Some four years ago, a study by professional services leader PwC, conducted for the industry association ASSOCHAM, noted a striking phenomenon: the huge appetite that Indian cell phone users were exhibiting for mobile data, with usage predicted to grow by over 70 per cent in the next three years.
In June this year, Ericsson’s Mobility Report reiterated the trend and suggested that Indians will consume the most data in the world by the year 2028 — ahead of mature markets in the United States (US), Western Europe, China, and South Korea.
We didn’t have to wait that long; the very next edition of the Ericsson Mobility Report, released last week, found that Indians have already crossed that milestone. It states:
"Average data traffic per smartphone in India is the highest globally. It is projected to grow from 31 GB per month in 2023 to around 75 GB per month in 2029 – a Compounded Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of 16 percent. Total mobile data traffic is estimated to grow from 26 ExaBytes (EB) per month in 2023 to 73 EB per month in 2029, growing at a CAGR of 19 percent."
The availability of faster 5G services has, if anything, spurred data usage among Indian mobile phone users. A year ago, Reliance Jio offered unlimited data on all of its 5G tariff plans — it could do this only because, said experts, it had purchased spectrum in the 700 MHz band, the only company to do so. Bharti Airtel did likewise.
In the ever-so-price-sensitive Indian market, mobile telecom players, if they wished to survive, could not afford to charge a premium for 5G consumer services. And the unlimited data plans of all service providers spurred customers to consume even more data.
This is realistically not a sustainable model for the industry — but in the short term, this is a buyers’ market of happy, data-guzzling consumers.
Why So Much Data?
Experts have tried to understand why Indians are world champions in consuming mobile data. A few explanations have emerged:
Speaking to The Hindu on the release of its annual Mobile Broadband Index, Amit Marwah, the marketing head of Nokia India, had one theory: "This phenomenal rise in data consumption in India is driven by videos."
The availability of attractive, over-the-top (OTT) monthly subscriptions, offering a jumbo diet of movies, series, and music videos in all the major Indian languages, coupled with the preference of so many customers to take their daily diet of entertainment and ‘time pass’ on their phones, rather than on television sets, explains the high data consumption.
And it's not just entertainment: The 2023 Digital News Report from the Reuters Institute and Oxford University, surveying news consumption around the world, found that in India there was a shift from traditional news sources like print and television, and even news websites, to mobile news aggregators.
Here, too, there is a preference that might explain why so much mobile data was consumed: Indians liked to watch the news on their phones rather than read it.
An overview of the world’s most popular messaging apps available in the Digital Growth Report for October 2023 from DataReportal.com finds that WhatsApp is by far the most popular — which is also true of the Indian market.
‘Mobile First’ Country
India today is a ‘mobile first’ country: three out of every four individuals access the internet on their hand phones rather than on desktop personal computers (PCs), laptops, or tablets.
Their main reason for going online?
The customer communications cloud Sinch, in its own analysis of the Digital Growth Report, concludes: "The three main reasons for surfing the web in India are finding information, watching videos, and finding inspiration."
Taken with the earlier finding about Indians’ predilection for viewing rather than reading, this could well mean that we Indians prefer to get our information and inspiration, too, through video rather than text and still images.
Is there any surprise still about why we are the greatest data guzzlers on the globe?
Anand Parthasarathy is managing director at Online India Tech Pvt Ltd and a veteran IT journalist who has written about the Indian technology landscape for more than 15 years for The Hindu.
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