Cellphones are expected to keep doubling in India for the next few years as prices fall for both the handsets and the cost of telecom. So, the cost of talking is going to get cheaper and cheaper. For Indians used to paying Rs 40 a minute talking between Mumbai and Delhi during prime-time and nearly Rs 100 per minute for India-US calls, the dramatic fall in voice telephony prices has been too sudden, too rapid and not a day too soon! So, even as voice telephony through wired and wireless phones becomes even more ubiquitous across India across all segments of society, the per capita volumes are rising driven by falling prices, thanks to competition. The telecom revolution is finally arriving in India after many years of false starts.
For the most part, the voice revolution is being still driven by companies who have committed to paying (or already paid) large amounts of licence fees for either the right to become the alternative operator in a geographic area or for chunks of spectrum. While India has not yet auctioned off or allocated 3G licences yet, there is perhaps hope in the government that more money could yet be made.
Amidst all this, the data part of the communications business has not changed as dramatically. While speeds have no doubt increased, bandwidth costs remain high and so far have not fallen as dramatically. In fact, India is perhaps at least 5-6 years behind countries like the US when it comes to the availability of cost-effective bandwidth for businesses. Dial-up access to the Internet at 56 Kbps through a regular voice line is still the most popular form of connectivity.
This is where the stage can be set in India for a grassroots revolution. One, which can create an envelope of wireless data across much of the country, largely bypassing the telcos and cellcos, and patterned on the lines of the cable operators. This is about building, bottom-up, wireless community networks using unlicenced spectrum. This is not just about bridging the multi-year gap in the data communications availability and taking up a leadership position in the deployment of wireless networks. In less time than it took to build about the cable networks in India, it is possible to create a high-speed wireless network across much of India, without worrying about digging up roads and stringing wires across buildings. This revolution goes by the unlikely name of 802.11 (or Wi-Fi).