown by leaps and bounds in Tamil Nadu, has now catapulted the State to second spot in India.

The State now has a mobile subscriber base of 71.81 million users, trailing only the populous State of Uttar Pradesh (121.60 million mobile phone subscribers), according to subscription data from the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, as of February, 2013.

TRAI’s latest Quality of Service report is kinder than in the past and notes that there has been improvement among operators in fault incidence, turnaround time and call completion rate.

Even as wireless subscriber numbers declined nationally by an estimated 2 million due to the large-scale disconnection of inactive SIMs, none of the major telecom players reported negative growth in the State.

And, in terms of tele-density, or the number of phones per 100 inhabitants, Tamil Nadu (109.97) is second only to Delhi.

City’s tele-density nearing 200

The tele-density in Chennai is trending towards 200, which industry watchers attribute to influx of migrant workers, an active youth segment and patronage of dual SIM phones that now account for about 30 per cent of the mobile handset market in the city. Chennai’s importance as a strategic market in the mobile telephony space is reflected in the presence of as many as nine GSM operators and two CDMA players.

Government has shown clear signs of warming up to the potential of Information and Communication Technologies, especially mobile phones, with successful adoption of various pilot m-governance services - from projects that enable the public to access through a text message data on the food stocks available at the local ration shop to vaccination reminder alerts on the mobile phones of over 10,000 village health nurses that have proved a useful tool in reducing infant and maternal mortality risk.

The flip side, however, is that such innovative services are yet to go mainstream in the State.

Health Secretary J. Radhakrishnan says the widespread adoption of the “108” emergency helpline and the system of using text messages preceding a Pulse Polio campaign are examples of successful leveraging of mobile telephony.

“But, I agree that the potential in this medium is yet to be fully tapped. In fact, we’re looking at a number of ways to better exploit mobile phone penetration as a mode of improving health services,” he said.

Game-changer

Airtel, which pioneered the m-commerce service Airtel Money, is set to be a game-changer in rural areas and cities like Chennai with a large migrant or floating population segments.

“M-Commerce, which works on SMS prompts on the most basic handsets, has the potential to promote financial inclusion and foster economic growth for large sections of the Indian society,” said Vikas Singh, Airtel’s CEO for Tamil Nadu & Kerala.

Vodafone, which recently launched ‘M-pesa’ in the Eastern Region, is looking to bring the service down south, while BSNL too is planning an entry into the m-commerce space shortly.

“We’re testing the ground for launching our own m-commerce service,” said BSNL Chennai Telephones spokesperson G. Vijaya.

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