Could WhatsApp Kill Dual Sim in Emerging Markets?

on September 25, 2015

Dual SIM handsets are very popular in emerging countries for a variety of reasons. The most common is saving money. In this post, I’ll be explaining how Dual SIM handsets became popular and the role the internet played and how, ultimately, the internet might end up killing Dual SIM handsets.

How Dual SIM handsets came into being

As many of you know, most emerging countries don’t have any contract system. The carriers don’t subsidize devices nor do they even sell devices for the most part. This means carriers have almost no influence on the sale of a device in emerging countries and, by extension, no influence on the making of a device.

In countries such as the US, having carrier relationships is very important for a manufacturer to do well — just ask Sony. In contrast, the fact carriers in emerging countries have no influence on the sale/making of devices makes it a lot easier for new entrants to enter the market with a reduced barrier to entry.

The reduction in barrier to entry has meant a whole host of local manufacturers such as Micromax and Evercross have become popular in emerging countries. These local manufacturers have always tried solving problems unique to their regions. For example, Micromax’s founder, while on a tour of rural areas, saw how people lined outside a shop to charge their handsets. This encouraged him to make the first handset which had a battery that lasted for weeks.

Similarly, Dual SIM handsets were one such innovation that were mostly developed by local manufacturers. Soon the popularity of Dual SIM handsets from local vendors grew to such an extent that even Tier 1 manufacturers had to adopt them. The reasons for their popularity?

1) No contracts – If consumers in emerging countries were stuck in two-year contracts similar to that of other countries, Dual SIM handsets would not make sense

2) No control by carriers – Since carriers didn’t sell the handsets, they had no control in their making. Had carriers sold the handsets themselves, I am pretty sure something like Dual SIM would never have been possible

3) Vast majority of market is prepaid – In most emerging countries, consumers pay carriers money upfront for airtime, data services etc. So, once a user wanted to stop using the services of a particular carrier, he could do so without owing the carrier anything.

4) Intense competition – Compared to developed countries, competition among carriers in emerging countries is even more intense. This means operators keep launching new offerings to lure customers. Certain states in India, for example, have as much as eight operators. I’m not talking about MVNOs. These are eight real operators with their own spectrum and infrastructure.

Smartphones as a great enabler

Feature phones prevented me from truly embrace Dual SIM. However, all that changed with the smartphone.

Being a teenager, my primary form of communication was texting. When I owned a feature phone, texting was done through SMS. With SMS, your identity was dependent on the number of the SIM card you were sending the message from.

With the growing proliferation and popularity of smartphones, all my texting shifted from SMS to WhatsApp. The people whom I previously used to send SMS’ to had made the jump to smartphones and adopted WhatsApp. It’s now my primary means of communication and no longer do I send SMS messages.

The beauty of WhatsApp is it allows a person to register with one number and use the internet from a completely different one. For example, I could register on WhatsApp with my primary number 994023xxx and use the internet of my secondary number 971049xxx. Despite using internet access from 971049xxx, all my messages would still be sent under 99402xxx since that’s the number I had registered with WhatsApp.

WhatsApp allowed me to text under a single identity by leveraging the internet as medium. Regardless of whether I was using wifi or data from carrier ABC or carrier XYZ or carrier 123, all my messages would be sent under the number I have registered with WhatsApp.

WhatsApp was what made me truly embrace Dual SIM. I would insert my primary SIM with the number 994023xxx and make and receive calls on that number. My secondary SIM would only be used for data purposes. So, if my secondary number 971049xxx provided me cheaper data than my primary number 994023xxx, I could subscribe on my secondary number and preserve my identity. Alternatively, if a third operator 123 provided me even cheaper data rates, I could just swap the secondary SIM with the SIM of my third operator 123. Remember, the secondary SIM is just being used to provide internet access, the number of the secondary SIM has no relevance.

Could Dual SIM ever die?

The answer is yes. Just as WhatsApp leveraged the internet and made texting possible by delinking the number of SIM card being used, we need a solution for calling as well which uses internet as a medium and delinks the number of SIM card being used.

Indeed, WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger have moved in that direction by integrating voice calling in their apps. Standalone apps like Skype and Viber do pretty much the same. However, there are key differences between something like texting and calling.

1) Texting was mostly done by savvy users and generally young people who have by now made the transition to smartphones and, by extension, WhatsApp. Hence at least 95% of the people I used to text in the past are now on Whatsapp — allowing me to bypass traditional SMS completely and adopt WhatsApp as my sole texting platform. But in the case of phone calls I still call people who don’t own smartphones — my grandmom, the laundry guy etc. These people still use feature phones and until they use a smartphone it will be difficult for a VOIP app to completely take over calling the way WhatsApp took over texting.

2) Text messages on WhatsApp even work on basic EDGE connections. However, VOIP isn’t even possible on 3G given that, at least in India, latency is too high. It’s only on 4G that VOIP works smoothly. But 4G adoption is far from ubiquitous and wifi is not available everywhere.

Dual SIM smartphones will only die when either carriers adopt uniform pricing (which isn’t happening) or when a common app or a collection of apps make calling and texting possible by delinking the number of the SIM card being used. Once both calling and texting are possible by leveraging the internet as a medium, then the number of the SIM card doesn’t really matter and you could very well use just one SIM to provide the data connectivity.

In my current scenario, I’m texting using WhatsApp which only requires some form of internet connection and the number of the SIM card being used for data doesn’t matter. For phone calls I’m still placing traditional calls and the number of the SIM card is my identity. So I’m having to use my primary SIM card for calling and secondary one for data. In case calling also becomes possible over the internet I could just pop in the SIM card of the cheapest operator and use my smartphone for calling and texting.