Tech giants hope to benefit from widening access in a country where just 26% of the population has access to the internet.
When Manish Kumar first came to the village of Harisal in western Indian July, he didn’t think he could stay there for very long.
“It was monsoon, so it was difficult to reach because the roads were bad. There was no phone signal, and the electricity only comes on for a few hours in the evening. The people there are farmers, so they wake up early. They work all day, and then in the evening they eat dinner before dark. And then they go to sleep. There’s nothing else to do.”
But the typical agricultural setting of Harisal was about to change. Kumar, the network head of a rural internet service provider AirJaldi had come to transform it into India’s first digital village, under a scheme backed by the Indian government and software giant Microsoft.
“We set up a Wi-Fi tower and three smaller hotspots. At first, people were struggling to get online, they didn’t know how to sign on, and we had to teach them. Now, when I visit the village, the kids come to us and teach us how to get the internet working.”
About 2,000 villagers live in Harisal. There are only five or six laptops in the village, but almost every household has a smartphone. For them, the new WiFi connection changed their lives overnight.
“We finally feel connected to the rest of the world,” says Jagdishkumar Someshwar Sirsat, the headmaster of the village school. “It’s made small tasks easier. For example, we had to give attendance records to the state government. Before, someone would have to hand deliver those to the government office in the city. Now, we can just fill out a form online, and its done,” he says.
“And for the children – sometimes the textbooks don’t have enough information, or some things are not up to date. Now that they have internet, they can go online and look up whatever they’re interested in. For the older kids, we’re using online tutorials on YouTube and educational video blogs to teach them new things. They love it.”
Sheetal Thorat, a doctor in Harisal, says internet connections could save lives. “In the village, there are no specialists for the heart or brain. There’s just me and two other field doctors for the whole village, and we’re general practitioners. Now that we have WiFi, we can set up consultations with heart or brain specialists in Mumbai, and then they can send back reports online.”
Microsoft funded the project, and plans to get 50 more villages around Harisal online. Bhaskar Pramanik, chairman of Microsoft India, says its project to get villages online is philanthropic. “We don’t have any commercial interest in these projects. We want telecom and other internet service providers to use the connectivity to provide citizens with useful services,” he says. Microsoft has also previously said it would be good for its own business if more people were online.
Microsoft is not alone in the race to get India online. Google has launched a scheme to provide free public Wi-Fi at 100 railway stations. About 3.5m users have already connected to Google’s station WiFi service, with an estimated 15,000 people coming online for the first time every day thanks to the scheme.
“We want to expand to new venues, like cafes and malls, to help more people get online, and we’re looking for strategic and forwarding-thinking partners to work with on this effort,” says Caeser Sengupta, vice-president of Google’s “Next Billion Users” team.
Last year, Facebook tried to launch Free Basics, which would have allowed people in rural India free access to websites chosen by the company, but the plan was blocked after millions wrote to the telecoms authority saying the scheme would give Facebook too much power. Now, the company has come up with a new scheme, Express WiFi, which will allow those in rural India to buy fast, cheap and reliable mobile data packs.
India’s rapidly developing economy, and increasing smartphone penetration presents a huge opportunity for tech firms, who are looking for new markets to expand their products and services, as growth in western economies slows.
According to the World Bank’s latest figures, 26% of India’s 1.25 billion population has internet access. In 2014–15, 60 million, equivalent to the entire UK population, went online for the first time. About 900 million people in India, mostly in rural areas, are offline.
“India is the only major economy in the world that had a year-on-year growth in internet and smartphone users,” says Vikas Kothari, tech analyst at venture capital firm Lightbox. “Large players like Google, Facebook and Microsoft are looking for their next set of billion users and India looks the most promising.”
Internet access could transform economy
Facebook has not yet released details of how much profit it expects to make from its Express WiFi service, or how much investment will be needed to subsidise rural data access, but the company says that internet access will benefit everybody.
“Internet access means opportunity. It enables progress. It improves knowledge, economies, lives and communities,” says a Facebook spokesperson.
The tech companies may appear benevolent, but Kothari says they will all benefit if India’s internet accessibility increases. “In a [digital] ecosystem when infrastructure improves, the biggest beneficiaries are the large players,” he explains.
Kothari says the tech giants see India as a long-term investment. “The most visited sites or apps in India are Google Search, Play Store, YouTube, WhatsApp and Facebook. Google and Facebook’s business models don’t depend on a fee, but on user data. If more people use their products, the more data they get, thus increasing their ad revenues.”
For India, better internet infrastructure could transform the economy, and the lives of ordinary citizens. “Improved connectivity will further democratise access to education, healthcare and financial services. People in remote areas will get access to skill-development courses, tertiary telemedicine and reports on agriculture and commodity prices, thus improving their lives,” says Kothari.
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