The DoT making GPS mandatory on all phones could mean fewer people can afford basic communication

Over forty percent of the population in India cannot even afford a basic feature phone, and these models will now be up to fifty percent costlier.

The Department of Telecom (DoT) has made it mandatory for all mobile phones sold in India, including feature phones to support GPS functionality from 1 January 2018. The requirement is for satellite based GPS chips, and using A-GPS based on telecom infrastructure for tracking a handset is not an option. The DoT has rejected a plea by the India Cellular Association (ICA) against the ruling, and has made it clear that it will not entertain any further discussion on the issue.

According to the DoT, the feature is being made mandatory to ensure the safety of women. Representatives of the industry claim that incorporating a GPS chip in entry level feature phones may increase the prices of the low cost devices. ICA National President Pankaj Mohindroo told the Press Trust of India, “The price of low-cost feature phones may rise by over 50 per cent as adding GPS system will require better configuration.”


The graph shows percentage of phone users against phone owners. Image: ITU.

The ruling may actually be counter-productive considering the gender gap in the ownership of smartphones. In emerging economies such as India, Bangladesh and Pakistan, a disproportionate number of women use somebody else's phone. Over forty percent of the population in India cannot even afford a basic feature phone, according to the Information Society Report of 2016 by the International Telecommunications Union. Increasing the prices of feature phones may just make basic communications capabilities out of the reach of a higher percentage of the population, and exacerbate the problem of a gender gap in mobile phone ownership.

Source: ITU

Age wise breakdown of ownership and usage in India. Source: ITU

If the prices of all feature phones go up, fewer people will buy one. Manufacturers have indicated that although the ruling will increase pressure on their margins, they will be able to include GPS functionality in all phones by the deadline. The mandatory inclusion of the GPS was a ruling made along with the requirement for a panic button on every device. For the safety of its users, especially women, mobile phones in the market are already shipping with panic buttons. Applications related to travel, including journey planners and ride hailing applications have integrated safety features in their offerings.

While the government has mandated a panic button, the infrastructure to provide help has a lot left to be desired. The helplines for women's safety are not of much help. When the Government initially announced plans to make the panic button mandatory, the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) released a statement indicating that a panic button would not be of much help on its own. The IAMAI asked the government to "sensitise the agencies to handle emergency situations rather than mandate conditions that are deemed to fail from its inception."

IAMAI pointed out that the Himmat application launched by the Delhi police which was ineffective, leading to the launch of another application for women's safety just six months later. “India has launched many emergency numbers and safety apps similar to this in the past but none of the programmes/ initiatives have been effective. Most of these programmes are well-designed solutions but suffer from poor back-end infrastructure or lack of an effective response management system with the local police and LEAs,” IAMAI said.

A number of mobile phones are created with deep understanding of the market, and the mandatory requirement for supporting a particular functionality may mean that some devices and models will not be available in India at all. One of the most celebrated feature phones released recently was the 2017 version of the Nokia 3310, which does not have a GPS feature. It looks like starting next year, feature phone models without a GPS chip, such as the Nokia 3310, will not be available in the market.


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