US Trip: Internal Travel

I took four flights within the US on this trip: JetBlue from JFK to Dulles (Washington), United from Dulles to San Francisco, Air Tran from San Francisco to Atlanta (red eye), and finally Delta from Atlanta to Newark (New Jersey). Each one of the flights was absolutely on time, and the experience quite pleasant.I booked all the tickets in advance in India on the Net. I got good deals on all flights – most of the tickets cost on average about $150. All local travel in the US was in Economy, though I did upgrade myself to Business on the Air Tran Red Eye flight for an extra $100.

Even the US security process has been streamlined to make it much more efficient. In a couple places, the lines were long but moved quite fast. The longest I had to wait was about 25 minutes at JetBlue’s terminal in JFK.

All US airports are WiFi enabled, and so I used the time before departure productively. It costs about $7 an hour. Given that I had little other time to check mail because of the meetings, this came in quite handy. As I wrote last week, I also used the inflight WiFi on the Delta flight and that was quite an experience – browsing from 33,000 feet up!

I continue to use my Lenovo Ideapad S10 as my laptop, and that has worked out well. It is small and compact, and allowed me to be productive through travel’s free moments.

Tomorrow: Meeting People

US Trip: Air India’s Non-Stop

I took Air India’s Mumbai-New York Non-Stop flight for the fourth time in two years. I was on one of the first flights when they launched the service in August 2007. I have to say it is the best way to travel to the US, and would recommend it highly. By way of disclosure, I travel business class to the US.Till the Non-Stop came along, travelling to New York meant going through Europe. Even if it was the same aircraft, it meant a break in the journey, and hanging around one of the European airports for a few hours early in the morning. It didn’t make for a pleasant start to the journey.

Now, the Air India Non-Stop gets you into JFK at about 7:15 am, after a 16-hour flight. At that time, the US security process also is fast because there are few other arriving flights.

Business class has flat beds, so one can easily get 6-8 hours of sleep. I have loved international flights because they also give me many hours of undisturbed thinking time. It all makes for a refreshing start to the trip.

The service on-board is excellent. From the in-flight staff to the food (Jain, for me) to the cleanliness of the toilets to the entertainment (Hindi movies that I never watch), I have never had reason to complain during any of my flights.

So, next time you are thinking of going to the US East Coast, try the Air India Non-Stop.

Tomorrow: Internal US Travel

US Trip

I made a business visit to the US recently for about a week. It was almost a year since I visited the US. I had meetings in Dulles, Bay Area and Philadelphia, and visited friends in Atlanta and New Jersey.

Every time I land at JFK, the memory of my first arrival into the US comes by. It was in September 1988 that I came – as a student for the Masters programme in Electrical Engineering at Columbia University. I landed at JFK in the afternoon on a Lufthansa flight via Frankfurt, took a cab to the YMCA for a few hours before a friend (who was also at Columbia and had come a year earlier) came and picked me up. Then, we went out and I had my first pizza – at Pizza Hut. Even after two decades, that day is quite clearly etched in my mind.

This was one of those rare visits to the US when I took a connecting flight straight from JFK to Dulles. I also did not end up spending time in New York City, a city that I have grown to love as much as Mumbai over the years. It is partly because of the familiarity and the ease of getting around without being dependent on cars.

This was one of those visits where the travel and meetings went like clockwork. It was a packed schedule and did not give me much time to do what I like to do – just walk around streets that I know. There’s always a next time!

Tomorrow: Air India’s Non-Stop

Blog Past: Invertising

I wrote this post on “invited advertising” a year ago:

As we look ahead and address the limitations of today’s marketing methods, the mobile will emerge as the fulcrum for the new options. Companies which recognise and adopt mobile marketing are likely to see significant early benefits – and lock their competitors out in the customer attention game. Tomorrow’s world of mobile marketing is going to be built around three tenets: Publish-Subscribe, Multi-Modal Viewing and Instant Sharing.

Weekend Reading

This week’s links:

  • Clay Shirky Speech:  On the future of accountability journalism in a world of declining newspapers. “We are headed into a long trough of decline in accountability journalism, because the old models are breaking faster than the new models can be put into place.”
  • US Net Neutrality Speech: by FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski. Ideas for India, perhaps?
  • Argentina’s wired city: from Global Post. “Buenos Aires has become a destination for IT companies, a place with Wi-Fi on every corner.”
  • The Death of Business Intelligence: from Forbes. “Multi-touch display screens with up-to-the-minute data should gain traction in the enterprise.”
  • Seducing a VC: from Forbes. Randy Komisar: “In my business, I look for the biggest problem because the amount of resources, time and money that go into solving a small problem is pretty comparable to the amount of resources that go into solving a big problem. Why not solve a big problem?”
  • Internet and Higher Education: by Atanu Dey. “India needs to move from just having a very small number of “high fidelity” schools (such as the IITs, IIMs etc) to having a very large number of “high convenience” schools — where there are no capacity constraints, and where anyone wanting to learn can do so without facing any credit constraints.”

