In today’s Finshots, we discuss why India’s ‘atmanirbhar’ dream may be troubling phone makers.

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The Story

You don’t search the internet anymore. You simply Google.

You don’t get a photocopy. Instead, you get a Xerox.

You don’t call it instant noodles. You call it Maggi.

It’s a phenomenon where a product or a brand becomes so ubiquitous that it subsumes the entire category. A phenomenon called genericization. And this motif fits perfectly for what we’re discussing today.

The GPS or the Global Positioning System.

It’s a generic term used for navigation these days. And when you’re asking someone to use a “GPS”, you’re basically asking them to navigate. But the global positioning system isn’t exactly a global entity. It’s owned and operated by the United States Government.

And they aren’t alone in building such things. There are other global navigation satellite systems that do pretty much the same thing. There’s Russia’s Global Navigation Satellite System (GLONASS), China’s BeiDou Navigation system, the European Union’s Galileo and India’s regional navigation satellite system called NavIC.

The only difference is — Unlike the others, our navigation satellite system isn’t exactly a global version. You can find the location (longitude/latitude) of any object fitted with a receiver in India. But we can’t map the location globally. Atleast not yet.

However, that doesn’t matter because the regional navigation system is built specifically to address our domestic needs. It has eight satellites floating in orbit and it’s supposed to be more precise. You see, NavIC’s satellites use dual frequency bands, the L5 and the S-band. And while the science behind it is complicated, it boils down to one simple maxim — two bands are better than one, at least in this case. When an electromagnetic signal travels through space, the atmosphere can distort it. So you have to adjust for these errors before relaying the location. And it seems two bands work better than one.

For context, it’s expected to offer a positional accuracy of 5 metres compared to the 20–30 metres you’d get out of GPS.

But if it’s this useful, why haven’t we heard about it yet? Why don’t our phones come packed with NavIC?

Well, for starters it’s only been 4 years since full deployment. And it’s found limited use in this time. We use it to track public vehicles and deep sea fishermen (to alert them in the event of an emergency). But NavIC’s fortunes could be changing pretty soon. According to Reuters, the Indian government is pushing to make NavIC mandatory in phones from January 2023. And that means NavIC could soon be in everyone’s pocket. And we’ll have a homegrown product to beat traffic woes.

But like all things, not everyone’s happy with the development. Especially phone manufacturers like Samsung. Their contention boils down to two things.

First — the added costs. You see, Samsung does pretty well for itself in the mid-budget range of phones that cost between ₹10,000 to ₹40,000. It’s the market leader in fact with a 26% share. But if it needs to make its phones NavIC complaint, it could mean new chipsets, antennas, and radio frequency components. They might even have to tinker with the phones’ hardware. All of that won’t come cheap and could increase the price of its phones. It could put the phones out of reach of a certain subset of people and dent its sales.

And secondly, it’s the crunched timeline. If they’re already ready with their 2024 pipeline of product launches, they can’t undo that now, can they?

Now we may be getting a little ahead of ourselves. Because shortly after everyone began talking about this government diktat, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) issued a clarification. It tweeted saying that it hadn’t fixed a timeline yet. And that it was all under discussion.

Now ‘under discussion’ probably means that it’ll happen sooner rather than later. So we’ll just have to see how that plays out.

But wait…ISRO didn’t build NavIC just to help us get to office easily, no?

Of course not. The idea was actually conceived back in 2006 before mobile phones became ubiquitous.

The origin story goes as far back as the Kargil War of 1999. At the time India was locking horns with Pakistan and fighting to regain control of Indian territory. We needed every advantage we could get. So apparently we asked the US for GPS data. Data that could’ve helped us navigate the terrain better. But it seems the US denied the request. Although this didn’t deter India from winning, it got us thinking about overreliance on foreign imports. Which eventually got us thinking about building our own navigation system.

Also, remember that India’s Geospatial policy doesn’t allow foreign satellite systems to collect superfine data — say street information that’s accurate to less than a metre. They can only source this data from Indian firms — Think navigation service providers like MapmyIndia. And this means, if Google Maps wants to show you the location of that pizza place with pinpoint accuracy, it may have to start licensing the sub-1 metre mapping from someone like MapmyIndia which uses NavIC for its mapping needs.

Maybe this could provide a fillip to homegrown navigation companies too.

So yeah, we will just have to wait and see how NavIC adoption can change the navigation scene in India.

Until then…

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PS: In Sanskrit, Navic means ‘navigator’. So it all makes sense now!

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