Thought Leadership

How telecom can empower rural India

Naresh Wadhwa, President & Country Manager, Cisco - India & SAARC

Telecom and network connectivity have widely been seen as enablers of a nationís socio-economic growth; a McKinsey study cites that a 10% increase in teledensity contributes to 0.6% of GDP growth. Though urban India is reaping the benefits of the telecom revolution, rural teledensity is still low, at only 8%.

The scenario for Internet and broadband penetration is much bleaker - a JuxtConsult report pegs India's rural Internet usage at just 5 million. The constantly evolving ICT landscape has not been unable to include the vast rural majority, simply because these areas have no access to the internet. The industry could do more to think differently on how rural India can participate and benefit from the ICT revolution.

The Internet is without a doubt the superhighway on which economies surge ahead, and apart from the apparent benefits to the economy and a modern workforce, there is also immense opportunity for agriculture as well as other traditional industries.

Imagine if rural communities had access to information that could improve their livelihoods. Initiatives such as e-Choupal have successfully been able to leverage the Internet to empower small and marginal farmers. The program provides farmers with know-how, services, timely and relevant weather information, transparent price discovery and access to wider markets - all through a mobile device that feeds off a wider network. This has helped roughly 4 million farmers to better manage risk. India would be well on its way to minimizing the digital divide if similar models were replicated across other sectors in rural areas - cottage industries, fisheries, and others.

The true benefits of technology are in its application, and if an effective deployment of a network that enables academic information to flow to rural areas brought millions of children access to better education, we should be able to improve our scores on literacy and employability. A recent effort towards this has been made by several IT majors who have come together for a District Learning Centre initiative at Chhindwara, Madhya Pradesh, to provide learning opportunities and IT training to the youth of the district.

Access to high-speed internet services could make rural BPOs a viable option, offering attractive employment opportunities to village youth. This in turn would decrease the current migration rates of rural population to urban areas, reduce rural India's dependency on agriculture, and contribute towards inclusive growth.

The government has also been advocating the use of technology to enable efficient delivery of public services. State Govt. endeavours to use technology include forays into wide area networks, setting up systems for processing information and delivering services to enable the citizen-state interface for various services like electronic file handling, public grievance systems, and routine transactions such as payment of bills and tax dues.

But all is not hunky dory - for rural areas to truly benefit, PC penetration will have to increase and affordable PCs or suitable alternatives will have to be made available to the masses. Additionally, if inclusive growth is our goal, India needs to treat the Internet and telecom connectivity as critical infrastructure, just like roads, airports and power.

The winds of change are blowing in that direction - the Indian government has recently announced its 3G policy which will make available 3G, HSPA and WiMAX technologies that are expected to bridge the last mile and drive mobile broadband in rural areas. Moreover, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India's (TRAI) recent Internet telephony decision, permitting ISPs to terminate local, STD and ISD calls from computers to mobiles and landlines or vice versa, is likely to reduce both local and long distance call rates and boost rural connectivity in a relatively price-sensitive market like India. Once differences over policy issues and spectrum allocation are resolved the country could see 3G HSPA and Net telephony rollouts, throwing open a world of possibilities. In addition to all the benefits cited earlier on in this article, other potential applications could include introduction of customised services in regional languages via Live TV, webcasts and streaming audio/video applications, e-healthcare and infotainment, to mention a few. India can then look to adopt models that have been tried and tested in other markets or even export some of our learnings to other markets, and are likely to delay services.

Rural India is expected to account for 40% of the 250 million new wireless users as per a recent study conducted by FICCI and Ernst and Young. If these subscribers had access to broadband and high-speed Internet, every citizen would truly be able to participate in - and benefit from - the global information revolution and contribute to a balanced growth of the nation.

Naresh Wadhwa

Naresh Wadhwa
President & Country Manager
Cisco - India & SAARC

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