New norms for mobile features: Safety over affordability

Govt-mandated features may add to the security quotient but is likely to take away the affordability factor of low-cost phones.

Written by Pranav Mukul | New Delhi | Published:October 28, 2016 1:05 am
smart phone, Safety feature for mobile, compulsory panic button, smart phone sale India, mandatory panic button, smartphones, panic button, mobiles, panic button rule, emergency number, technology, technology news In the past six months, the government has issued notifications for all mobile phones sold in India mandating a panic. (Illustration: Subrata Dhar)

The slew of guidelines that have been issued by the Centre mandating cellular phone manufacturers to include certain features, while may be in the greater interest of consumer safety and security, are expected to push up costs for the price-sensitive Indian buyers, especially those at the bottom of the pyramid opting for cheap feature handsets priced between Rs 800 to Rs 1,000.

Also read| Panic button, GPS compulsory in all mobiles: But will it really help with safety?
In the past six months, the government has issued notifications for all mobile phones sold in India mandating a panic button from January 1, 2017, a global positioning system (GPS) — to track the location — from January 1, 2018, and most recently the provisioning for display of text in 22 Indian languages on devices from July 1, 2017.

The panic button mandate would enable users to make emergency calls by pressing just a single button on their devices. Simultaneously, the government has approved single emergency number ‘112’ which is proposed to be operational throughout India from January 1, 2017 to help people reach services of police, ambulance and fire department easily in emergency. In a letter written to secretary of Department of Telecommunications (DoT) JS Deepak earlier this month, Indian Cellular Association (ICA) requested the government to defer the deadline for implementing the panic buttons in mobile phones to April 1. This request was made on the basis that the proposed ‘112’ emergency number was not active yet.

“Though the industry is gearing up, the lack of ability to test on 112 is a dampener and without validation it is not possible to go ahead,” ICA’s national president Pankaj Mohindroo said in the letter.

Industry watchers also highlighted that the purpose of sending a distress call from a dedicated panic button would be defeated if the call connects to a government agency’s call-centre while the user is in an emergency situation, due to which the inclusion of a location tracking system was also necessary. And while this additional requirement might not be an issue for smartphones that already have these in-built facilities, the feature phone costs might shoot up by Rs 300 to Rs 400.

Another such proposal, which has been at the heart of the government’s push to increase mobile phone penetration in the country, is the introduction of Indian languages on both feature phones as well as smartphones.

On Monday, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology approved the proposal to issue standards for inclusion of language support in mobile handsets after stakeholder meetings that were held with the industry in July, August and September. During these discussions, the Indian Cellular Association had requested that the new standards could be mandated along with the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) notification that compels device makers to include global positioning system (GPS) from January 1, 2018.

On the one hand where the industry requested that it would require a lead time of at least nine months in order to incorporate these changes in their global supply chain, it was also highlighted in one of these meetings that for providing Indian language support, the memory capacity of the phone will also have to be augmented. “Further, it will affect the procurement as well as distribution supply chains of the phone companies as they will have to make available certain models for specified geographies. It is expected that all these aspects may increase the cost to consumers, on a feature phone by about 10 per cent,” an industry representative said. The concerns surrounding a likely increase in burden to the consumer was also concurred to by the government.

However, the cost aspect of these decisions is only one side of the coin. On the other side is the aspect of mobile phone manufacturers managing incorporation of these norms into their systems technologically, as well as operationally.

Rakesh Deshmukh, chief executive officer of Indus OS, which has developed a regional language based mobile operating system, said that there wouldn’t be an issue for manufacturers from a timeline perspective to adhere to these norms considering that the technological infrastructure was already available. “Three or four years back the companies were not ready, and even for the government it would have been a problem if they wanted to push it. But now infrastructure is available in the market,” Deshmukh said.

However according to the standards, mobile phone makers will have to not only provide for display text in 22 Indian languages, but will also have to provide for input text in three languages — English, Hindi and one other regional language.

Deshmukh said that this could present a challenge for the original equipment manufacturers (OEMs). “It’s not a technology challenge but an operational one. For any manufacturer, the distribution of which works in a pan India fashion, a company can’t make a different model for say Tamil, and a different one for Gujarati,” he said.

Although he also added that the decision brings an opportunity for developers wanting to make apps in regional languages if these developers get assurance that the languages will be supported by the smartphones. “Today, someone wanting to develop an app in regional language faces a problem if the phones do not support those languages, whether a regional language keyboard is there or not. Now if the developers are sure that smartphones in India would ship with regional language support, they will be very happy. Many of these e-commerce companies want to go to tier-II and -III towns where regional languages on phones will be very important,” he said.

While these decisions by the Centre may be in the larger interest of the consumer as well as the producer, it is proving to be a hiccup for the industry, which has hitherto found favourable ways into the country with the government’s push for domestic electronic manufacturing, and has witnessed a sharp rebound, having more than overcome the blip suffered over 24 months ago from the halting of production at Nokia’s Chennai unit.