Telling a Story

Over the years, I have realised the importance of being able to tell a story of what one is doing in a manner that is simple and compact. It doesn’t always start that way. On my recent US trip, I had a slide deck talking about NetCore, what we want to do, and discussing the assets we have created to help us build the future faster. I worked a lot on the slide deck. It took about 5 versions to get it just right. Each version took about two hours to create on successive days. To tell a story that others can understand in 10 minutes took 10 hours of hard work.

It is not easy telling one’s story. My natural inclination is to be comprehensive rather than compact. I try and fill in all sorts of details. That doesn’t work, as I realised quickly. In meetings, one has about 15-20 minutes to deliver the key message. And that has to be done upfront. It is not easy, but it can be done if one focuses only on the Most Important Point. Each story has one key message, and the focus should be on delivering that with maximum effectiveness.

Working on this through the early part of this trip reminded me of the two-minute pitch I had given at PC Forum a few years ago for the $100 PC and Novatium. It took many hours of work to get that two-minute talk right. It was the same this time around with the story.

Luckily, I had a lot of help to get the story right. After the first few times I did it (not so effectively), I would analyse with those who heard me what I was doing right and what wasn’t going well. I then kept working through to get it just perfect. We will know when we get it right by just watching the reaction of the people in the room who are listening.

Telling a Story is a key attribute that every entrepreneur, manager and sales person needs. However good an idea, if it cannot be communicated well, then it has a lesser chance of succeeding. Passion combined with a Perfect Story can be a winning combination.

Book Reco: Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol

It was the most eagerly awaited book of recent times. Dan Brown’s next after “The Da Vinci Code” was expected to be something special. And it is. Even though it follows the same time-tested formula that worked so well in the previous book, it is a page-turner and very illuminating about history (especially, the founding of the US and Washington DC).

I bought the Kindle version of the book for $9.99 the day it was published. I use the Kindle primarily for fiction (thrillers are what I like). At any point, I have a few unread books that I can always turn to when things get a wee bit boring in life!

Reading “The Lost Symbol”, I couldn’t help but think that someone should do something similar for India. We have such a wide and long history, so there should be plenty of scope for a thriller that weaves India’s rich past with the present. We need a Dan Brown for India!

Inflight Wireless

I am posting this flying from Atlanta to Newark 33,000 feet in the air.

When I found out that the Delta flight had WiFi, I had to try it out. The price is $9.95 for the full flight (about 2 hours). The speed is quite good. This is my first inflight wireless experience.  I always like to try out different things, and I could not resist the temptation to do my first blog post from the sky.

I am not sure I want to always use WiFi when travelling on flights. The time in the sky is my deep thinking time — especially on international flights. But it is good to have the choice.I had a couple urgent emails to sen, and this connection sure came in handy!

How to Market Something that is Free

My friend, Dr. Aniruddha Malpani, wrote to me requesting assistance on an innovative idea. Perhaps you can give some suggestions. Here is Dr. Malpani’s post.

HELP is a free consumer health library we have been running for over 10 years now. The website is at www.helpforhealth.org.

While I am happy to fund the library ( which means we do not need any financial assistance), we do need help to increase awareness about the unique services HELP offers, so that more people will make use of our services. We do not have a marketing budget; and are having a difficult time marketing HELP.

Logically, one would expect this would be easy to do. We offer a unique service, which no one else offers; and because we help patients to talk to doctors and provide free Information Therapy, to empower patients to get the best medical care, one would expect people to be very happy to use our free services. We have no hidden agenda; are not looking for money; and are trying to improve the doctor patient relationship and to heal the sick Indian healthcare system by making sure patients are well – informed – all of which are laudable goals !

While the media does write occasional article about HELP, the fact still remains that we have not done a good job in marketing HELP, because not many people know about the services we offer.

Part of the problem is that because our services are free, they are not valued ! ( After all, if you get something for free, you don’t think it’s of any importance). I am quite certain that we do not want to charge for our services, because I believe patients need to have all the information they need and want, if they want to get the best medical care; and this is part of our mission.

We offer free online Ask the Librarian services as well, where we provide reliable authentic information to users by email, thus acting as infomediaries who are Information Therapy specialists.

