Coronavirus pandemic is spreading like a wildfire around the globe and the numbers of positive patients in India is on a steep rise. The government of India is taking all the necessary steps to curb the spread of the virus whether be it announcing a nationwide lockdown or be it launching a dedicated application for contact tracing.
The Aarogya Setu app from the government is one prime example of how smartphones can prove to be an essential part of tracing Coronavirus patience. However, what about the feature phone users? In a nation where a large chunk of the population still uses feature phones, they don’t have the luxury to use contact tracing features. But, this could change soon.
Union IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad in a recent tweet revealed that the government is looking to find a solution for feature phones. Prasad in the tweet said that just like Aarogya Setu application, “a similar solution for feature phones is being developed and will be launched very soon.” However, the question here arises here is that can it be possible to launch a contact tracing feature for feature phones? Can India bring COVID-19 contact tracing solutions to millions of people who uses feature phones?
What is contact tracing and how is it done?
Before we move towards the main topic, let us first understand what contact tracing is and how it works. Contact tracing is a technique used by public health workers to identify people who are infected with the disease and uncover who else they might have exposed. This helps in isolating those at risk and stop the disease from spreading further. But how is it used via smartphone?
Take the example of Aarogya Setu application. The app uses Bluetooth and GPS to track whether a person is near an infected person or not. The app uses the data to know the user’s location and the area around him/her. It then tallies that with the database to tell you if the location is under the infected areas of the database.
Why there is a dire need to COVID-19 contact tracing solution for feature phones?
“There is more number of feature phone users in India as compared to smartphones. There are about 45 to 48 crore smartphone users in India and there are more than 52 to 55 crore feature phone users in the country,” said, Navkendar Singh, Research Director, IDC India told The Mobile Indian.
Singh believes that the contact tracing apps like Aarogya Setu caters to the one-third of the market. “What about the feature phone users which accounts for almost 40 to 46 per cent of market share?” he added. This is one of the main reasons why building a contact tracing solution of feature phones is important for India. The country where the majority of the people still uses feature phones, the whole contact tracing app concept does fit well. Leaving such a large chunk of people out of the COVID-19 tracing efforts will only worsen the situation.
Is it practically possible to build COVID-19 tracking tool for feature phone?
As we said, the contact tracing application primarily requires Bluetooth and GPS connectivity in order to trace people in real-time. But in case of feature phones, these two things are largely absent. “There is a user base of about 300 million people that uses basic feature phone that cost around Rs 800 and it does not support features like data, Bluetooth and GPS,” Navkendar said.
This is where the whole problem arises as feature phones and apps cannot be used in the same sentence. Unlike JioPhone, which is based on KaiOS and support App Store, the majority of the feature phones does not have an option to install new applications. So, introducing a new app for the feature phone is completely ruled out. The only possible way to trace is by using the network-level tracing or BTS tracking system.
Indian telcos could play a major role!
The Indian government could use the help of telecom operators to triangulate the position of the infected person using BTS tracking. The telcos have been using the BTS tracking system to nab the criminals by locating their positions using Base Transceiver Station (BTS).
The telcos can easily trace the location of a person and the Indian government can match it with the database to know whether there have been any reports of Coronavirus cases in their locality. “This can be done retrospectively, but there will be a delay and the data will not be as quickly delivered as quickly as a normal contact tracing app will deliver using Bluetooth and GPS. You can also trace of people, but you cannot raise an alert immediately,” Singh said.
The contact tracing can be also done by the telcos via SMS. The telcos with the help of the government can make a feature through which they can allow people to enrol for the updates and send SMS alerts if something wrong is happening in their area or if someone is found positive of Coronavirus. Additionally, the telecom operators can start IVRS (Interactive Voice Response System) with ease options so that users can simply call and get to know about the situation near their locality.
However, the challenge here is about network connectivity. In most rural areas, network accessibility is not that great. Most of the people in rural areas still struggle for decent networks. So, using triangulation technology or tracing it through networks will be a momentous task for both the telcos and the government. So, it will be interesting to see who the claims made by the Union Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad will be fruitful or not.