Mobile carriers have a secret weapon in their battle against web giants. It’s called Bollywood

Everyone’s getting in on the act.
Everyone’s getting in on the act.
Image: Reuters/Mohammed Jaffer
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This post has been corrected. 

From Afghanistan to Aruba, mobile operators are bolstering their basic offering—the “pipes” that provide a connection to the world—with videos that they hope will provide enough of a reason for their customers to keep using their pipes.

“Data is like electricity,” says Gervais Pellissier, the deputy head of Orange, a network with some 240 million subscribers around the world. “So we have to differentiate with content.”

But as the action shifts eastward—that’s where the largest number of new customers are coming from—so too is the content that customers want to see. ”Asians have no interest in Western content,” Pellissier says. “They want Bollywood.”

This is certainly true in movie-mad India, where Hindi films made in Mumbai’s version of Hollywood, along with cricket, offer carriers a potent way to market data plans. But it is true outside India as well. The majority of audio content downloaded by subscribers on Roshan, Afghanistan’s biggest mobile operator, is Bollywood songs, says Altaf Ladak, the carrier’s operations head. In Africa, MTN distributes Indian film content to subscribers across the continent. One Indian company supplies Bollywood content to over 100 operators in 43 countries.

Bollywood has long baffled the west. Hindi films have a reputation for being over-long, melodramatic, and filled with elaborate song-and-dance routines. Not all of this is strictly true anymore. Bollywood movies have evolved to become shorter, more realistic, and feature fewer songs. But what has remained consistent is the appeal of Hindi movies in India, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and parts of Africa. Indian visitors to the Middle East, for example, often return home with stories about how everybody was so friendly because they love the Indian movie star Amitabh Bachchan. Mobile carriers in these regions have been quick to notice.

Pellissier cites the example of SingTel, which with over 400 million subscribers, is one of the largest operators in the world. SingTel has signed an agreement with Airtel, a large carrier based in India, to provide Bollywood content to its customers in Indonesia, the Philippines and beyond. The content is hosted on Dailymotion, a French video site owned by Orange (paywall).

All this is a way of resisting the power of YouTube, says Pellissier, by offering exclusive content that’s not freely available online. YouTube is not known as a destination for Bollywood clips, and doesn’t have the licenses in place to offer full movies. It’s also, presumably, a way to preempt YouTube’s parent company, Google, which is considering launching its own mobile carrier, the tech industry website The Information reported in April (paywall).

Operators are increasingly delving into content as a way to differentiate their networks from others, especially outside of the US, where users have a wealth of content options in the form of YouTube, or Netflix, or the many entertainment providers vying for their attention. In the Caribbean, for example, Digicel owns the local cricket league and uses clips from matches as content for its mobile users.

Mobile operators see opportunity in this. Content, they believe, could make them relevant again. The past decade has been a difficult one for carriers, with one CEO publicly concerned about being “downgraded to simple pipes” that ferry data around between consumers and the Facebooks and Googles of the world. Operators resent the fact that their capital-intensive infrastructure goes unnoticed and unappreciated as they provide the very connections of that allow big internet firms to hoover up masses of customer data that they think should by rights be theirs. They feel like they aren’t getting their fair share of revenues. And they fear that the giants will eventually bypass them altogether.

If a mobile network can keep people consuming (and paying for) its own content, and watching its ads, it becomes more than just a dumb pipe.

Correction: A previous version of this post said there were 240 subscribers to the network Orange, instead of 240 million.