Dispatch from India’s Innovation Front Lines

12/5/08Follow @vinit44

Editor’s note: Xconomist Vinit Nijhawan is in India visiting venture capitalists and startups with an eye to bridging Boston and Indian startup ecosystems. This is the first in a series of dispatches.

New Delhi, Thursday, December 4—I arrived in Delhi near midnight off a packed flight and to a crowded international airport, no sign of any slowdown in activity as a result of the recent terrorist incidents in Mumbai. The cool winter air is thick with construction dust, there is a new airport being completed and an extensive subway system, including a line running to the airport.

Getting a sim card from AirtelMy first task was to get a local SIM for the Sony Ericsson phone I borrowed from my son. I went to a Bharti Airtel customer service center in a south Delhi market in Lajpat Nagar. It was packed with about a dozen customer service reps, a payment kiosk, and about 20 customers. The rep looked at my phone and said that it was locked to the Rogers network (my son goes to college in Canada), and I should go down the street to a shop to get it unlocked, and that it would take two hours.

I then went to get a passport photo taken at a nearby shop called ìKodak Expressî and paid $1 for 8 color photos. I went back to the Airtel shop and filled out an application for a prepaid account: my photo, passport information, and local address was attached to the application. I was told that my SIM would take a day to activate after my application information was verified. This was a new procedure as a result of foreign terrorists acquiring India cellphone accounts to escape being tracked. Seems like the recent terrorists were a step ahead: they bought satellite phones in Dubai to communicate with their handlers in Pakistan.
ìOrange Teleservicesî
The entire experience with getting a local phone service was much more cumbersome than activating a phone in the US or Canada. Then again, I imagine if I was an Indian citizen visiting the U.S. and walking into an AT&T store, I might also have to wait a day to get activation. I was astonished by how many stores there were all over south Delhi offering mobile phones and services. With 300M subscribers, up from about 100M when I was last in India two years back, it is becoming a huge industry here.

Vinit Nijhawan, an entrepreneur, angel investor, and former venture capitalist, is Lecturer and Executive-in-Residence in the Boston University School of Management. Follow @vinit44

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