Without digital money, businesses can’t achieve transactional economies

A person in the US still cannot send money to someone in India without incurring high transaction fees or losing days to conduct that transaction. (Representational image: Reuters)

In February, a report by Nokia in its Mobile Broadband India Traffic Index (MBiT) report revealed that data usage per month had increased 16% to 11GB in December as compared to last year. While trends for this year’s usage are not available, given the lockdown and heavy reliance on the internet owing to work from home and digital streaming platforms it would not be surprising if consumption more than doubles.

Meanwhile, in February, according to Mobile World Live data consumption of 5G in South Korea jumped a whopping two-four times. While the data usage shall only increase as more users shift to smartphones, and gaming becomes more mainstream, tech majors are rejoicing this new trend.

Most that rely on data for advertising have hit a gold mine. Users are willing to part with data with little oversight on how, when, and for what purposes it is used. Yes, the user is more aware of companies trying to peek into our lives, hence, the lawsuits, but this level of awareness is only limited to a small proportion of the population. More important, data gains by companies or data losses by users are intangible, most users are not even aware of what they are sharing.

But as companies gain more and more, whereas users lose out on these gains, there is bound to be discontent. That is also the reason that services like Brave browser (see Eavesdropper for June 6) have been gaining traction.

Brave allows users to earn each time they watch an ad or whenever they browse using the service. As the browser parts with advertisement revenue, it makes browsing a lucrative experience for both.

But what Brave is doing is not unknown or unheard. In the 1990s, when the internet was limited to people whose ideas about this new platform were utopian many web platforms or www services were offering such deals. However, as monopolies became common, the idea withered away.

More than the monopolies, the problem was payments. Although the internet had developed, digital money was still a decade away. Even when digital money was introduced, its reach was too limited, and it was still confined to borders. A person in the US still cannot send money to someone in India without incurring high transaction fees or losing days to conduct that transaction.

While bitcoin changed all this, there were limits to what the currency could do. One, it could only be used by those with a certain level of tech know-how. Two, and more important, it was only feasible for substantial transactions.

The block size, this is important for storing information, is limited to 4MB. However, many new currency options have cropped up in the last half-decade. While this solves the fundamental problem of transactions, interoperability is still an issue. Last week, Arjun Vijay, co-Founder and COO of Giottus Cryptocurrency Exchange, explained that even this is now becoming possible. He said many companies are soon working on interoperability of blockchains. Once, such a process is complete many more use-cases will crop up.

Low-level transactions is undoubtedly one of them. Facebook and other initiatives are banking upon this. Facebook’s initiative Libra is expected to be the medium of exchange online. If it can achieve interoperability with say a digital rupee, imagine what all can the service do. It can drastically reduce the cost of transactions and make sure that companies can monetise on the minutest scale. Reading a piece of news, for instance, or watching videos. Imagine paying to unlock videos of your favourite creator, as you get paid instead for consuming content.

Once a system is in place, such transactions can become more common, but money and transaction is not the only peg. The second most vital issue is intent. Companies should be prepared to part with revenues, and this is where capitalism has its charm. The whole system is built on the idea of bargaining. Companies cannot grow without users, and once users get a whiff of money or become increasingly discontent with companies, they will have to offer something to assuage the consumer, and what can be better than part of their data gains.

As it is, these enterprises would be earning much more owing to 5G and the internet of things. As devices per user and per household increase, it would translate into more data for companies, which means more money. Unless they part with some gains, driving adoption will be difficult.

But this would also mean and to free services and more pay as you use or pay as you go models. As it is, we are moving fast towards such systems. Microsoft products are subscription-based, so are antivirus and VPN services. Adobe is no different. Google only gives 15GB of space. Consumers need to be ready to pay, as well. Ultimately such subscriptions will grow faster than services with collaborative payments.

But as more consumers get ready to shell out money, companies will need to prepare to part with some wealth. No one will mind paying if they get enough in return.

ishaan.gera@expressindia.com

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