Squatting in a dusty field in the village of Rataul, two hours north of Delhi in the state of Uttar Pradesh, a young woman, like uncounted generations of women before her, is shaping a small mountain of cow dung into Frisbee-size cakes that will fire the family’s cookstove. Perhaps she will make a couple of phone calls before preparing dinner, using her new mobile. She’ll get a five-bar signal: barely a hundred yards away, across a patch of waste ground where some water buffalo are nosing around in the dirt, is a tall, slender cell phone tower. The photovoltaic panels that power it glitter in the late-morning sunlight. That strip of waste ground is a bridge between past and future, and hundreds of millions of Indians may now be poised to cross it.
Ask any Indian to name the quintessential symbol of the bad old days, the era of rigid state control of the economy and stultifying bureaucracy, and the answer will often be simple: getting a telephone. You could wait many years for a landline, the only way of speeding things up being whom you knew -- and how many rupees you were prepared to slip them under the table. Ask for a symbol of the new India, the thing that most dramatically improves a person’s life prospects, and the answer will be equally straightforward: the cell phone. No further need for insider contacts or bribes; all that counts is the basic law of supply and demand.
India has 1.2 billion people and almost 900 million mobile subscribers, a figure that has more than doubled in the past three years. This growth spurt has gone hand in hand with the country’s economic boom. Which is cause and which is effect is hard to say, but Indian telecom executives like to cite a study by the consulting firm Deloitte, showing that a 10 percentage-point increase in "mobile penetration" corresponds to a 1.2 percent increase in the rate of growth of the gross domestic product.
There’s a hitch, however. The fruits of the boom have not been equitably shared; about a third of the population, most living in villages like Rataul, still have few paths to the economic mainstream because they lack reliable access to electricity. Energy is India’s biggest problem. True, there are utility poles here, and sagging wires, but the juice flows through them for only a few hours each day. Maybe this spurt of power will come in the morning, maybe in the middle of the night. Maybe they’ll tell you those hours in advance, and maybe they won’t. And that’s a huge headache for the cell phone providers as well as for the villagers.
India’s urban market is now saturated, with more phones than people, but only about 35 percent of the rural population have gone mobile. The remaining 65 percent are the next market frontier, but if the industry is to reach these people it needs to keep building towers. Today there are about 350,000 of these towers, where "base transceiver stations" convert electricity into radio waves. Ten percent of them are completely off the grid; 30 percent are in places like Rataul, which have power for less than 12 hours a day. To tap the rural market, the mobile companies plan to add at least 200,000 towers in the next three to five years, and almost all of them will be in areas without a reliable -- or any -- power supply. So where will the electricity come from? For now, the answer is diesel generators, which are both dirty and expensive. But in the future, the logic (strongly endorsed by the Indian government) lies with solar power and other renewables.
Before driving out to Rataul, I’d gone to see Rajiv Bawa, the energetic chief representative officer for the Telenor group in India, at his office in Gurgaon, the smog-choked boomtown on the outskirts of Delhi where many of the country’s telecom companies have their headquarters. Telenor, based in Norway, is one of the world’s largest mobile providers, although Uninor, a joint venture in which it holds a majority share, entered the crowded Indian cell phone market only two years ago. "We already have 35 million subscribers," Bawa told me, "but that’s still quite small. In India, everything has to have at least seven zeros." Uninor’s target audience, he said, is "the common man" -- and even more than that, given the gender gap in mobile ownership here, the common woman. There will be no bells and whistles, no endorsements from Bollywood stars, no data plans or smart phone apps, just basic voice and text services. "We want to be the Southwest Airlines of the mobile industry," he said.
Bawa, a native of Delhi, worked in the United States for 16 years, much of that time for IBM, before returning home. "In an emerging economy like India’s, environmental issues arise immediately; it’s the nature of the beast," he said. The most urgent of these, he added, was the industry’s dependence on diesel. "As a Scandinavian company," he went on, "we have particular standards about how we do business, in terms of the environment, emissions, and CO2 targets." Yet even without this corporate ethic, in a brutally competitive marketplace where profit margins are razor-thin, there are potent economic arguments for phasing out diesel.
The telecom sector is the second-largest consumer of diesel in India, Bawa told me; only the railways use more. "It’s an unbelievable amount on our balance sheets," he said -- energy accounts for up to a third of the industry’s operating costs. The price of diesel has almost tripled since 2000, although the true cost is still masked by government subsidies. But those won’t last forever. In the meantime, the price of photovoltaics, like the array of 21 panels on the Rataul tower, has come down by half in the past three years and continues to fall. The initial capital expense is higher, but after that solar is an almost free ride: the technology is proven, maintenance is minimal, there’s no fuel to truck in, and, best of all, for most of the year India bakes under a tropical sun.
Even here, of course, the sun doesn’t shine around the clock. As I strolled around the Rataul tower site with a bevy of Bawa’s technical experts, they explained that it’s actually a solar-diesel hybrid. But instead of running 16 hours a day or more, the generator kicks in for only a brief spell at night. Uninor is experimenting with a whole menu of other techniques and technologies to reduce energy use. The main draw on power is air-conditioning the enclosed shelters that house the generator and other equipment; the company’s alternative is "free cooling," pulling in the naturally colder air from outside (cold being a relative term in India), while also using heat exchangers to draw up even colder air from belowground. Add fuel catalysts that make the diesel-combustion process more efficient and smart technologies that automatically shut off the power when there’s no phone traffic, and you can slash energy use by up to 30 percent, one of the engineers said. Radical cost-cutting, a smaller carbon footprint, and an entry point into the coveted rural market: where these three motives converge, the mobile revolution may also be the catalyst for a revolution in clean energy and social equity.
Once the towers have leapfrogged over the power outages and people hold a phone in their hands -- usually just an entry-level Nokia or Samsung, with airtime at about one cent a minute, the lowest rate in the world -- the possibilities are limitless. To see a few of them, I spent a week in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh.
U.P., as it is commonly known, is the heart of what is variously called the Cow Belt or the Hindi Belt -- although almost one in five inhabitants is a Muslim and several of U.P.’s celebrated cities, like Agra, Allahabad, and the state capital, Lucknow, are former strongholds of the Mughal Empire, which swept through the Hindu lands from Central Asia in the 1500s and controlled most of the subcontinent for the next two centuries. More technically, U.P. is the heart of the Indo-Gangetic Plain, the vast, fertile floodplain of the Ganges, the Yamuna, and other rivers both great and sacred.
Much of the state is a monotonous, unbroken carpet of wheat fields and rice paddies. But the fertility is deceptive. With 200 million people -- almost as many as Brazil, but compacted into 3 percent of the land area -- Uttar Pradesh encompasses the full range of India’s problems. Other Indians call it backward -- a word they use without apology or embarrassment. Most of the population struggles to get by on less than two dollars a day. Official corruption is off the charts. The gender gap is a yawning gulf. As a result, U.P. has become a laboratory for all manner of social experiments -- government projects, NGO pilot studies, renewable energy schemes, and private-sector initiatives from the likes of Uninor. If you can fix a problem here, the thinking goes, you can fix it anywhere.