MUMBAI—Google may have assembled digital maps of the earth, but there are still swaths of the world’s population that do not have access to that data and other Internet-related services. The Indian government is embarking on a huge infrastructure project that promises change that.
To provide universal connectivity in the country, India has drawn an ambitious plan to connect all 1.21 billion people with uninterrupted broadband wired and wireless Internet connections. The National Optical Fibre Network (NOFN) plan is designed to provide broadband coverage to about 250,000 panchayats, or municipal governments each with smaller villages, at a speed of 512 kilobits per second (kbps).
Funded through telephone bill surcharges, the four-year, $4 billion scheme to provide broadband connectivity to millions of citizens in rural areas has the potential to transform lives. It also has the potential to create millions of consumers of data services and electronic commerce channels. And as broadband penetration grows, it will create huge new sources of data about the need for goods and services to these citizens.
Ravi Shanker, CEO of the Bharat Broadband Project a program to connect 200,000 villages of the total, said private players can supply affordable devices, local content to make the project more practical and acceptable to rural people. Introducing remote services—such as telemedicine, distance learning programs and e-commerce applications—represent another benefit. And the connections would also give a boost to government efforts to make more services accessible online, such as tax payments, land registration records and market prices for agricultural goods.
Shanker said, “The role of the telecom and ISP sector is key to service delivery. There are major opportunities for the future which remain currently untapped.”
Demand for Content in Many Languages
With this opportunity come important challenges for government and business offering information and services to millions of people. For one thing, rural citizens will need to gain literacy using information and communications technology, Shankar said. That will require a lot of customer support. Expanding rural Internet usage also will require moving content from Anglo-centric, text-based availability to multi-lingual access. About 40 percent of Indians speak Hindi as their primary language, but there are many other languages spoken, including Bengali, Telugu, Marathi, Tamil and Urdu. English is a subsidiary official language.
“The immediate next challenge for entrepreneurs would be to build a sustainable business model that can deliver continued technological support and financial returns — preferably through killer applications that suit the Indian rural palette,” Shankar said.
Language access is an important challenge facing India, a country that has long been a source of top IT talent, and is renowned for its top-flight technical universities, but one that lags behind other developing nations when it comes to broadband access and Internet usage.
India fares the lowest in terms of Internet and PC penetration in comparison to other BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and Indonesia), noted a recent report by Huawei India, a China-based IT provider, in association with Ernst & Young. The report said that Indian Internet users on average spend only 30 minutes online each day, lowest among the BRIC countries because access is not affordable and accessible.
“Lack of rural penetration is directly proportional to the lack of awareness, access to affordable technologies and relevant content offered to the subscribers. Most content available today is in English and might not be relevant to the population residing in rural areas where regional content is important,” said A. Sethuraman, executive director of Huawei India, said of the report.
All of this suggests that, with quality Internet access and information and data services delivered in multiple languages, rural India could emerge as a new target market.
India’s Internet user base is expected to reach 150 million by the end of 2012, driven mainly by the country’s youths and increased mobile broadband access, according to a report by the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) and Indian Market Research Bureau (IMRB) released in September 2012. That includes 45 million users in rural areas.
The government is expected to roll out the first pilot project in the next few weeks at 61 panchayats, including a number of villages in the states of Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh and Tripura.
Jagdish Kumar is a freelance writer based in Mumbai, India.