U2opia Mobile has developed a USSD-based platform that helps people get Internet access without data plan
Recently Ola, the online cab service provider announced that it is now allowing users to book cabs via SMS. Most of us who are used to opening the app instantly and getting a cab wherever and whenever we want may not have found the news very exciting. But lakhs of mobile phone owners this country don’t have this privilege of Internet and that’s the reason why Ola thought about taking it offline -- to tap those with no Internet access. Indeed, lack of Net connectivity is a challenge in many parts of India. Singapore-based, Indian talent-fueled U2opia Mobile has come up with a solution to this problem and helps people in the remotest parts, to get online.
In an interview with IndiaTechOnline, Sumesh Menon, MD & Co-Founder, U2opia Mobile said, “Despite all the growth of 3G/4G and Jio, the reality is that only 34 % of people in India are covered online, there’s a huge number who are not online. Even the people who are covered don’t have quality coverage. This is the story that plays out across developing or emerging markets like India, Africa, South America, parts of South-East Asia. It is the premise with which we started in 2010. U2opia mobile was born out of a need to try and solve the problems of these emerging markets.”
He added that having worked in the telecom sector at various emerging market made him understand the situation where Internet, especially Facebook, Twitter and Gmail were becoming as important as electricity, gas or petrol. Data had become a necessity but was still not available to large audiences due to lack of infrastructure.
In 2010 the company created a platform called Fonetwish that goes back to the basics and uses USSD (Unstructured Supplementary Service Data) codes to connect users online even using a normal mobile phone. USSD is mostly used by telecom operators for communication with the mobile users via text message or codes, for example the code that you use to check your mobile bill or data usage is called USSD.
“USSD has been there since the time network started, but no one actually thought of it as a consumer technology. We thought about leveraging this platform to be able to service the large underserved mass of people who don’t have access to the Internet,” said Sumesh.
FoneTwish works on co-telephonic protocol. It is very much like the technology that telecom operators use to transfer voice calls or SMS.
“You cannot run this without a mobile operator. We are leveraging the operator platform to provide you small pieces of data or information via a proxy. So we are kind of playing the mediator role here. We try and convert or translate the Internet to a USSD format and give it to you via the operator.”
The company has partnered with major mobile operators like Airtel in India to deploy their product on their network and offer service to the users.
We got a chance to check this platform on real-time. The experience was more like the old generation cache-based browser where one used to give a command and get the results without any colourful graphics or images. This made us think about how it will actually help this generation which actually needs the visual appeal. Sumesh explained that even though pictures and graphics are a need, most important requirement is information on things like weather, news, FB posts or tweets. Fone Twish allows users to dial a code and access information from Facebook, Twitter, Wikipedia, TripAdvisor, etc.
The platform could prove to be a cost-effective solution for many government sectors like agriculture where farmers can get information on right weather for cropping or in government schools where students can get access to information on various topics.
Tech Note: What is USSD?
Unstructured Supplementary Service Data (USSD), sometimes referred to as "Quick Codes" or "Feature codes", is a protocol used by GSM cellular telephones to communicate with the service provider's computers. USSD can be used for browsing, prepaid callback service, mobile-money services, location-based content services, menu-based information services, etc.
USSD messages are up to 182 alphanumeric characters long. Unlike SMS messages, USSD messages create a real-time connection during a USSD session. (From Wikipedia)