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Indian mobiles go quiet amid SMS curbs

by Prasad Krishna last modified Aug 27, 2012 07:15 AM
India’s 900m-plus mobile telephones have fallen unusually quiet since Saturday, when the government curbed text and multimedia messages for 15 days in an attempt to dispel panic among north-easterners fearing attacks from angry Muslims.

This article written by Victor Mallet in New Delhi and James Crabtree in Mumbai was published in Financial Times on August 21, 2012. Additional reporting by Jyotsna Singh in New Delhi. Pranesh Prakash is quoted.


The order limiting the number of SMS and MMS messages to five a day from each pre-paid account – which comprise 97 per cent of the market – has disrupted personal communications and threatens to squeeze the revenues of the mobile operating companies.

The government has also urged social media websites including Facebook and Twitter to remove “inflammatory” content it said had helped spread rumours that caused an exodus of migrants from some cities last week. Access to 245 web pages containing doctored videos and images had been blocked, the government claimed, and the relevant sites told to take the pages down.

Indians send more than a billion text messages a day, although it is not clear how many people have been affected by the restrictions or how many of the messages are mass mailings.

Akshat Dwivedi, 20, an undergraduate student at Delhi University, said the restrictions were “a stupid idea”.

“How can the government take away something that has become a basic, fundamental need today?” he said. “The ban has affected mostly students who use pre-paid connections because pre-paid connections are cheaper and more affordable for students like us. The ban has hugely disrupted our life. There are many people who rely on text messages because you can’t always call everybody.”

Civil rights activists wary of censorship accept that the ban may have been necessary to ease ethnic and religious tensions.

“There is the fear that the state will exercise inordinate powers,” said Akila Shivdas, a civil and consumer rights activist. “But regulation and state control are two different things … This is an opportunity to look at regulation seriously.”

India’s mobile industry earned about $20bn in revenue last year, of which 15-18 per cent was from data services, according to the Cellular Operators Association of India, a trade body. This suggests operators are set to suffer a loss of about $133m for the 15-day period, according to COAI figures.

“When we are going through the trauma of increased costs, being challenged on revenues does not help,” said Rajan Matthew, COAI director-general. “The government’s heart is in the right place in trying to address this issue ... But when we are fighting for every nickel and dime, this loss is not a small amount.”

Other analysts cautioned that the likely revenue impact would be much smaller, noting that most customers bought pre-paid SMS packages. “I’m not saying there will be no loss, but it will not be dramatic”, said Rohit Chordia, a telecoms analyst at Kotak, a Mumbai-based brokerage.

Industry sources and analysts also questioned the government’s decision to impose an extended nationwide ban, rather than experimenting with more limited short-term restrictions targeted to particular trouble spots.

“Some kind of limitation on communication was a reasonable step, but restricting everyone to just five per day I don’t think is reasonable at all,” said Pranesh Prakash, programme manager at the Centre for Internet and Society, a Bangalore-based think tank.

Thousands of north-easterners – physically similar to the Bodo people who have been fighting Muslim migrants over land and political power in Assam – fled from cities such as Bangalore and Hyderabad last week after threats of violence sent by SMS.

Muslims in Mumbai had previously been inflamed by media messages purportedly showing brutality towards their fellow followers of Islam, though the Indian government said some pictures were doctored and had been uploaded from Pakistan.

Events in Bangalore, said Pavan Duggan, a lawyer specialising in IT issues, were “a classic case of mobile cyberterrorism”. He backed the government’s measures despite concerns about censorship. “Obviously there are some rumblings, but these are still small murmurs because everyone is very clear that the national interest will come over [mobile] revenues.”

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