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India's hike unveils mobile phones that work without active data

[BANGALORE] WhatsApp rival Hike of India is introducing a version of Android that lets users message, make payments and access information without an active data connection, seeking to offer services to people who aren't yet able to access the internet.

The modified mobile software, called Total, will be available on four devices starting March, Hike said in a statement Wednesday. People will be able to message, access news, purchase bus tickets, get cricket scores, pay bills and recharge data allowances through a single login.

Total uses technology that communicates with networks in a different way than standard wireless networks. Access can be purchased in 1-rupee (2 Singapore cent) increments.

Hike, backed by SoftBank Group Corp and Tencent Holdings Ltd, is betting that it can connect more of India's 1-billion plus citizens to mobile services by offering much cheaper ways of access wireless networks. Almost 736 million Indians don't have mobile network connections, Hike said. The company has more than 100 million users and was valued at US$1.4 billion in its latest fundraising.

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"India has 400 million smartphone users but barely half of them are active internet users, and we want to close the gap for the bottom of pyramid users by helping them come online to a very, very simple internet," Kavin Bharti Mittal, founder and chief executive officer of Hike, said in an interview. "We are doing something radical to make the internet less daunting and complicated for these users."

Mittal is the son of the billionaire Sunil Bharti Mittal, chairman of India's largest telecommunication carrier, Bharti Airtel Ltd.

Hike is teaming up with Indian phonemakers Intex Technologies India Ltd and Karbonn Mobiles to introduce the new smartphone models, which will cost 3,500 to 5,000 rupees. Users can switch on the new device, log in via a phone number and start using services immediately, Hike said.

The devices are based on a technology called USSD protocol that encrypts, compresses and transmits data. Users will be able to buy inexpensive data packs from India's leading telecom service providers including Bharti Airtel and Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd, starting as low as one rupee from within Total, thus introducing data to a whole category of new users.

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