India is pushing tech giants to make smartphones compatible with its home-grown navigation system within months, worrying the likes of Samsung, Xiaomi and Apple who fear elevated costs and disruptions as the move requires hardware changes, according to two industry sources and government documents.
In line with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s drive for self-reliance, India has over the years expanded the use of its regional navigation satellite system called NavIC (Navigation with Indian Constellation).
The Indian government wants to reduce dependence on foreign systems, including the widely used US Global Positioning System (GPS), and says NavIC provides more accurate domestic navigation and that its use would benefit the economy.
China, the European Union, Japan and Russia have their own global or regional navigation systems to rival GPS.
Operational since 2018, NavIC’s uptake is minimal; it is mandated in public vehicle location trackers, for example.
But government and industry documents show Modi’s administration and space officials want to broaden its use, and have this year pushed smartphone giants to make hardware changes to support NavIC, in addition to GPS, in new phones they will sell from January 2023. In private meetings in August and September, representatives of Apple, Xiaomi, Samsung Electronics Co and others pushed back, citing worries that making phones NavIC-compliant would mean higher research and production costs. The changes would also require more testing clearances, which with a January 1 deadline would disrupt businesses and planned launches, according to two smartphone industry sources and documents.
Samsung declined comment on the meetings, while Apple and Xiaomi did not respond to requests for comment.
India’s IT ministry and the space agency ISRO that are both involved in the project also did not respond.
Samsung in particular voiced concerns during a September 2 closed-door meeting between top smartphone players and chipmakers with Indian IT ministry and space agency officials, according to the meeting’s minutes.
Samsung’s India executive Binu George warned of cost worries, telling officials that NavIC support requires not just new smartphone chipsets but also many other components. “This would add to cost as it requires hardware design changes and additional investments to support devices specific to India. Further, the companies have already prepared for models to be launched in 2024,” the minutes quoted him as saying.
George did not respond to a request for comment.
The smartphone players have sought time until 2025 to implement the changes, and a final decision is expected in coming days, a senior government official said.
The minutes said the Indian space agency will provide technical support for implementing NavIC in new smartphones, adding another meeting may be called.
India’s space agency has said systems like GPS and Russia’s GLONASS are operated by their countries’ defence agencies, making it possible for civilian service to be interrupted. NavIC, it says, is fully under the control of the Indian government, which one day wants to take it global like GPS.
India would not be the first country to push smartphone makers to add support for a native navigation system.
Russia has sought to mandate inclusion of its own GLONASS system in smartphones sold locally to reduce reliance on GPS, which Washington can switch off for civilian subscribers as it did during military operations in Iraq.
China’s Beidou was completed in June 2020, and, though not mandated, the official Xinhua news agency has reported that in 2021, 94.5% of China-made smartphones had Beidou support.
Xiaomi and Samsung together account for 38% of the smartphone market in India, the world’s second biggest after China.
Apple’s more expensive smartphones have a roughly 3% share in India, data from Hong Kong-based research firm Counterpoint shows.
Other Chinese manufactures making up a further 28% of the market were also present at the September 2 meeting, government minutes show.
China’s Realme, which has a 16% market share, did not attend, and neither did smaller manufacturers.
Apple’s website says it already supports the five global and regional navigation networks including GPS, GLONASS and BeiDou in current iPhones.
The Indian directive could force it to add a new one.
A key concern for players like Samsung and Xiaomi remains the higher cost of so-called dual band chipsets they would need to support both GPS and NavIC, as these companies are leaders in the sub-$200 category in India’s price-sensitive market, the smartphone industry sources said.
NavIC (Navigation with Indian Constellation) and GPS (Global Positioning System) logos are seen in this illustration taken recently. (REUTERS)