Indian govt working on a Covid-19 contact tracing solution for feature phones: IT Minister

Feature phones cannot use Bluetooth or GPS so it is possible that the solution might be to rely on network-based tracing.

Feature phones do not come wth Bluetooth or GPS support, thus contact tracing apps cannot work on it, nor can they be installed.
Feature phones do not come wth Bluetooth or GPS support, thus contact tracing apps cannot work on it, nor can they be installed. (Medium)

The Indian government has been aggressively pushing the national contact tracing app Aarogya Setu. After making it mandatory for all government employees and making it necessary for all inter-state travel, the government has also pushed to have the app pre-installed in new smartphones that will be sold after the lockdown lifts. And not just this, the government also wants to ensure that new smartphones cannot be set up unless the user has registered on the Aarogya Setu app.

However, the biggest "problem" in this push for Aarogya Setu has been the fact that the Indian government has not factored in a huge part of the population that still uses feature phones and cannot download the app.

The government is now looking for a solution for feature phones.

Union IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad tweeted on April 28:  

But details about the project have been scarce so far. It is not known how exactly contact tracing will be implemented on feature phones, since installing a dedicated app on them is next to impossible.

For feature phones then, this leaves cellular location tracking as the only usable method on ground. However, the efficiency of such a method remains suspect.

Also Read: Aarogya Setu to be installed on smartphones by default soon

According to IDC Research Director Navendar Singh, there are more feature phone users than smartphone users in India right now. Compared to 450 million smartphones in India there are about 550 million using feature phones. That leaves half a billion strong user-base out of Covid-19 tracking and that's disastrous to say the least.

Singh told The Register that "a majority of feature phones are not data enabled, and most have no Bluetooth or GPS capability". And under these circumstances, getting a contact tracing app on basic phones is a challenge.

Contract tracing relies on Bluetooth to share randomised keys between devices when two people are in close proximity. The tech then uses positioning data to identify if an individual has come in contact with an infected person.

Also Read: Aarogya Setu registration to be mandatory to set up new phones, say government sources

For feature phones, the only option that remains is a network-based tracking collaboration with telecom companies. And no research has established cellular network-based contact tracing as a viable solution yet.

Another major hurdle in such an approach is cellular connectivity itself. Network is not uniformly available in all regions, especially in rural areas. Also, while on smartphones, any app developer has only two platforms to deal with iOS or Android. For feature phones, the OS fragmentation is much more complex and platform compatibility will be hard to crack. Then comes linguistic diversity that will have to be dealt with to ensure that everyone can learn to use the app and use the app.