India tackles the digital divide

India is emerging as a laboratory for testing out new technologies and business models for narrowing the digital divide between urban and rural people in a developing economy.

Inadequate Internet and telephone connectivity to India’s rural areas, where more than 70 per cent of India’s population lives, is a key challenge for a number of government agencies, NGOs (non-government organizations), and multilateral aid agencies. The corporate sector too is discovering that bridging this digital divide could translate into new market opportunities.

For example, HP Labs India, which was set up in Bangalore earlier this year by Palo Alto, Calif., Hewlett-Packard Co., is developing products appropriate for India’s rural markets. “Our technological focus has been on three areas – making information technology available to those who use Indian languages, improving the connectivity options for those outside the big cities who do not currently have satisfactory access to the Internet, and affordable devices,” said Srinivasan Ramani, director of HP Labs India.

“For instance, we are working to create Indian language support for an experimental PC that can be used by four users simultaneously,” Ramani said.

HP Labs India is also examining ways in which digital photography can add a second revenue stream to village kiosks that provide access to computer facilities and the Internet, and is also experimenting with techniques developed by its parent lab in Palo Alto to provide low-bandwidth multimedia communication. “Teachers and students can create their own stories and presentations using such a system,” Ramani said.

Private sector involvement in projects to build the digital divide in India is likely to increase, according to Ved Prakash Sharma, head of information technology (IT), and computers and communications specialist in the National Agricultural Technology Project of the National Institute of Agricultural Extension Management in Hyderabad. “Each one of the facilitators has seen a business opportunity in these initiatives, and rightly so,” added Sharma. “The growth of the Indian rural economy will provide a large number of customers for technology companies.”

Public sector projects are also looking at creative ways of building up the communications infrastructure. Media Lab Asia (MLA), based in Mumbai, is setting up a wireless, 802.11 standard-compliant network to take Internet and voice connectivity to India’s rural masses. Set up by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)’s Media Laboratory in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in tandem with the Indian government, MLA is focused on developing and deploying technology solutions appropriate to bridging the digital divide in developing economies.

The project to evaluate 802.11 for rural connectivity is anchored by MLA’s research hub at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) in Kanpur. Starting with four villages near Kanpur, the project plans to create an “information corridor” between Kanpur and Lucknow cities in North India, covering about 25 villages along the route. MLA plans to deploy 802.11, which has so far not been used in rural connectivity in India, because of its lower cost, according to Dheeraj Sanghi, MLA scientist at the IIT Kanpur research hub.

While it is premature to evaluate the impact of the recent MLA and HP initiatives, earlier projects for providing solutions for bridging the digital divide report considerable success. The Telecommunications and Computer Networks (TeNeT) Group in the Chennai-based Indian Institute of Technology, Madras, has used its in-house developed corDECT Wireless Local Loop (WLL) technology to provide Internet and voice connectivity to 250 community kiosks that offer these services to over 700,000 people in rural India, according to Ashok Jhunjhunwala, professor of the electrical engineering department at IIT Madras, and head of TeNeT. The WLL is based on the micro-cellular, DECT (Digital Enhanced Cordless Telecommunications) standard proposed by ETSI (European Telecommunications Standards Institute).

“The people in rural India are overwhelmed by this kind of service,” Jhunjhunwala said. “There are certain things which they can get done online like getting government application forms, market information, etc., without actually physically going to the government departments.”

Support for Indian languages and the availability of applications appropriate to the rural masses may decide whether information technology will be viewed by the villagers as an urban intrusion or as tool relevant to their needs. “Only about 5 percent of those who buy newspapers seem to buy English language newspapers,” said Ramani.

HP and other companies and agencies working on bridging the rural divide are hence focusing on developing technologies that will enable India’s masses to interact with computers and the Internet using their native language, usually the spoken language because of the low levels of literacy in India.

HP Labs India, for example, has developed a prototype for a system that allows users to phone in and query a server, using voice commands, for news from its database. The relevant news is then played back to the user. The system, which uses technologies such as automatic speech recognition, VoiceXML (Voice Extensible Markup Language) to specify the dialogues, a text-to-speech engine for playback of typed in content, and multimedia, has been configured to support spoken Hindi and Telugu, two key languages in India.

Inadequate funding could derail some of the projects that aim to narrow the digital divide, however. PicoPeta Simputers Pvt. Ltd in Bangalore was set up by four designers of the Simputer — essentially a handheld Internet access device — who took “entrepreneurial leave” from their jobs as professors at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore to make the Simputer technology commercially viable. Although the Simputer prototype was ready in April last year, to date only 150 Simputers have reached the target users. At these volumes, the contract manufacturer, Bangalore-based Bharat Electronics Ltd. cannot deliver the products at the about $200 price point that the designers had targeted. The current price is closer to $300.

Although a large number of agencies including the Indian government showed interest in the Simputer both as a design achievement, and for its potential role in bridging the digital divide, there has been a delay in getting funds, according to Vijay Chandru, co-founder and director of PicoPeta Simputers. “We have a fair idea of the applications that will work and the business model, but to fine tune these on the field we have to seed at least 10,000 of these devices into users’ hands, and for that you need deep pockets,” Chandru added.

Things are looking up for PicoPeta, however, as it has managed to get a $100,000 grant from Nice-based South Asia Foundation for the deployment of Simputers in a village education pilot program. PicoPeta is also working with a NGO on a micro-banking pilot project, and Chinese and Malaysian companies have shown interest in the technology. The Simputer Trust is meanwhile adding new functionality to the product this year, including a CompactFlash expansion slot for wireless options such as GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) and 802.11 based connectivity. The target of 100,000 Simputers in the field by the end of next year may still be achieved, according to Chandru.

The focus of most of the projects that aim to bridge the digital divide in India is on building sustainable business models for village entrepreneurs. Although subsidies and grants are expected to give the pilot projects the necessary seed funding, the long-term objective is to evolve self-sustaining business models for rural access to information technology. “Subsidies and grants are not parts of our model at all,” said Ramani. “We will pay our part of the costs of pilot efforts, but even here, the focus on sustainability will ensure that we will not try to prop up that which cannot stand on its own legs.”

Surprisingly India’s government bureaucracy, usually maligned for dragging its feet on development issues, is seen as supportive of the digital divide projects. “The bureaucracy is very supportive on these initiatives,” said Sharma. “In fact the most successful projects are those which have direct support from bureaucracy. Today’s bureaucrats are more development oriented than one would normally imagine.”

There is clearly a great deal of seriousness on all fronts in India about taking information technology and communications to rural India, and the villagers are also receptive. “Our visits to villages have shown that there are enthusiastic and innovative users (of information technology) in areas outside the big cities,” Ramani said. It usually takes about six months for villagers to start viewing technology as a tool, according to Sharma. “In the first few months, they view it more as an object of curiosity or as a machine for the educated and urban people,” Sharma added.