Every week, we hear boastful announcements by India’s leading telecom service providers about the speed with which they are covering the country with their 5G phone and data services.
Less in-your-face, but nevertheless ubiquitous, especially in online and in-store placements, are announcements of the next new 5G handset launched in the country.
But for whom?
Almost all the 5G phones are priced Rs 20,000 and more, going up to nearly Rs 1 lakh. The bulk of the big brands are bunched in the Rs 30,000 – Rs 50,000 price band.
What about the other India, the one the media has dubbed Bharat? These are vast rural reaches where, for millions, a Lakshman Rekha of affordability operates, that is centered around Rs 10,000, give or take a thousand.
What is the point of touting the promise of accelerated digital empowerment triggered by 5G services, when so many of the most needful of such services, cannot afford the price of a 5G phone? Nobody is talking or doing anything practical about this untapped market. Not the government, not the phone manufacturers, not the service providers.
But is it doable — a 5G phone for Rs 10,000?
Six months ago in a one of a series of Insights for tech trends in 2023, global analyst and market monitor, Deloitte, made a bold prediction:
“Deloitte Global predicts that 2023 will see the launch of the first 5G smartphones retailing at US$ 99 or its equivalent in other currencies. These phones will likely represent a very small share of 2023 smartphone sales, but they should eventually make 5G accessible to almost all consumers in almost all markets, accelerating 5G’s adoption around the world.”
A phone costing less than a hundred dollars (which hovers around Rs 8,100 – Rs 8,200 in Indian currency right now) is close enough to our target of Rs 10,000 for the subsequent reasoning to remain relevant in India.
The $99 5G Phone
To achieve a selling price of $99 which means a total bill of materials (BoM) of around $87, the relevant edition of Deloitte Insights, suggests that such a 5G phone would have “notably different components: a low-end display, a single-lens camera, a low-power processor, and modest storage capacity.”
The accompanying graphic gives a break-up of the $87 BoM.
Deloitte argues that while such a pared-down phone might not provide the heightened video download and viewing experience which is the gee-whizz aspect of 5G: “It’s about unlocking value by providing world-class connectivity to millions who might not currently have it, for work, education, or recreation.”
But there’s the rub: The potential buyer of such a basic 5G phone already used to having two cameras front and rear, on a 4G phone and sufficient storage for downloading movies and music, is hardly likely to settle for less.
This is where sound market savvy comes in — and Indian manufacturers of mobile phones have shown that they have it in abundance. Which is why in October 2022, when an Indian maker, announced the availability of the Lava Blaze 5G at an incredible Rs 9,999, the phone sacrificed very little — specification-wise — and was all the more remarkable for it.
An Affordable Indian 5G Phone
Today the same phone — as far as I can determine — remains one of the cheapest 5G smartphones “Made-in-India”, even though the current asking price is a thousand rupees more at Rs 10,999.
I am not sticking my neck out and saying it is the cheapest because new 5G phones are being offered every week.
The Lava Blaze 5G comes with a 6.5 inch High Definition screen, 4 GB of RAM; 128 GB of storage, expandable with micro SD cards to 1 terabyte or 1,000 gigabytes; dual SIM slots; a 5,000 mAh battery; a 50 Megapixel triple lens rear camera, an 8 MP selfie camera — and a clean version of Android 12 (admittedly some 2023 phones have moved to Android 13).
It means this edition of the operating system has just the full set of apps as supplied by Android, with no bloated and space-consuming extras added by the manufacturer.
There is another edition of Lava Blaze 5G with 6 GB rather than 4 GB of RAM which will slightly quicken operations. This costs Rs 11,999. All other specifications are identical and both editions come with features like fingerprint and face scan options for securing the handset.
I have been curious about what the experience with the most affordable phone 5G in India would be like — and until today, a search on the sites of popular ecommerce sites did not turn up any other handset than the Lava Blaze at this price.
I get misleading unsolicited marketing emails titled “Top 5G smartphones starting at Rs 7,599” and the like. None of the phones linked to the mail were 5G.
I decided to buy the 5G edition of Lava Blaze and have been using it for a month now. I am pleasantly surprised by the sturdy build, by the ease with which I could switch to the 5G service of both service providers whose SIMs I have — Jio and Airtel — and by the lean and clean experience of an uncluttered Android.
I am tired of spending a few days uninstalling a lot of extra apps and lock screens whenever I have tried out the most pricey handsets. The triple rear camera — at 50 MP — is even better than the one on my admittedly older, though costlier, 4G phone. And yes, unlike the Deloitte specs there is a secondary front camera.
In short, Lava has got it right: no compromise on the key specifications which matter to Indians, even those whose budgets placed a limit on how much they can afford even for a 5G phone. I think its target buyer segment will rate it paisa vasool — the highest praise, the canny and demanding ones among us can bestow.
In recent weeks two other affordable 5G phones costing just a little more than the Lava Blaze 5G, were on offer in India: the Poco M4 5G and the Infinix Hot 20 5G.
Both come with 4GB, RAM, 64 GB storage, 5,000 mAh battery, 50 Megapixel rear and 8 MP front cameras. The Poco sized 16.7 inches costs Rs 11,999 on Flipkart, the Infinix sized 6.6 inches costs Rs 11,499. Both run Android 12.
Yes, a 5G phone costing around ten thousand rupees or so can be delivered — and it has been done in India.
Here’s betting more will follow before the end of 2023.
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