We Have To Make Internet Work For Every Indian: Rajan Anandan

The head of Google in India is also one of our most active angel investors.

11/09/2016 6:01 PM IST | Updated 20/09/2016 12:35 PM IST
Kavi Bhansali/HuffPost India
Rajan Anandan.

Here's a fun fact. The free wi-fi service at the New Delhi railway station and 39 other railway stations in the country, powered by Google and RailTel, offers speeds ranging from 20-40Mbps. Rajan Anandan, the high-profile Google vice president overseeing India and South East Asia, can't get more than a 5Mbps connection at his South Delhi home.

"This is a fact. In India today, the fastest internet connections you can experience are at railway stations, outside of a few high rises with 100Mbps connections," Anandan says. We both chuckle at the absurdity of it.

The wi-fi service, wildly popular in smaller cities such as Patna and Bhubaneswar, and a hot topic of discussion on internet message boards and Quora threads, now has 2 million monthly active users. The service will go live in 100 stations by the end of this year and 400 stations by 2018. At that point, 300 million people will have access to it each month. That's almost as many people as there are on the internet in India today.

Anandan, 48, my breakfast guest today, is a tall figure in India's internet ecosystem, and among its most passionate evangelists. He plays a unique role in "the scene" because apart from his day job as the head of the influential internet giant here, he is also among the most active angel investors in internet and tech startups in India (more than 40 portfolio companies, by some estimates). Now that the internet party has begun to hit the high notes in India, his bullishness has been vindicated, and he's in high demand as a mentor, angel, speaker, connector of people and crystal ball gazer. Even those who find his projections too optimistic can't accuse him of not putting his money where his mouth is.

We meet on a Thursday at The Leela Ambience Hotel in Gurgaon. The Royal Club Lounge at the hotel offers on one side a view of the river of traffic streaming into Gurgaon from Delhi (muted on this day due to Janmashtami) and on the other side an expanse of the busy plazas and high rises of Gurgaon, the "millennium city" that transforms into a vast puddle on rainy days.

Kavi Bhansali/HuffPost India

Over a breakfast of idlis, filter coffee (for him) and orange and hazelnut French toast (for me; with berry compote, sugar and cinnamon dust and fresh cream), we talk internet in India and Google, and he fills me in with learnings from the company's new initiatives in expanding internet access.

Here's in essence what he tells me.

Internet in India is about to shape-shift. As things stand, there are about 350 million people who access the internet. About 150 million among them use the internet in non-English Indian languages, also known as Indic languages. The next 250 million that he expects to come on the internet by 2020 (Nasscom estimates the total by 2020 to be 730 million, but that is probably on the higher side, not accounting for Mukesh Ambani's game-changing potential) will almost entirely be Indic language users. The tools to negotiate the internet in Indic languages have grown (open source fonts, Android keyboard that supports nine Indic languages, Google voice search in Hindi, etc), but products and services as well as content need to keep pace. Indic language searches on Google have gone up 10 times in the last year and a half. And Hindi content consumption is growing five times as fast as English.

To keep pace, India also needs to fix its massive deficit of high-speed internet. "India is the world's largest slow internet nation. That needs to change."

Google's railway wi-fi experiment has shown how much appetite there is for fast internet. "The Indian consumer's appetite for data is unbelievable. We can't obviously provide wi-fi everywhere, but it's clear that wi-fi everywhere is a great idea," Rajan says.

We want to make sure that Indians are able to access the full internet.Rajan Anandan

"We want to make sure that Indians are able to access the full internet," Rajan says. Is that a reference to Facebook's Free Basics that suffered a crash-landing in India?

"No, free is when you give it for free, and see what happens. If you give Indians the full internet at very high speeds and make it free, what happens is amazing."

Dressed in blue denims and a checked shirt, Rajan is an animated speaker, but strikes me as a rare advocate who combines a seriousness of purpose with a lightness of touch. He is speaking about serious issues of structural obstacles, affordability and access in rural India, but laughter comes easily to him.

His schedule is packed with travel. He was in the US the previous week, and had just come in from Singapore the previous day. He spends alternate weeks in India and South East Asia. And when he is in the country, he spends three days of the week travelling to different cities. The week after we meet, he was scheduled to be in Goa, Mumbai and Bangalore.

After going to bed late the previous night after an office party, he has been up since 7am, and in meetings since 8. So when we meet, at brunch hour, he says he's rather hungry. He looks relaxed and well rested, and gives me undivided attention. My French toast is very nicely done, with the cinnamon dust offering a perfect overlay to the sweet snack.

"Meetings are the death of speed," he says, explaining why he spends as much time as possible talking to the market--external stakeholders, partners and clients--and very little in internal meetings at the company.

Like in several other markets, Google in India is a dominant player. It has very high market share in search, and also in digital advertising, which, although growing rapidly, is about 12% of the country's ad spends. Much of this goes to Google and Facebook. Its Android operating system for mobile phones has a 97% share in the Indian market. And products like YouTube, Maps and Gmail are popular and widely used. A regulatory investigation is underway about whether Google abused its market position in India during 2009-2014.