I would like suggestions as to what we can do to market HELP ! We need help in marketing HELP !

You can email Dr. Malpani directly, or leave a comment here.

A2P SMS: The Issue of SMS Spam

A related issue that also needs is the issue of SMS Spam that has grown rapidly in the past few months. TRAI already has a mechanism in place – the Do Not Call Registry. About 10% of Indian mobile numbers are on this list. Telemarketers are not supposed to call or SMS those on this list without their permission. However, as we have all seen, that is not being adhered to. So, what is the solution? One option being talked about is the creation of a “Do Call” Registry. Will that solve the problems?

Creating a Do Call is certainly detrimental. The whole failure of implementation of DNC is being covered up by such a drastic measure. We assume that people who have not registered under DNC are also unwilling to receive unsolicited messages. Everyone knows that this is primarily a big city (top 5-10 cities) phenomenon, in smaller cities this is not even considered as a problem.

Here is what needs to be done:

  1. Make the registry under DNC simple. The simplified process would be thus: Every mobile number maintained by TRAI also maintains a list of  telemarketers who have enquired status of the number. As the status of  DND changes for the number the enquiring telemarketer gets notified. This simplifies the current process immensely since only the changed numbers getting on or off DND need to be notified to all telemarketers. By simplifying process the industry will also see immensely more compliance.
  1. Inform more widely how to register under DNC. TRAI has released ads in the past on the rights of a mobile consumer, I am sure they can do the same for informing people on how to register.
  1. Take stringent measures against NDNC violation by companies and operators. Even people who are under NDNC continue to receive unsolicited messages and calls. There is no evident action taken. Despite complaints to the operator, the same tele-caller continues to call and the same marketer continues to send messages. This means that even if everyone is put under NDNC, still there will be widespread violations and the problem will not be resolved.
  1. Create a robust system to scrub databases against the NDNC list simpler and more widely accessible.

Ineffective application of law cannot justify drastic measures like taking away the rights of consumers and literally declaring an emergency!  The “Do Call” Registry should be strongly opposed.

Weekend Reading

This week’s links:

A2P SMS: A Possible Solution to the SMS Interconnect Issue

In the ideal world, there need be no SMS interconnect charges, leaving each operator to make a decision whether it wanted to enter the A2P business or not. But, if there has to be a charge, it needs to be based on costs, and not a randomly high figure like Airtel has chosen to apply. TRAI is best placed to decide on what this charge should be for A2P SMS traffic, but if one were to go by the cost of SMS carriage (as we have seen earlier), the SMS interconnect charge could have a cap of about 0.25 paise.

This ensures that interconnect charge is linked to the cost of carrying an SMS, and is not zero or an arbitrarily high number. A charge like this offers all operators equal opportunity to get into the A2P SMS business should they be ready to make the investments. It also ensures that retail A2P SMS pricing stays attractive for both the consumer-centric and enterprise A2P SMS traffic, thus facilitating continuing growth in the industry.

So, here are the steps that TRAI needs to take immediately:

  1. Decide to make an intervention on the issue of SMS interconnect
  2. Reverse its 2006 policy of forbearance to Bill-and-Keep, until the time it issues it final ruling in the matter
  3. Start a Consultation process with all Stakeholders to decide what the new policy should be (Bill-and-Keep, an SMS Interconnect based on costs, or Forbearance)

My view is that Bill and Keep would be pro-competitive and thus good for consumers because it would bring SMS pricing close to costs. It would also means that no one will have to worry about figuring out what the cost of SMS is — the competition among operators will inevitably align the price to the costs.

Action needs to be taken quickly if one is to prevent a nascent A2P SMS industry being trampled upon.

Monday: SMS Spam

A2P SMS: The Impact of a High SMS Interconnect Charge

What does this mean for end customers? If other large operators followed Airtel with SMS interconnects, businesses would end up paying substantially higher prices for A2P SMS capacity. Given that SMS is becoming a necessity across many lines of business in various industries, this is an unfair penalty being imposed on enterprises and therefore on customers.

For consumer-centric A2P SMS services, it would sound the death knell. There is no way they would be able to afford these higher costs, and would in effect be forced to curtail services to the extent of making them practically useless. An innovative business model created in India would die.

Incidentally, TRAI had looked at the SMS Interconnect issue in 2006, and come up with a consultation paper on the issue. TRAI did not come out with any recommendations on the issue (A2P SMS was still a small industry then). They left it to market forces to decide (“forbearance”) even though, from what I gathered talking to people involved in the process then, the intent was “Bill and Keep” (which would have meant no interconnect charges).

