Being in the online prepaid recharge industry, one thing we live and breathe are mobile penetration statistics. There is no second-guessing India's explosive mobile penetration and its growth over the last five years. The country today has approximately 920 million mobile subscribers. Sixty percent of our 121 million internet subscribers access the internet strictly through a mobile device. This presents a clear and present (as well as a potentially meaty future) opportunity for any and all businesses that touch the mobile ecosystem in India, including commerce related applications.
It's somewhat arguable whether e-commerce has really ‘taken off’ in India the way some pundits would have us believe. The total number of non-travel related online transactions in India today remains a woefully low number, which means that all non-travel online retailers are fighting tooth and nail for the exact same eyeballs.
Ensuring that mobile becomes the primary channel of internet-based transactions should become the ecosystem's biggest thrust: mobile operators, application developers, and ecosystem supporters should all work together to make this happen for the simple reason that it could exponentially increase the market size of people transacting online almost overnight. For this to happen, many challenges must be resolved for the country's mobile customers, some of which I have highlighted below.
Faster, more reliable speeds for the masses: We need 3G to become the norm for all of India, and 4G to become the norm in metros. With these speeds, application developers will have the confidence that the infrastructure will support their platforms, and will enable customers to transact with confidence.
Affordable data plans: Data plans must not be price prohibitive. The fact of the matter is that over 90 per cent of the country is still on pre-paid plans, where the propensity to consume services ancillary to voice is not as high yet. If data plans become affordable, and VoIP regulations become transparent and open, the common man will have an easier time graduating to becoming a data user. In fact, loosening restrictions on VoIP could be the catalyst in making this happen.
Better online payment infrastructure: For more reasons than one, India's online payment infrastructure is not the smoothest we encounter when we compare it to our global counterparts. The RBI-mandated additional layers of authentication, combined with still-nascent payment gateway and online banking technology can often frustrate the customer away from transacting online. One would like to believe that the RBI will come up with less draconian security measures, while banks and payment gateways upgrade their technology to meet international standards. A seamless payment experience will go a long way in ensuring customers remain comfortable (and make it the preferred method) to buy things.
Killer apps: Even if we can pull all this off, we need killer, dead-simple mobile commerce applications that are customer-centric and trustworthy. The mobile device is a smaller form factor, which mandates a unique product development thought process and customer experience. We do not have enough of these applications today; once again, it is the proverbial chicken and egg scenario. But whether or not we see the ecosystem getting healthier first, application developers must commit to building customer-centric applications.
Despite these challenges, the opportunity remains real. With mobile penetration getting deeper, customers will begin demanding services that make their lives better, and when the masses begin making demands, the ecosystem will need to respond. It will become incumbent on players like us, especially in more utilitarian services such as mobile recharge, to build world-class technology, and provide our customers with the best of breed service, helping pave the way for other e-commerce players by ensuring customers feel comfortable transacting.
The fact that companies such as FreeCharge are often the ‘devirginising’ platforms for newly minted transactors puts a burden of responsibility on us, but one that we are happy to take on. In the long run, the industry must cooperate with each other to ensure that the collective opportunity is maximised.
The author is Co-Founder and CEO, Accelyst Solutions