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Like a Smartphone: New 4G feature phones promise a richer user experience

October 25, 2017
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Despite the growing traction in mobile internet services in India, the uptake in rural areas has been rather dismal. According to a report by the Internet and Mobile Association of India and market research firm IMRB International, only 17 per cent of rural India, which accounts for nearly 70 per cent of the country’s population, uses the internet. One of the key reasons for this is the poor smartphone proliferation in these areas, which restricts access to even basic internet services. Most of the rural users own basic feature phones that lack advanced features.

Although the prices of smartphones have come down significantly in the recent past, the overall ecosystem maturity is still lacking, in terms of data and voice tariffs, ease of use and availability of relevant user content. In other words, while device price points fell in the favourable range for rural Indians to make the switch from feature phones to smartphones, other factors were not compelling enough.

However, this scenario is set to change with the launch of a new crop of feature phones that are 4G enabled and come loaded with several smart features at affordable prices. These phones are largely targeted at rural and semi-urban users, which comprise the majority of India’s population. Several handset players and now operators are foraying into this space. On the operator side, Reliance Jio Infocomm Limited (RJIL) has triggered this trend with the launch of its JioPhone handset recently. The device reportedly received an overwhelming response in the pre-booking phase, which has led to delays in order deliveries.

In the past few weeks, the incumbents too have jumped on to the bandwagon, announcing their plans of introducing self-branded feature phones or launching phones in partnership with handset vendors through co-branding or bundled offers. They are planning to either manufacture their own feature phones or collaborate with original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) for these. The main objective behind the launch of such feature phones is to familiarise people without internet access with the benefits of the internet while not deviating from the basic design, language and affordability of a feature phone, thus ensuring affordability and ease of use.

Operator initiatives and plans

JioPhone: RJIL announced the launch of the JioPhone in July 2017. The phone features a 2.4 inch display and comes with 512 MB RAM and 4 GB of internal storage, which is expandable to 128 GB via a microSD card. It has a 2 megapixel rear camera and a VGA front camera. The phone runs on the KaiOS operating system (OS) and is equipped with a 2,000 mAh battery. It offers connectivity options such as voice over long term evolution (VoLTE), Wi-Fi, global positioning system GPS and Bluetooth.

Among the several benefits offered by the JioPhone, the key one is unlimited free voice calls. RJIL has promised that voice calling will always be free for its subscribers. The company aims to divert consumer spending from calls to mobile data. RJIL has bundled the handset with a monthly plan of Rs 153, which includes free voice calls and 500 MB of 4G data per day.

The company is marketing the phone as a “smart” feature phone, which packs in most of the features of a smartphone in the price range of a feature phone. For example, the phone has the capability to understand voice commands and make video calls, stream multimedia content through specific applications like JioTV, and support web browsing. It can be purchased by depositing a sum of Rs 1,500, which is refundable on returning the phone to the company after three years, effectively reducing the price of the phone to zero.

However, JioPhone does not support popular applications such as WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter and Gmail. This makes the unlimited data proposition a little less appealing, as the popularity of social media applications has been a key driver of smartphone uptake in semi-urban and rural areas. Further, the JioPhone does not support online payment gateways such as United Payments Interface payments. It is mostly expected to steal a share of the 2G feature phone market.

Idea Cellular

The operator has announced that it is in talks with OEMs to launch a 4G feature phone of its own. Although the company has not revealed any details of its handset, it has stated that the device will support a choice of applications. Unlike the JioPhone, this new handset will support applications like Google, Facebook and WhatsApp.

Meanwhile, Idea has flagged net neutrality concerns about the JioPhone. According to Idea, the JioPhone does not give consumers a choice of applications, thus forcing them to use the applications of an individual operator. Idea’s feature phone will be priced at around Rs 2,500.

Bharti Airtel

While the common agenda among incumbents remains to launch affordable feature phones preloaded with smart features, Airtel believes that people will only be willing to trade a feature phone with a smartphone if the price difference is not too much and the features are compelling enough. The operator is reportedly in talks with multiple handset manufacturers to launch a full-fledged 4G smartphone for as little as Rs 2,500.

The proposed dual-SIM 4G smartphone will have a 4 inch display, front and rear cameras, VoLTE calling and a strong battery backup. The device will run on the Android OS and will come with 1 GB RAM. Airtel will also provide exclusive bundled data and voice plans to attract consumers. However, the operator has not revealed any further details about the smartphone, its bundled offer and the OEM partner.

The company believes that Indian telecom consumers today look for a large-screen smartphone experience at an affordable price. In line with this, its new 4G smartphone will target consumers looking to upgrade from feature phones without shelling out a huge amount of money. Airtel will co-promote the 4G smartphone with the manufacturer and may offer its retail distribution network to take the device to the masses.


State-run Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL) has  also announced its plans to launch feature phones in partnership with home-grown operators such as LAVA and Micromax in the under-Rs 2,000 range. These phones will bundled with attractive offers.

Recently, Micromax announced the launch of its 4G feature phone, Bharat One in collaboration with BSNL. Bharat One will have a larger screen size, a longer battery life and an improved camera compared to other feature phones in the market. The move is expected to benefit BSNL, which has subscribers in rural and remote areas of the country where feature phones are used more than smartphones.

Vodafone India

Vodafone India has not announced any plans yet to launch such phones. However, it has introduced bundled cashback offers with several feature phone manufacturers such as itel, LAVA and Intex. Under this scheme, Vodafone users who buy these feature phones can avail of 50 per cent cashback (up to Rs 50) on a minimum recharge of Rs 100 for a period of 18 months, amounting to a total of Rs 900 over the entire period, which in some cases is equal to the cost of the phone.

Going forward

Devices like the JioPhone, which offer a smartphone-like experience at very competitive price points, can prove to be the right tool to compel consumers to join the mobile internet club and become a part of the country’s digital journey. RJIL’s pre-booking response indicates the keenness of users to get connected to the internet grid and access data through feature phones.

As for the operators foraying into this market, growing competition has compelled them to create offerings for semi-urban and rural markets that have hitherto remained underserved or outside their mobile internet strategy. Industry estimates suggest that about 200 million 4G feature phones could be potentially sold in India during the next five years. This highlights the huge data appetite of users, who may have low budgets but are keen to access high speed 4G services. The increased proliferation of mobile internet and 4G services will also play a key role in advancing the government’s Digital India objective, besides creating a plethora of opportunities for operators and handset manufacturers.

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