So, what is the solution? Is there one which is fair and equitable? Yes.

Continued tomorrow.

A2P SMS: Market Dynamics (Part 2)

Cut to 2008. Tata Teleservices Limited (TTSL) got aggressively into the A2P SMS business. They invested in SMS capacity and offered aggregators significant SMS capacity and aggressive pricing. This helped grow usage dramatically.

Airtel lost market share in the A2P SMS business. With Airtel having more than a quarter of the mobile subscribers, it still had to terminate the SMS traffic coming into its network. (A couple years ago, the situation was the other way around – Airtel was pumping most of the A2P SMS traffic to other operators.)

Over the past few months, there was chatter that Airtel was looking to get back into the A2P SMS business albeit with a different strategy – that of putting an interconnect charge ranging from 10-15 paise on SMS termination into its network. This now has become a reality with Airtel enforcing an agreement with the Tata mobile companies (TTSL and TTML) for a 15 paise interconnect charge.

[In parallel, Airtel and Idea are believed to have signed an agreement with an interconnect charge of 10 paise. It is not clear at this time which other operators have signed the interconnect agreements with Airtel.]

What this means is that SMS aggregators (and therefore enterprises) wanting to send SMS to Airtel subscribers from Tata (which is the dominant A2P SMS capacity provider) would have to buy capacity from Airtel itself, and thus Airtel would be able to effectively charge whatever price it wanted for A2P SMS capacity. It would also work the other way for messages flowing from Airtel into Tata, but given current volumes, the impact of that would be marginal.

Continued tomorrow.

A2P SMS: Market Dynamics

To understand the dynamics of the A2P space, we will now need to stop being general and actually take names. The idea is not to offend or malign anyone, but lay out the facts so there can be a sensible debate about the issues involved. All of this is fairly common knowledge to everyone associated with the A2P SMS industry in India.I want to also mention that my company (NetCore Solutions) is a player in the A2P SMS space, and naturally has a vested interest in the outcome. We are one among many players in what is a somewhat fragmented industry. But this is an industry where there has been plenty of innovation in the past three years with the promise of lots more to come.

During 2006-7, Airtel was the leading provider of A2P SMS services. A2P SMS costs were very high then. I remember buying SMS capacity at 40 paise per SMS during early 2007. As volumes rose in the industry, prices started falling. As we have seen earlier, the incremental cost for an operator to carry an SMS is close to zero, so there was plenty of room for prices to go down.

This is somewhat similar to what happened in the Voice segment. At one time, voice calls cost Rs 16 per minute. Minutes of usage were low at that time. Over the years, they have fallen to a fraction of that (Tata Docomo now offers a tariff of 1 paise per second), and minutes of usage have exploded.

Continued tomorrow.

A2P SMS: A Summary of the Interconnect Issue

Description:

  • Some operators have started initiating action to do bilateral agreements on SMS interconnect (P2P and A2P)
  • The current situation is that of bill-and-keep – the operator through which the SMS is initiated does the billing and retains the revenue thus generated
  • The current regime of no inter-connect charges payable between operators on SMS should continue

Drivers:

  • SMS interconnect charges will increase the pricing of SMS (especially on A2P SMS)
  • The cost for an operator to carry SMS traffic is near-zero
  • SMS is becoming part of business processes of companies and is also being mandated by RBI and SEBI for specific types of transactions
  • An inter-connect charge introduced at this point will stunt the growth of the nascent A2P SMS industry and may also impact P2P SMS usage negatively
  • India has the opportunity to produce global cos. which leverage SMS as a channel for permission-based media and communication

Who Affected:

  • Operators: Some believe that they are being forced to carry A2P SMS traffic without being compensated for it (especially if they are not in the business of selling A2P SMS capacity)
  • SMS Aggregators: will see a dramatic fall in business due to the significant increase in costs that they will need to pass on their customers
  • SMS Media companies: will effectively see their business being killed since they send SMS for free to opt-in consumers, and it will be difficult to charge advertisers a higher price to cover the inter-connect charge
  • Businesses: will see an increase in costs and will thus limit the use of SMS wherever possible
  • Consumers: may not get services they have become used to, or will have to start paying more money for SMS

Now, let us take a look at what has been happening on the ground, and then look at what is the road ahead.

Continued tomorrow.

Blog Past: Why do we dither on the Internet?

This is what I wrote 12 years ago about the state of the Internet in India. Amazingly, little has changed about the government inaction in boosting broadband in India.

