India bypasses the wires to bring Wi-Fi to its remote residents
Wireless technology will help bring the Internet to 600,000 villages in 2 years.
PALAKKODE, INDIA — Three years ago, paying the electric bill in the south Indian village of Palakkode was a day-long task. With unreliable postal service, bills are paid in person. That means a trip of several miles, perhaps on foot, and a wait in line.
Today, the citizens of Palakkode go to Muhammed Harroon. Mr. Harroon does not work for the electric company - he runs the village's Akshaya center, a room with five computers hooked wirelessly to the Internet, where local citizens can surf the Web, take computer-literacy courses, and pay their bills electronically.
Relying on a signal transmitted from a tower in the center of the district, Palakkode is at the forefront of efforts to use wireless technology to cover the last mile - or in many cases, the last several miles - separating rural villages from landline networks.
The technology is making universal Internet access an attainable goal in several developing countries, including India. The country aims to spread "village knowledge centers" like the one in Palakkode to the country's 600,000 villages within two years.
"For most of the rural parts of the world, they are never going to run a wire - at least not one that's going to handle a significant bandwidth," says Allen Hammond, the director of the World Resources Institute's Digital Dividends program. "That's true in the rural US ... as it's true in rural India, rural Africa, and rural Eastern Europe."
The technology being used is, for the most part, little different from the Wi-Fi networks that have become popular in US cafes, universities, and homes. The biggest difference is their range - many rely on radio towers and antennas to extend signals as far as 20 miles at a time - and the conditions under which they are deployed, which often include unreliable power supplies or inhospitable terrain. But with the cost of equipment falling quickly, wireless Internet, like mobile phones, is increasingly earning attention as a promising solution to close the technology gap between urban and rural areas in the developing world by removing the need for expensive investments in new cables.
"Every day, you open the newspaper, and you see something about [information technology]," says Basheerhamad Shadrach, the executive director of Mission 2007, the consortium of business, NGO, and government leaders behind the village hook-up drive. "Rural India should be participating in an information society in order to benefit itself."
Mr. Shadrach and the other leaders of Mission 2007 hope those benefits will range from e-governance - teleconferencing with government officials to submit grievances, for example - to marketing tools that allow farmers to receive better prices for their crops. A group headed by Ashok Jhunjhunwala, a professor at the Indian Institute of Technology-Madras, is experimenting with products like a rural ATM and a low-cost medical-diagnostics kit that allows a doctor to receive data remotely from a stethoscope or an electrocardiograph.
In the case of n-Logue, a for-profit kiosk operator spun off from Dr. Jhunjhunwala's group, setting up a connection requires an investment of about $1,200 per kiosk - which includes not only the computer and its software, but a digital camera, a printer, a back-up source of power, and a connection to a wireless network. So far, most n-Logue kiosks operate at a speed equivalent to a dial-up connections in the US. But Midas Communications is now selling equipment designed for rural areas that can link kiosks to broadband wireless at speeds more than four times faster than dial-up.
Yet while n-Logue and several other efforts have shown that connecting rural villages to the Internet can be affordable and even profitable, Mission 2007's task is to demonstrate whether India can go from an estimated 10,000 rural Internet centers to a few hundred thousand in two years. Even Shadrach acknowledges that not all 600,000 villages will be wired by the targeted date of August 2007 - although he maintains that setting up centers in the 237,000 villages large enough to have an official village council, is realistic.
The biggest challenge may not be technological, but linguistic, and developing services that give rural communities reasons to use the Internet. In Malappuram, for example, a study by professors at the University of California, Berkeley, found that just 5 percent of the traffic from the Akshaya centers related to e-governance or education. Some experts on rural technology, like Anil Gupta, a professor at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, question whether the Internet should be a priority, if people don't speak English.
"We find that the Internet is not the technology [through] which we will reach villages in the country in the next five years," Dr. Gupta says. "Look up Google and find the content we have in local languages.... Unless that happens, how can we justify what we are doing?"