The Government of India is exploring the possibility of using a common char­ger for a variety of portable electronic devices. The Department of Consu­mer Affairs called a meeting with industry stakeholders, particularly mobile makers and sector-specific organisations, on Au­gust 17, 2022, to explore how such a standard can be achieved across devices such as mobile handsets, laptops, tablets, smart sp­ea­kers and wearables, and assess the possibility of ending the use of multiple kinds of chargers. The move, which is in line with global trends, has sparked a debate in the Indian telecom space. While proponents believe that the move will significan­tly curb electronic waste (e-waste), opponents see it as a threat to India’s export potential, among other things.

A look at the key points in the evolving debate around common chargers in India…

Global developments

European Union (EU) countries and lawmakers reached an agreement in June 2022 to adopt a USB Type-C port common ch­ar­­ging standard for small electronic de­vi­ces, including mobile phones, tablets and cameras. The agreement, a world first, ca­me after over a decade-long push by the European Commission for a single mobile charging port. As per the new mandate, all phones and tablets, regardless of brand, la­unching after the autumn of 2024 will need to come with USB Type-C ports. Mean­while, laptop makers have been granted 40 months to comply after the new rules come into effect. Additionally, companies in the EU will be required to sell devices without chargers to reduce the number of chargers in circulation.

According to an impact assessment stu­dy on common chargers by the Euro­pean Commission, unused and discarded ch­argers produce nearly 11,000-13,000 to­nnes of waste annually in Europe alone. The Parliament believes that the mandate would lead to environmental benefits th­rou­­gh greater reuse of chargers. More­ov­er, the study reveals that 84 per cent of the consumers surveyed have experienced pro­blems related to their phone chargers bet­ween 2017 and 2019. With the move, consumers in the EU are expected to save up to a massive Euro 250 million a year on unnecessary charger purchases.

The US is also pushing for a common char­ging standard. A group of US lawma­kers have called on the Consumer Depart­ment to develop a comprehensive strategy mandating the use of a single charger for multiple devices by 2024.

Proponents’ views

E-waste curtailment

The most important argument made in favour of a common charging port is that its adoption would significantly curb e-waste. According to the United Nations Global E-waste Monitor 2020, a record 53.6 million metric tonnes (mmt) of e-wa­ste was generated worldwide in 2019. The UN added that the total global volume could double by 2035. Meanwhile, India ge­nerated 3.23 mmt of e-waste in 2019 alo­ne. Of this, a mere 30 kt was formally colle­cted. More­ov­er, data gathered by the Cen­tre for Science and Environment reveals that 2.4 kg of e-waste per capita was generated in the country that year. Proponents be­lieve that standardising charging ports might seem like a small step, but can deliver sustainability in the long run.

It is worth noting that this move by the go­vernment follows the concept of “Life­style for the Environment” (LiFE) be­ing an­nounced by the prime minister at the UN Climate Change Conference in Nov­ember 2021. Additionally, the government has approved India’s updated Natio­nally De­­termined Contribution, which states th­at the country is committed to re­du­cing the emission intensity of its gross domestic pro­duct by 45 per cent by 2030, in order to fi­ght climate change and reduce e-waste.

Consumer welfare

At present, the global consumer electronics industry supports a range of proprietary charging ports. These ports are usually fou­nd in devices such as laptops and cameras. Due to the sheer variety of charging ports and resultant compatibility issues, consumers are often forced to procure a separate charger each time they buy a new de­vice. The government believes that a com­m­on charger would lessen the burden on consumers. According to a consumer su­r­vey by LocalCircles, seven in 10 consu­mers in India believe that different mobile devices have different charging ports as this allows manufacturers to maximise the sale of accessories amid a lack of government standards. Nine in 10 consumers want the government to standardise charging ports, citing that the move will reduce inconvenience and make charging cables from original equipment manufacturer brands more affordable. Further, a whopping 78 per cent of respondents want all smartphones and tablets to have the same USB charging port, while only 6 per cent are fine with the current system.

Opponents’ arguments

Threat to export potential

Most stakeholders argue that there is a need to evaluate the impact of a policy for common chargers, as India is a manufacturer and exporter of chargers to several countries. According to the India Cellular and Electronics Association (ICEA), In­dia’s mobile charger manufacturing industry aspires to obtain a 50 per cent share in the global market by 2027, but limiting chargers to only one type of charging port would adversely hamper the export potential of the country. The industry body says that mobile phone players have already reduced the types of charging ports to just two – micro USB and USB Type-C. How­ever, laptops still sport nine to 10 different types of charging ports. This number nee­ds to be reduced, in sync with global standards, to around two. Further, the ICEA notes that so far such a move has been initiated only in Europe, which has a market size of 300 million-350 million units for chargers, as compared to a cumulative 2 billion units in India for smartphone/other phone chargers.

Impact on smartphone market

According to industry experts, Apple will be the biggest player to be impacted by a de­cision to enforce common chargers, es­pe­cially in the smartphone segment, as its existing iPhones and other products are equipped with its proprietary lightning port for charging. The company claimed that a universal charger would stifle innovation by limiting the potential for technological advances, and would negate e-waste reduction by forcing its users to re­place lightning cables. According to a re­port by Copenhagen Economics, commissioned by Apple, consumer harm from a regulation-mandated move to a common charger would cost at least Euro 1.5 billion, outweighing the Euro 13 million in associated environmental benefits. Mean­while, Samsung, Xiaomi, Oppo, Vivo and Realme – the top five brands in the Indian smartphone market – have switched to phones with USB Type-C charging ports.

Impact on feature phone market

Feature phones still use micro-USB cha­rging ports, and shifting to USB Type-C would impose a cost pressure on their ma­nufacturers. Critics argue that if at all a policy for common chargers comes into ef­fect, it should not be forced on consu­me­rs in India as a large market segment still uses low-cost feature phones. According to a report by Counterpoint Research, 320 million users are still using feature phones in India. Shifting to a common charger could make these phones more expensive for the­se users. While the increase in price may not be very significant, the wafer-thin margins in the segment call for consideration.

Implementation challenges

According to some industry executives, such a policy would be difficult to implement since the charging requirements vary from one device to another. While sm­­art­phones require between 15 W to 100 W of charging, laptops run on 60 W and even 120 W chargers. A common stan­­­dard wo­uld defeat the purpose of having different charging speeds at a time when laptops and smartphones are moving towards achieving faster charging sp­ee­ds. Further, even for the shape of the USB Type-C charging pin, there are multiple fragmentations and standards. Thus, a common charging standard would not necessarily mean that the same cable would deliver the same charging speed across all mobile devices.

The way forward

The government has clearly expressed its intention to implement a common charging standard across mobile devices. It has stated that India can initially explore shifting to two types of chargers, including USB Type-C. Although sector-specific as­so­ciations and manufacturers have agreed with the concerns regarding e-waste, they have sought a closer examination of the feasibility of such a policy. Industry bodies have also called for thorough market and consumer research.

In order to understand the perspectives of various stakeholders, including the in­dustry, users and manufacturers, as well as the impact on the environment, the go­v­er­nment has decided to set up three ex­pe­rt groups to separately examine the issues pre­sented by different stakeholders and explore the adoption of common chargers. The groups will study charging ports acro­ss three broad segments, namely, smartph­ones and feature phones, laptops and tab­lets, and wearables and smartwatches. Th­ey are expected to submit a detailed report by October 2022.