The limits to Google's business in India are in some ways at the limits of its internet universe.

Anandan tells me about the company's efforts to take mobile phones and the internet to India's rural women. Only one in 10 of India's rural women are on the internet, a figure that he says is probably the worst in the world. So Google has partnered with Tata Trusts in a programme called Internet Saathi, where they have trained more than a thousand women to go into villages with blue bikes and mobile devices, and initiate groups of women into the magical possibilities of a connected device. Anandan calls it "onboarding". To me it seems more like a demo. But the programme has an ambitious target—to cover 300,000 villages in three years. That's half of the total number of Indian villages.

It's analogous to what consumer product companies did earlier—like distributing shampoo samples in sachets.

Watch Rajan Anandan speak about a special meal.

But what the programme has taught Google is interesting. Rural India is into apps that can help them improve their livelihood, by giving them information on weather, crop yield, prices, subsidies and government schemes. "The biggest learning has been that if you have to get rural India online, you have to make the internet work for them in a very fundamental way."

It's not that rural India doesn't like entertainment and chat. But it's not critical. "They say everyone who they would want to talk to are already around them. Unlike China, a mass migration into cities hasn't happened here."

The internet is being marketed wrong for rural India, he adds. "A lot of the communication (by telcos, phone companies, etc) around the internet being this fun thing that you can use for entertainment and communication is just not landing. People are not going to be spurred to get a smartphone because of that," Anandan says.

Google is also focused on making its products and services work really well within the constraints of India. "The whole offline movement, which is now a big thing globally, was started to cater for India. The ability to watch Youtube videos offline—engineered for India, now available in 70 countries."

Google Maps also now work offline. A new feature, which remembers search queries made while offline, and provides answers once back on the network, is on its way.

The company is also focused on training developers to make apps on its Android platform. India is going to surpass the US as the country with the most number of software developers in 2018. But of the 2 million developers India has, only about 50,000 develop on mobile, although India is the largest mobile-first/mobile only country in the world, Anandan says. So Google is trying to train 2 million engineers in Android in three years time.

"We want the internet to work for every Indian. For that, a lot of locally relevant products and services will have to be developed by local developers and entrepreneurs. So we are trying to come at this problem from a lot of different directions," Anandan says.

How many Indian kids get to go to the NGMA in their lifetime? Maybe 1%? Now it's online.Rajan Anandan

When he talks up the transformative impact of technology on poor people in rural India, and about how a small business with an online presence grows 50% faster than one without (a Bain, BCG statistic, Anandan says), I push back with some techno-scepticism.

Shouldn't we take these claims with a pinch of salt? If a person doesn't have money, he doesn't have money, even with a connected smartphone.

Anandan says sceptics about the Internet's power to change lives are those who have never been poor. "Today you can sit anywhere and attend a Stanford computer science lecture. You can go to IIT Chennai sitting in a village in Bihar. I agree, affordability is important. But imagine the cost of not having the internet. You would never have access to that, right?"

I tell him about my favourite Google product at the moment—the Google Art Project Chrome extension that displays a work of art in your browser window every time you open a new tab. He hasn't tried it, but is immediately upbeat about the benefits of the Google Culture Institute.

"How many Indian kids get to go to the NGMA (National Gallery of Modern Art) in their lifetime? Maybe 1%? Now it's online. You can visit sitting anywhere. You can do a 360-degree tour of the Taj Mahal. You should try it!"

I ask him about the technology he is most looking forward to. It's artificial intelligence in general, but autonomous transportation and driverless cars specifically. He doesn't own a car (his wife has one though) and gets around mostly in a neighbourhood cab or Ola or Uber. Also for his mother, who lives in Colombo (Anandan is of Sri Lankan origin), it's very hard to find drivers.

"Mahindra and Mahindra put out a report last year saying in urban India commuting time is going to double in five years. I'm not looking forward to that."

His wife Radhika and their 10-year-old daughter are both entrepreneurs. Radhika has just launched a lifestyle brand of blended teas (No 3, Clive Road) and his daughter has a shop on Shoppo, the Snapdeal platform that allows anyone to create online stores. "She sells the things she makes, like jewellery."

So when is Anandan, surrounded by entrepreneurs at home and elsewhere, turning into one himself?

"What do you mean? I'm an entrepreneur. How much more entrepreneurial can I get?!" he protests, laughing. "Look, the important thing is to do what you are really passionate about. Being a part of Google, being in India at this time as part of its internet ecosystem—it's very very special. This is not something I would trade."

As I drive back from the meeting, I can't help wonder about how a driverless car might navigate Gurgaon in floods.

This is part of HuffPost India's exclusive interview series, Breakfast With HuffPost, presented by Lufthansa. The other interviews in the series are here.

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