Virtual SIM allows multiple connections on a mobile handset

The technology is targeted at markets where subscribers can't afford a personal mobile handset

Comviva Technologies, an Indian vendor of technology for value-added services, is targeting poor people in India, Africa and other developing markets with its "Virtual SIM" technology that allows users to connect to their mobile service using a shared or borrowed handset.

Up to six users can concurrently subscribe to mobile services from the same handset, said Sangeet Chowfla, chief strategy officer, and head of the mobile solutions group at Comviva, in a telephone interview on Wednesday.

The technology is expected to be relevant to Indian mobile operators as they target India's rural market, where many people cannot afford to buy mobile handsets, Chowfla said.

The company decided to develop the software after its research found that the cost of the mobile handset was the limiting factor for the acceptance of mobile telephony by poor people both in urban and rural areas.

A large number of the poor are daily workers who can benefit from mobile connectivity to find out where work is available, Chowfla said. But for this category of users, the cost of a basic handset could work out to about six months of their disposable income, he added.

Using the SIM (subscriber identity module) of a primary subscriber to establish the basic connection with the network, the technology allows other users to authenticate themselves, using a code assigned by the operator, and set up their own connections on the network.

Users can concurrently establish mobile identities on the network on the same handset, and send and receive voice calls or messages using SMS (short message service), Chowfla said. The users will be billed separately by the operator.

There is however no hard-wired link to the SIM of the handset, which gives the users the option to use the service from any other phone on the network, he added.

In the first deployment of the technology earlier this year in Cameroon by MTN Cameroon, a part of South Africa's MTN Group, Comviva found that people were finding a lot of other uses for the technology.

Families, whose individual members could not afford a personal phone, started subscribing to the service as it allowed each member of the family to have a separate mobile number and identity, including their individual ringback tones, Chowfla said.

Professionals and business owners also were attracted to the service because they could use the same handset for both their private and publicly listed mobile connections, he added.

India added 16.7 million new mobile subscribers in October, taking the total number to 488.4 million, according to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI). About 42 in 100 Indians are now mobile subscribers, TRAI said.

The mobile boom is however still an urban phenomenon. Only about 20 out of 100 of people in rural areas have telephones, while in towns and cities it is 100 percent, India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said at a telecom conference last week in Delhi. The country has to double rural penetration of phones in the next three years, he added.

Comviva is part of the Bharti Group, which also includes Bharti Airtel, India's largest mobile services provider. Bharti and other mobile operators are targeting the rural market even as urban markets are getting saturated.

Users in rural markets however have smaller incomes than people in urban areas, and setting up infrastructure in far-flung rural areas can also be expensive, according to analysts.

As mobile phone tariffs are down to 0.01 Indian rupee (US$0.0002) per second, mobile phones are turning out to be cheaper than fixed-line pay phones, Chowfla said. The key barrier at this point is the cost of owning the handset, he added.

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