Operators target rural India with mobile VAS

With mobile value-added services expected to grow in the coming year, operators are launching new offerings to tap India's rural community. One farmer discusses the benefits.

Indian operators are launching mobile value-added services (VAS) designed to meet the needs of the country's rural community, with this service segment expected to see high growth rates in the coming year.

Bharti Airtel, for instance, in June this year added a new service to its series of mobile VAS offerings geared toward rural India. Called "Behtar Zindagi" (translated as "better life" in Hindi), the interactive voice response service is targeted at the rural Indian state of Rajasthan.

The service is powered by Handygo, an India-based wireless services provider specializing in mobile entertainment and VAS, which also has tie-ups with other operators including Reliance Communications, Tata Teleservices and Idea Cellular to offer the service. Handygo has worked with various private and government bodies to collate relevant information and disseminate the data to farmers.

Affordable mobile devices and cheaper rates are key drivers for India's mobile market growth . This has led to significant growth of the mobile VAS market over the past few years, though the huge rural market  has been untapped hitherto.

Interestingly, the rate of VAS adoption has been higher than the growth of new mobile subscribers. According to a report by Internet and Mobile Association of India, the country's mobile VAS market grew 32 percent over 2011 and is estimated to grow 28 percent next year.

Airtel has 14.5 million mobile customers in Rajasthan, a large proportion of these come from rural parts of the Indian state.

At INR 30 per month (US$0.54), the operator's Behtar Zindagi service is focused on the farming and allied communities. It allows customers to receive various data on their mobile phones, including weather updates, market rates, live stocks, agriculture, fisheries, health, education and finance.

The service is available 24 by 7, supports several dialects and is available in Hindi and 17 other regional languages.

Its availability was recently extended to the state of Maharashtra and Airtel promised to further expand this to all Indian circles  soon.

When queried, an Airtel representative did not share any subscription numbers but expressed satisfaction on the progress of uptake. 

Indian farmers can tap mobiles to receive weather updates. (Source: vicspacewalker / Shutterstock.com)

Sudipto Chowdhury, CEO for Rajasthan at Airtel, did share its plans to conduct a public awareness initiative to educate rural administrative bodies about the service, which also has been promoted at various touch-points including agricultural and rural fairs, farmer's exhibitions, van promotions, contests and associations with local NGOs.

Receiving farming data
A customer of Behtar Zindagi told ZDNet Asia the service allowed him to better plan crop seeding during last month's monsoon season. As rains were erratic, weather updates pushed to his mobile helped determine a window to carry out the planting process.

He added that he subscribed for the service because it was available in his language.

India's rural population is usually not English-literate and localization is a critical factor in the adoption of services.

Behtar Zindagi is just one of several VAS initiatives targeted at rural India and allow the community to leverage their mobile phones to enable their businesses and enrich their lives.

Airtel launched other government schemes and visa counseling for the rural segment via similar value-added services. Handygo also partnered a non-profit organization to provide mobile-based agriculture services.

IMI Mobile offers a competing voice-based rural information service, called Cell Shakti, while Tata Teleservices provides a service which allows farmers to use mobile phones to remotely monitor and switch on irrigation pumps used for watering crops in remote locations.

Abhishek Baxi is a freelance IT writer based in India.

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