India needs change on the Internet. Desperately. The pace of decision-making about the Internet is too slow for the rate of change and innovation on the Net. It becomes a race one has lost even before it has begun. One can read about developments abroad and dream. Of a world that could have been. For individuals, companies and yes, the government. Leave it alone unfettered and watch a thousand flowers bloom. Try and control it, and you will be writing an epitaph.

Weekend Reading

This week’s links:

  • Indian Education’s Five Fault Lines: by Manish Sabharwal. “The five fault lines in Indian education don’t have a one right answer but are questions of balance: Quantity vs Quality; Repair vs Prepare; Price vs Cost; Funding vs Delivery; and Excellence vs Inclusion.”
  • Drought Puts Focus on a Side of India Left Out of Progress: from The New York Times. “India’s new economy may be based on software, services and high technology, but hundreds of millions of Indians still look to the sky for their livelihoods; more than half the country’s 1.1 billion people depend on agriculture for a living even though agriculture represents only about 17 percent of the total economy.”
  • The Anatomy of Determination: by Paul Graham. “We learned quickly that the most important predictor of success is determination.”
  • How the Web OS has begun to reshape IT and business: by Dion Hinchcliffe. ” The concept of a Web OS isn’t new. But its arrival on the scene in compelling form with serious impact to the enterprise is.”
  • Don’t Forget Email: by Fred Wilson. “In this day and age of social media and an ever expanding set of communication tools (SMS, IM, Twitter, Facebook, blog comments, etc) it is easy to forget about email. But that would be a big mistake.” A timely reminder (given that one of our business lines in NetCore is email).

A2P SMS: The Economics of SMS (Part 2)

In short, while a P2P SMS could cost 2p or so, an A2P SMS costs much lower (probably under 1 paisa) for the mobile operator.

As an aside, P2P SMS pricing varies dramatically – we could pay as little as 5p as part of an SMS pack or as high as Re 1 or more. A premium P2A SMS sent to a shortcode costs us Rs 3 (the cost to the operator is no different for this SMS).  It would be fair to say that there is perhaps nothing more lucrative in the mobile services than SMS!

In a market served by different operators, there is an interconnect charge for voice calls: the operator on whose network the call originates pays the operator where the call terminates. This interconnect charge is 20 paise per minute. In India, retail voice tariffs have been brought down significantly thanks to active intervention by TRAI at the wholesale level.

The principle that has been followed in the SMS business between operators so far has been Bill and Keep. This has worked well, offering such interested operator the ability to get into the A2P SMS business if it so desired.

Now, some operators are trying to introduce this charge in an effort to rachet up SMS pricing even further. While the impact on the P2P SMS is likely to be marginal since the P2P SMS traffic is relatively balanced and linked to the operator’s subscriber numbers, the impact on the A2P SMS business is likely to be substantially negative. And in going ahead with an irrational SMS interconnect charge, at least one operator is crossing the boundary of what is fair.

Continued on Monday.

A2P SMS: The Economics of SMS

As many of us have noticed, SMS is not carried on the same channel as Voice. What this means is that we can send and receive SMS even as we are speaking. SMS is actually carried on the SS7 signalling channel which is otherwise used for call set-up. As we all know, a single SMS is limited to 160 characters. So, ordinarily, there isn’t much traffic on the SS7 channels.What this means is that the incremental cost of carrying an SMS for a mobile operator is very low.

Below, I have done some estimation of the cost of carrying an SMS after talking to a few people from the industry. A caveat: These are not well corroborated facts by operators and anyone can refute the same. [On a related point, just to reinforce what I am saying, one of the operators in India has also aggressively selling A2P SMS capacity to large banks at 1 paisa per SMS.]

It is possible that the cost to carry a P2P SMS may be 2 paise or slightly more. But for an A2P sms the cost will probably be significantly lower because there is no billing involved (SMS billing can take 1p or so), no authentication needed, no cash balance checks, etc. Also, no incoming SMS airtime is used since A2P SMS come over IP, and are sent directly to the destination operators.

There is a large capex for the SMS Centre (SMSC), which is the actual infrastructure at the operator used for sending and receiving SMS. An SMSC with a capacity of 200 transactions per second, which translates to about 8-9 million daily or 250 million SMS per month can cost about Rs 1-2 crore ($200-400K). With full usage, it should be possible to recover the entire cost within a matter of months.

In addition, signalling links costs work in step functions. Ordinarily, these links are quite empty because they are only used for call set-up and SMS carriage. With A2P SMS traffic, these links will need to be augmented, but their costs are not large. (One can do more detailed calculations based on the national long-distance costs and the fact that SMSes are only a max of 160 chars long – the result will be a price that is a small fraction of a paisa as the loading due to the signalling link costs.

Continued tomorrow.