Sheetal sat on a chair made out of wood outside her house. The door of her small house of one room was open. Her mother was shouting at her to come for lunch. But Sheetal wouldn’t move. She would occasionally smile and get angry sometimes. She was not dreaming. She was watching laughter videos on a video app. Sheetal lives not in any metro city in India, but in a hamlet far away from India’s capital.
Sheetal is not alone. She is part of the 451 million monthly active Indians who form the country’s Internet population. And this number has only been increasing. In fact, India accounts for more than 12% of the world’s internet population.
India’s Internet Transformation
Internet reached places in India faster than toilets did in the country’s 70 year history as an independent nation. This has given rise to a new class of consumers who are often quoted as “the next billion.” Serving this population is a plethora of services and products created by startups and legacy companies.
What led to this massive surge in connectivity in various parts of India? The answer lies in the deep pockets of one of the richest men in the world: Mukesh Ambani.
In one strike, Ambani leveled the playing field for poor and rich alike with cheap internet data prices. He made this happen through his company’s Reliance Jio proposition. According to a Wall Street Journal Report, Ambani spent more than US$35 billion to launch 4G networks across the country.
Beyond cheap data, Reliance Jio also gave away a feature phone based on 4G technology that included two of the most used apps by Indians – WhatsApp and Facebook. To top it off, these phones ran WiFi. Around 70 million Jio Phones were sold in close to two years.
Reliance’s products and pricing heavily impacted other telecom operators, pushing network providers like Airtel and Vodaphone to reduce their respective internet rates in order to survive. While these companies also rolled out 4G plans in certain select locations, Reliance Jio triumphed them by getting 4G services in more than 200,000 villages and 18,000 cities according to the Wall Street Journal. They achieved this through 200,000 cell towers and 150,000 miles of optic cables.
Virtually all Indian telecoms ultimately reduced their data prices and introduced many packages, but the drop in price forced several companies to shut down. When Jio had launched, around 10 players operated in the market, compared to just 4 today.
A New Internet Population
With this new infrastructure in place, internet penetration has exploded throughout the country. The initial burst of fast and cheap internet enjoyed by urban elites is now slowly entering the rural areas. Today, high speed network serves around 355 million subscribers. According to a report by Kantar IMRB ICUBE, there are 251 million internet users in rural India, with the Bihar and Orrisa states of India showing the highest amount of growth in the last two years.
According to a recent PwC Survey, based on the massive rise in the Indian internet population, internet users now exceed the number of people who have completed primary education. In 2004, internet users stood at 20 million, and then rose to 250 million in 2014. At the same time, the number of people who pursued education after 8th grade is 200 million. Education growth through traditional platforms has been linear while the same through online classes has been exponential.
Additionally, data prices in India are now some of the cheapest in the world. According to a comparison site, cable.co.uk, 1 GB of data in India can be secured under US$0.26 compared to the global average of more than US$8. Cheap data prices along with the lowering of costs of smartphones have unlocked a new channel for many Indians to fulfill their needs. Today, Indians are learning and teaching, buying vegetables, clothes, paying at street vendors, delivering household items, consuming news, creating videos, and ordering food, all through apps created by internet startups in India.
A common sight these days on Indian roads are people scanning QR codes and making digital payments. The future is here and it has just started.
The Language Issue
With this great future, India has a language problem that needs to be solved. Out of a population of 1.3 billion, a minor percentage of Indians can speak and understand English. English speaking internet users in India have access to good internet products for jobs, classifieds, e-commerce, education — essentially everything. On the other hand, there is a total lack of quality internet products for non-English speaking users for anything other than entertainment.
We are building Lokal to solve this. Lokal is an 18-month old startup developing a word-class product for 900 million non-English speaking Indian users providing them local news, classifieds, and more meaningful use-cases evolving everyday. We recently participated in the Y Combinator accelerator program, culminating in a round of seed funding. We are super excited about the next few years that are crucial for the Indian growth story, and can’t wait to play a role in the next chapter of India’s internet.