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View from India: Google Assistant reaches out beyond the internet

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Google is expanding its user base by making Assistant, its voice-centric service, also available to people without internet access.

Google has increased its virtual service base through Assistant, making it available to millions of feature-phone users. This was announced during the fifth annual Google for India event.

Telco carrier Vodafone-Idea has partnered with Google to offer Google Assistant as a toll-free dial-in service, available for those that have a Vodafone-Idea phone. The phone part of the service is handled by Vodafone-Idea while Assistant comes into play when the call arrives.

The voice call doesn’t require a smartphone or Internet connectivity and can happen 24/7, free of charge. Callers in India can now dial a toll-free number (000-800-9191-000) to interact with Google Assistant through voice in either English or Hindi.

Through the voice-centric service, consumers can search a location, get real-time information about the weather, sports and traffic updates or ask for a song. Since the service operates without using Google ID, features such as creating a calendar event are not available.

Assistant has already been piloted in areas such as Lucknow and Kanpur. This sizeable community of users has already come forward with questions related to weather forecasts and sports news. The wider roll-out announced follows the success of this pilot scheme. 

While the service can initially be accessed through Vodafone-Idea, it remains to be seen if Google will extend the service to other telecom networks. 

What is interesting is that Google is unveiling this service at a time when India is preparing for 5G smartphones. However, more than half of the 1.3 billion citizens in India remain unconnected, despite the 500 million users with access to internet and around 450 million who use a smartphone.

Google Assistant has leveraged artificial intelligence (AI), with voice-recognition and voice-computing capabilities. In practical terms, it’s quicker and simpler to command with the voice than it is to text with the fingers.

Deployed since 2017, Google already had a large smartphone consumer base for its virtual Assistant in India. Now the company is looking to expand the Assistant ecosystem by targetting users who only have a basic phone. Remote places where picking up a reliable mobile network signal is a challenge can potentially use the Assistant service through their landline.

In the coming months, Assistant is likely to have an interpreter mode through which both speakers conversing in different languages will talk in real time. 

Google also announced the launch of an AI research lab in Bangalore. The vision is to develop products for the Indian market, as well as for international regions. Researchers across the country will be approached and together Google plans to create solutions for issues related to healthcare and agriculture. Education-related concerns, too, will be included. 

India is already a big market for Apple's Siri, Samsung's Bixby and Google Assistant. In its latest avatar, Assistant has opened the digital narrative in unexplored locations. What is noteworthy is that those without Internet access can be empowered digitally. The digital journey is one of inclusion.

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