Indian farmers use mobile phones to control irrigation

Mobile services operator Tata Teleservices says such services will help it differentiate in a crowded market

Mobile Operator Tata Teleservices is testing technology that allows farmers to use their mobile phones to remotely monitor and switch on irrigation pump sets in far flung locations.

The technology, called Nano Ganesh, is being tested in two villages in the Indian state of Gujarat.

In India, where the electricity supply is erratic, farmers often walk several kilometers to where their irrigation pumps are located, only to find that there is no electricity available, Lloyd Mathias, chief marketing officer of Tata Teleservices, said on Wednesday.

By dialing a code number from his mobile phone to a wireless device attached to the pump, farmers can now remotely monitor the electricity supply, and also switch the pump on and off, Mathias said.

The technology for this application was developed and is manufactured by Ossian Agro Automation in Pune in western India. To use the service, the farmer pays Tata Teleservices 2,700 rupees (US$56) for the device attached to the starter on the pump and another 2,000 rupees for the mobile phone, as well as monthly service charges. The mobile phone can be used by the farmer for other communications as well.

Voice communications and SMS (Short Message Service) on mobile phones are getting commoditized, and as in urban markets, customers are looking for value-added services, Mathias said. By introducing technology and services appropriate to rural markets, Tata Teleservices plans to differentiate itself in these markets, and increase customer "stickiness", he added.

The company already uses mobile phones to deliver education content, and agricultural information relevant to rural communities. It has tied up with specialist organizations to provide the content, Mathias said.

India had 109.7 million rural mobile subscribers at the end of the first quarter, up by 17.8 percent from 93.15 million users in the fourth quarter of last year, according to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI).

Rural wireless subscribers accounted for 28 percent of mobile subscribers at the end of the first quarter, TRAI said.

The rural market is seen as the next opportunity for mobile service providers and handset vendors. The key to these markets is the ability to offer appropriate local content and services, Kamlesh Bhatia, a principal research analyst at Gartner said.

Nokia, for example, launched its Life Tools service in June, after a pilot project in the Indian state of Maharashtra. The service offers agriculture information, education, and entertainment targeted at people in both rural areas and small towns.

It is not difficult to sell the concept of mobile phones in rural markets, but operators need to boost their revenue in these low-margin markets with other services besides voice, Bhatia said.

Value-added service revenue from rural markets will grow slowly, because customers in these markets will be concerned about the ease of use of new technology and the price for these services, Bhatia said. Many farmers are not technically savvy and are still getting used to using a mobile phone, let alone try out enhanced features and services, he added.

There are currently about 14.1 million irrigation pumps across India, Mathias said. Tata Teleservices plans to roll out the service across the country, once it tests consumer acceptance in the two villages in Gujarat, he added.

The company expects to increase revenue from current customers, as well as add new customers by offering specialized rural services, Mathias said.

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