Day One, Chennai

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I come to India many times a year. Yet the moment I set foot here, the mind starts racing with ideas, thoughts and sometimes rants. It is either because one is bombarded with new stimuli, or its the jet lag (today up at 330am. Groan…)

The day before I left the US, I called T-Mobile to see if I could activate data roaming. I have a prepaid Airtel number for phone calls in India. When I go to India, I just use data on my Blackberry or Android – using the phone within India for calls is not practical. They informed me that they could not since I had what is called a FlexPay account (which is anything but flexible. Don’t you just love the guys in Marketing). I have a FlexPay account because apparently my credit isn’t good enough. Go figure. And since I have what is essentially a prepaid account, I couldn’t have data roaming. I was hopping mad but in retrospect they did me a favor.

The thought of being without data on my phone was making me desperate. I posted a question on Facebook and sure enough, got the answer within minutes – get an Airtel GPRS monthly prepaid plan. So that’s what I set out to do on the morning of Aug 5th.

By 830 pm, well after closing time at the Airtel store, the Airtel CSR and I finally, through a series of random changes to the settings, were able to get data access on the phone activated. Neither of us will be able to reproduce the steps that led to success. Which means that I will have the privilege of repeating this exercise on my next trip.

It took me 3 hours at the Airtel store over two sessions to get it to work. While it was very frustrating, the irony is that over that period of time, the half a dozen Airtel reps I spoke to were all helpful and polite (although they would frequently lapse into Tamil when it got complicated.) The problem wasn’t that they didn’t know how to solve my problem. They didn’t know how to access that knowledge. Not knowing is OK. They probably don’t see too many Android phones looking for prepaid data plans. But not having access to a knowledge base or an expert is just not good business. They spent three hours, not including the time of the rep on the phone from their Mumbai office for what is a Rs. 98 per month plan! Yes, it is just Rs. 98 or about $2 for 2GB of data for a month.

I started thinking about this. In India today you have this confluence of high growth, low prices, low wages and low automation. High growth means that the number of transactions of any kind is growing rapidly, so the system is always stressed. Prices need to be low to compete and keep growing at that breakneck pace. Nowhere is this more evident than in telecom. But other sectors like banking and retail are similar. Low prices further fuel growth while reducing the ability of companies to invest in improving the quality or throughput of the transactions. Now, the conventional wisdom would be to use large doses of technology to automate stuff. Technology reduces human transactions, reduces errors, enables better exception handling and most of all helps a business scale. And I’m not even looking at other benefits like better customer sat etc. which aren’t germane to our current discussion. But the problem is that the cost of implementing and supporting technology is high and lumpy and the wages are low enough that most businesses (the one’s that aren’t that smart) will try and solve the problem of scaling by throwing more people at it.

I think India is a great future market for technology both software and services. But right now it is stuck in low gear because the cost of technology, which comes largely from developed economies and is priced to their benchmarks, and because of the low wages which make the productivity based RoI bar too high.

In the afternoon, I met a couple of analysts from a sell-side firm who cover IT Services. It was a delightful meeting with the conversation flowing. The two were not just well informed they had cogent viewpoints on the future of the industry. It was like a jam session. Thanks guys!

I walked around quite a bit yesterday in Shastri Nagar where I am camped with my in-laws. An important adjustment that you need to make quickly when you come to India and decide to walk the streets is to not assume that oncoming traffic will stop for a pedestrian. Or even slow down. Yesterday, I guess I took the adjusting process seriously. Towards the evening, my father-in-law who is 75 and has an artificial knee was taking my hand to guide me across the street.


  1. Jagan says:

    The networks over here are more geared towards Nokia phones. Typically, you just put the SIM in and the settings are automatically delivered to the phone. I assume that once Android takes off, which will happen if the sub 10K phones come, you will see the same for Android as well.


  2. Aaman says:

    Thanks for an interesting perspective on the confluence of changes in India/emerging economics.

    " In India today you have this confluence of high growth, low prices, low wages and low automation."


  3. ravi says:

    Basab, I just returned from a trip to India and I must say I cannot but agree more with you. I purchased a Tikona wireless broadband account for my parents because the wired MTNL service is spotty. While I am impressed that wireless broadband is available in Mumbai, the customer service was less that satisfying. The CSRs were helpful but they had insufficient training & knowledge to answer my (pretty) basic questions. This was a theme that I found recurring over my stay…customer facing reps with insufficient training and knowledge


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