Google predicts Indian web use to soar

India - long considered a digital laggard for its low internet penetration - is set for explosive growth in web usage in the coming year, according to a senior Google executive in the country.
Vinay Goel, country head of products at Google in India, said the rapid growth of mobile telephony in India had helped internet usage to grow by up to 50 per cent last year compared with previous growth rates in the teens.

"We do not have the exact figure for internet users - some say 50m people, some put the number at 80m - but whatever it is it has certainly reached an inflection point," Mr Goel said in an interview.

India is regarded as an anomaly on internet usage. The country's universities produce half a million computer literate engineers a year who are keenly sought after by multinationals and software outsourcing companies.

Yet internet penetration in India is regarded as one of the worst in the world at an estimated 7.1 per cent of its 1.148bn people as of December 2008, with 81m users, according to Internet World Stats, a data website.

According to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, the regulator for the sector, the country had about 15m internet subscribers at the end of last year, up 5 per cent from a year earlier. The industry estimates that for every individual subscriber, there are at least four users. But the big unknown for the industry is mobile telephony. The regulator estimates there were 101.1m mobile phone subscribers with the capability to surf the internet as of December.

Though fewer than 20 per cent of these have a data plan, according to Mr Goel, the market is set to grow rapidly given that the number of mobile phone subscribers in India will rise to about 600m, from 350m, in the next one or two years.

"When you have a groundswell of that level you start seeing the China effect - where you are adding 50m users or 100m users a year," Mr Goel said.

He said although Google did not break out financial or operational data for India, the country is the US-based internet group's third-largest operation in the world after the US and China.

He said India's internet industry needed the development of a comprehensive digital environment for Indians.

Google was working on products in multiple Indian regional languages. This includes programs that can display a keyboard on a screen in a certain language to enable web users to type in their own language.

To reach the rest of the market that does not yet have access to the internet, Google was also developing a telephone search service.

As part of this service, users can telephone a computer that can interpret their requests using voice recognition software and provide answers.

BY Joe Leahy in Mumbai
Source:The Financial Times

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