India to build contact-tracing app for feature phones that still use 2G, don't have Bluetooth and can't run apps

There's hundreds of millions in India alone


The Indian government has signaled it will develop a COVID-19 contact-tracing that will work on the feature phones that comprise over half of the national mobile phone fleet.

India has already created a contact-tracing app for iOS and Android called "Aarogya Setu" that has scored 75m downloads. Aarogya Setu relies on Bluetooth to detect device that come into close proximity and India's government has promoted using Aarogya Setu as just-about a patriotic duty and a critical part of its COVID-19 response.

But according to Navkendar Singh, a research director at IDC India, the nation has around 450m smartphone users compared to 550m feature phone users.

"The majority of feature phones are not data enabled, and most have no Bluetooth or GPS capability,” Singh said.

“Given the constraints of feature phone operating systems, getting the contact tracing app installed on basic phones is a big challenge."

Implementing the system on feature phones will be "extremely problematic", according to Ben Wood, chief of research at CCS Insight. "Markets where there are higher proportions of feature phones pose a real challenge when trying to implement COVID-19 tracing apps. Feature phones typically don't have GPS support, and even if they do, it is typically impossible to add new apps," he said.

"This means the only option is to do location tracking at a network level and on 2G and 3G, but the granularity of the location is not usually particularly accurate."

Some Indian states have already attempted network-level tracing. The efficacy of those efforts is not known.

But Indian IT minister Ravi Shankar Prasad reckons it's doable.

India's efforts will be watched closely because Bluetooth is not baked into around a quarter of the world's mobile phones - about 1.5 billion in total, according to Counterpoint Research - and nations where feature phones are prevalent are likely to have modest health systems that could benefit from contact-tracing. However Aarogya Setu is not open source, unlike other contact-tracing efforts, and there is no indication its feature phone cousin will be shared. ®

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