4G feature phones hold the key to India’s future, and they’ll be here soon

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We tend to look at the smartphone as the saviour of the human race, the device that will raise the masses from relative technological obscurity and usher in an era of connected human beings. We tend to forget, however, that the feature phone has a larger role to play in this than the smartphone.

Every survey we’ve seen this past year suggests that more feature phones are sold in India than smartphones. The reasons for this might seem obvious. As a developing country, India’s per capita income is quite low and feature phones are cheap. Data is also expensive and there is a technological barrier to get people onto a new generation communication platform.

These reasons are obvious, and also true, but only partially so.

Who is a feature phone user?

A recent survey by Kantar IMRB and MMA that studied feature phone use in India discovered some startling things.

First, feature phone users consume more media than the average Indian.

Second, they spend more on their mobile plans than the average mobile phone user.

Kantar IMRB and MMA

Third, and this is a very interesting observation, the majority of the feature phone users surveyed belonged to affluent households, their average age is also higher.

It must also be noted that the survey found that half the respondents surveyed claimed to listen to music on their device and that 1/3 use it for playing games and watching video.

This survey paints a very different picture of feature phone usage than one would expect. The survey also noted that only 15 percent of respondents intended to upgrade to a smartphone.

What is a feature phone?

The definitions are many, but essentially, it’s a phone with limited support for third-party apps. A feature phone user can send and receive calls, browse the web, listen to music, play games and more.

Feature phones are generally cheap and hence, their features are limited. Cameras aren’t so good, for example, and the browsers don’t support the full web. Of course, there are feature phones like the Nokia 1100 that are even more limited in functionality.

Migrants watching movies Reuters 720

Despite their limitations, people still use feature phones regularly. They’re cheap, offer great battery life and usually perform tasks to their owners’ satisfaction.

The lack of apps is an issue, but not as serious as one might expect. A 2015 survey in a technologically savvy market like the US found that 46 percent of respondents only used 1-5 apps per week. Better yet, 30 percent of users downloaded around 1-10 apps in total. Of the billions of apps on Android and iOS, only 3 percent even have active users.

Clearly, apps aren’t the main draw for a smartphone.

Even in the context of India, apps aren’t a convincing argument to get users to upgrade. As we noted in an earlier report, Indians don’t have access to a sufficient number of apps in regional languages. A smartphone OS is also not designed in regional languages and many perceive the OS as too complex.

Data is also relatively expensive.

So what’s holding it back?

Nokia 3310 old vs new 720

Unless you’re Nokia, feature phones aren’t glamorous, they’re only functional. They don’t pack in massive screens, high-speed internet support, 30 MP cameras and other such features.

The perceived target audience means that manufacturers see no reason to invest in research and development and likely slap the components together at the lowest cost possible.

Most feature phones in India are limited to 2G connectivity, which means they can access the internet at Edge speeds at best, which is terribly slow.

This is a tremendous missed opportunity. With hundreds of millions of phones sold in India every year, and more than half of them feature phones, placing internet-ready devices in the hands of millions of Indians is worth the effort.

The limited number of apps available on feature phones also means that every app for the platform will tend to stand out, I think we can attribute a large part of Opera Mini’s popularity to its presence on Symbian 40 feature phones.

If the surveys are to be believed, feature phone users consume a great deal of content. Why not offer that to them on a platform of their choosing? What better way to usher India into the digital age?

2G vs 4G

Contrary to popular belief, a 2G vs 4G argument isn’t about voice calling vs data bandwidth or even power consumption. The reason you don’t have high-speed data on a 2G network is that 2G is too inefficient to support a higher bandwidth. And since bandwidth is limited, you won’t use your phone so often and your battery life will be spectacular. This is over and above the fact that feature phones have tiny screens and very slow processors.

Data consumption is measured in bytes, and per byte, 4G consumes less power. Ignoring screen size and other such resource hogs, a 4G smartphone offers so much less battery life than a 2G phone because it consumes a great deal more data. Per unit time, a phone on a 4G network does consume more power than one on a 2G network, but it’s also doing a lot more in that time.

Reuters

Think of it this way, a 2G network might take 2 minutes to download 2 MB of data. The same will be done in a second or less on a 4G network. For that one second, a 4G device will consume more power, but over 2 minutes, the 2G device will consume more and do less.

You can also consume more content because of this. Jevon’s paradox describes this situation perfectly. When it’s more efficient to use a resource, we consume more of it.

Speaking to Uday Dodla, Director, Product Marketing at Qualcomm, he tells us that he believes that we’re at a “convergence point” for 2G and 4G networks. “Data tariffs are very low today and you have technology that is not only affordable, but also pervasive,” he adds. “User habits have shifted as well,” he believes, with a greater number of users using apps. He says that the feature phone is at the centre of all of this.

Pointing out that 4G feature phones will hit the market in Q2 this year, he says that the more popular apps, such as social networking and messaging apps, will gain more popularity. This new generation of feature phone will be more powerful and have access to faster data, after all. It’s his belief that services like digital payments, ride-hailing, etc., will also see a surge in use when these phones arrive. “Smartphone driven apps will arrive on the feature phone,” he says.

If India can access more data, it will consume more of it. That’s just inevitable. This increased consumption will also help bring down the technological barriers in our country.

As Dodla explains, he believes that the only medium that can carry forward India’s goals of digital literacy is data, and for that, a modern network like 4G is essential.

2G networks are also getting killed off around the world. Some telecom operators in the US are already killing 2G networks and Singapore plans to wipe it out in their country.

While a number of devices will become obsolete because of this move, this also means that a lower frequency spectrum is available for 4G, leading to better connectivity, overcoming another of the large obstacles to 4G adoption.

The bottom line is just this. 2G networks are dying. The standard is over 25 years old, created before some of us were even born. It’s inevitable that we’ll shift to a more modern network like 4G and feature phones have to catch up.

2G will eventually have to die in India as well, and it needs to. India’s newest telco, Reliance Jio, has set up a 4G LTE-only network. 2G devices will not even be supported.

4G feature phones today

Reuters

Chipset designers like Qualcomm have noted this trend and have already started pushing out platforms that support this. Qualcomm’s 205 mobile platform, for example, is targeted squarely at feature phones. The 205 platform also integrates a CAT4 LTE modem, which means that we can expect to see download speeds up to 15 Mbps. This is more than a 100 times faster than the best EDGE speeds supported by a 2G network.

Indian manufacturers Lava and Micromax are also intent on capitalising on this market. Phones like the Lava 4G Connect M1 and Micromax Bharat 1 are the best examples of these. They’re as good as feature phones, selling at rock-bottom prices, offering 256K colour displays that are 2.4-inches across and 4G connectivity. These devices do run Android 6.0, so they’re not pure feature phones, but lacking a touchscreen and sporting a resolution of 320×240, they might as well be one.

Other manufacturers are looking to follow suit.

While the smartphone market appears to have stagnated, it does look like we’re on the verge of ushering a new era for 4G supporting phones. They are the true underdogs of the technology world and key to our digital future.