Monday, May 09, 2005

Wireless in Bangalore 

As some readers here might know, I'm currently in Bangalore, India, to see the recent boom firsthand, but also to give talks to some schools in the south. So here's my first dispatch, on my wireless trials and tribulations. First, I'm staying with good friend Madanmohan Rao in Koramangala 3, which has a spectacular 7th floor view towards the north, with the lake in the distance. On the way here from the airport, I saw the offices of Yahoo, Reuters and Dell. Sparkling nice complexes, but adjacent to dusty and rocky roads, with an occasional cow or goat wandering around. Folks I've met so far said that's a big Achilles heel here - infrastructure is not well developed, and with contracts being abandoned halfway because of either government elections shifting favored contractors or money problems with price of steel or other materials. Zoning is also haphazard, so an old apartment block sits next to a high tech glass cube building next to an abandoned concrete skeleton.

For one week's travel, I wanted a mobile phone number. Easiest way was to buy a prepaid SIM chip for a GSM phone, and pop it in. Three main operators Hutch (Hutchison), Airtel and Spice were available. (Reliance, a CDMA operator, doesn't use a SIM chip system.) Now I'm used to prepaid SIM chips in Hong Kong and China. For HK, they give them out nearly like breath mints. You can pay HK $98, no ID, no questions, pop it in, working within minutes. China is not much different, though on the "books" they're supposed to ask for ID. None of the SIM chip sellers actually asks for it.

I never realized it would be such an ordeal in India. Airtel was our first option, at a Nokia store in town. They required a passport photo, copy of my passport, where I was staying. Fortunately I always carry two photos of myself in my wallet for situations like these. But then they needed a cosigner of someone living in India, including proof of this person being a resident. On top of this, the card would not be activated until 7pm, when a representative of Airtel would zip by and pick up all application forms from the store. Even with all this, we bough the card, Madan went to get ID as my cosigner. But when we came back an hour later, the representatives said his apartment residence card and his current postpaid Airtel bill wasn't enough. They needed "harder" evidence. Flummoxed, we demanded a refund, so we got our 450 rupees (about US $10) back.

Next stop was Airtel's official office, because certainly service would be better there. No. They required the same type of proof, and even worse, they could only activate it in four days! Four days? This is the actual Airtel office, and it would take longer than a reseller? Yes, they said it was indeed the case.

So next stop that evening was for a Nokia store to buy a Hutch account. They said it would be activated right away. Now at least they didn't need the ID and information for a cosigner. My passport and a photo was enough. But they had no paper copier machine. So I had a photocopy of the passport, but not of the India visa which they required! So off we went, no SIM card. We passed a Hutch store, but right as it was closing. The kind sir there could not sell us a card, but was willing to make a photocopy of the India visa that would could bring back to the Nokia store to complete the paperwork. Good man. Copy made, we went back to the Nokia store, and after a whole day's saga, we finally got a Hutch prepaid SIM card, working right away.

The upside to this is that the rates are quite inexpensive, and from what I've seen, the same as postpaid (0.5 rupee per SMS). At a meeting the next day, the CEO of a mobile gaming company said that 75% of mobile users in India are prepaid, largely due to unreliable information (or none at all) about credit ratings for users.

Mobile coverage is quite good, though it still managed to drop out a few times on the road between Bangalore and Mysore. Still, it's no worse than the US, and probably better.

Next time: Why Indian tourists don't have cameras...