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Tracking down India's $4 smartphone

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In a country hungry for smartphones, can something this inexpensive be a reality?

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Adwait Patil

Last month, an India-based mobile manufacturing company named Ringing Bells announced a series of ultra-low budget, domestically-produced mobile handsets. These new phones included India’s cheapest 4G smartphone at ₹2999 ($44.60) and a 3G model dubbed Freedom 251 priced at a jaw-droppingly low ₹251 ($3.80).

The phone’s February 18th launch made headlines across the world and featured high-profile guests. According to one report, the company claimed 30,000 pre-orders on the first day of sales, forcing them to suspend orders.

The market for budget smartphones in India is massive: though the per capita income is just under $1,600, this year India is projected to overtake the United States in smartphone purchases. Currently, the market is dominated by a few major players: Samsung, Micromax, and Intex. Using manufacturing facilities in China, companies like Micromax and Intex produce hardware replicas of iPhones, Samsung Galaxys, and HTC Ones, trying their best to provide specifications that keep up with the current global standards. These efforts include Micromax’s $34 3G enabled phone and Intex’s HTC-inspired model for just $50.

What could it be like to use a $4 smartphone?

But until now, no one had tried to market a phone for less than $4. What’s it like to use a $4 smartphone? I decided to investigate. From the start, something about the Freedom 251 didn’t seem right: though the expected delivery date is set at June 2016, it was almost impossible to obtain a review unit after the big reveal. I reached out to Ringing Bells’ media relations team to get one and was repeatedly stonewalled.

Then, reports surfaced indicating that the review units that were made available weren’t actually Freedom 251s. They were Adcom Ikon 4s, a $61 handset developed by a Delhi based company, and manufactured in Chinese, and Taiwanese units, and currently available in the market.

Amidst the confusion, reports of fraud surfaced. India’s Income Tax Department paid the company’s head office —which was shut down earlier this month— a visit. Since their initial announcement, the Ringing Bells’ website has listed all of its phones, including the Freedom 251 as unavailable for immediate sale, and their social media channels are flooded with unhappy customer comments. All their phones have reached pre-order limits according the communication on their website. Customer support is unavailable, and after failing to get in touch with company representatives over phone and email, it is difficult to understand whether Ringing Bells is still a functioning company. The enforcement directorate has ordered an investigation into Ringing Bells possible breach of the Foreign Exchange Management Act.

The demo units weren't made by Ringing Bells at all, but another company entirely

Ringing Bells has admitted to purchasing demo handsets from Adcom and dressing them up as Freedom 251s to give the press an idea of what their eventual product would look like. But there’s no way Ringing Bells could build a phone comparable to the Ikon 4: a breakdown of the phone’s parts reveals it would cost roughly ₹2500 ($37.33) to build. Adcom, along with everyone else, was dumbfounded by Ringing Bells’ logic; the company has threatened to seek damages against Ringing Bells for dragging its company, and brand name, into this mess.

Freedom 251 phone Adwait Patil

Eventually I did get my hands on one of the Adcom Ikon 4s, shabbily repackaged as the Freedom 251. While booting up, it pops up a rather optimistic screen that has the Hindi line ‘your dreams will come true,’ written in English. The inside panel and battery were taped over with Freedom 251 branding, and the Indian flag was printed across the back panel. In the week I used it, the phone held up pretty well, maintaining a solid 3G connection and functioning about as well as I could expect a $60 smartphone to. The hardware and software are clearly iPhone inspired, though this is most certainly an Android device. The single button design and low resolution icons aside, the basic functions of the phone (scrolling through browsers and apps, mobile gameplay, and calling) worked well considering a combination of its 1.3GHz quad core processor, 1GB RAM, and 8GB internal memory. Oddly, the Ikon 4s uses a standard size SIM, unlike the more common micro- or nano-SIMs most modern smartphones use. It’s two distinct deficits were the almost useless 3.2-megapixel camera, and the headphone jack that offered audio so poor it’d make you dislike even your favorite musician. Its touch response when texting, and split-second delays in between switching and closing apps further justified its low retail price. But let’s be clear: this was an Ikon 4, not a Freedom 251.

Recently, Ringing Bells has started refunding customers who’ve pre-ordered the phone amid backlash. But the whole debacle raises two important questions: can current technologies really meet India’s hunger for dirt-cheap technology; and why do regulatory bodies not have measures to curb such fraudulent companies?

The Freedom 251 is just another link in a string of broken tech promises

The Freedom 251 isn’t the country’s first budget tech disaster. India’s recently launched a government plan to provide schools with Indian-built Android tablets that would be the cheapest in the world. But the country failed to deliver devices on payment, and consumers filed court complaints. Later it was discovered that the tablets that were delivered were held together using electrical tape.

It is projected that the number of internet mobile users in India will cross the 300 million mark by 2017. As this number increases daily, the Telecom Authority’s (TRAI) benchmark for broadband Internet is set at 512kbps. This compared to the Federal Communications Commission standard, seems outdated, and a clear indication on the disparity between India’s and global Internet standards.

The Freedom 251, in principle, isn't actually a bad idea. An affordable entry level smartphone could work either as your entry into this segment, or a two-day replacement in between smashing your old iPhone screen and ordering the new Nexus handset. And Ringing Bells isn’t alone in its endeavors: even Google has launched programs (with various levels of success) geared toward providing first-time smartphone adopters with quality hardware and software experiences at remarkably low prices.

Over the last decade, smartphone prices in India have tumbled from a few hundred dollars to as low as $40. In India, you can buy a fully functional smartphone for as low as $34, and that’s a good thing. But for now, a $4 phone is just smoke and mirrors.

Update, 4:00PM, March 18th: An earlier version of this article claimed that India's Defense Minister attended the Ringing Bells launch event. The Minister was scheduled to be there, but ended up not attending. The article has been updated with the correct information.