Networks in Rural India

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Summer time in India is family vacation time. While we’ve stopped fleeing abroad, we tend to travel farther from home just to experience what India has to offer. This time, for a change, we decided to explore more of our local coastline. The state we live in Maharashtra has a vast coastline known for its ruggedness, beaches and spectacular natural beauty. It’s known as the Konkan and while we’ve lived just a hundred miles from it and have visited on and off; we never found the time to feel its rhythms.

Having grown up with a set of grand-parents in rural coastal Maharashtra, I’m familiar with the grinding poverty and depravation that the Konkan has become known for. Educational and employment opportunities were lacking and most youth migrated to urban centers, my parents amongst them. The Konkan’s lack of any major industry except agriculture is undergoing sea-change helped along with better roads, the Konkan railway and more sea-ports.

Another factor that’s accelerating development is better communication networks – third generation wireless networks that provide unfettered broadband internet access and wire-line broadband DSL access through local exchanges. On one hand, in a concerted policy push by the Government of India, telecom companies are required to provide services in rural areas; failing which they may be subject to various punitive measures. On the other, telecom companies are finding increasing volumes both in terms of subscriber numbers and network usage in rural India and they are quite wisely shifting their attention to this huge and growing market. This combination of policy and profit is providing the rural Indian with unimagined network access.

So what’s changing because of this network access? Of the many things that I noticed during my trip, three stood out:
1. Networks as Social Enabler – The network has enabled communication across varied social strata. Individuals tend to acquire phones first and foremost as communication devices, as is their primary purpose. The always connected and available nature of the mobile/cell phone lends itself to becoming part of the individual’s social identity. People now identify themselves with a name and phone number; the phone’s usage has increased social mobility and is slowly dismantling social barriers.
2. Networks bring Information Parity – before the advent of these communication networks, information was confined to what was delivered through the postal (mail) service and mass media such as the radio, TV and newspapers. Broadband and wireless internet access has changed that. Individuals are now able to choose the media they want; consequently they also choose and cultivate a point of view on various issues of the day. This is leading to well-informed individuals at all levels of society, and its proving to be a great leveler. I like to term this ‘information parity’ – the easy and free availability of validated/authentic information regardless of consumer’s class and social status – is enabling better decision making throughout rural India.

The implication for education is vast – it means students coming into schools today are well connected and consequently better informed and will vote with their feet if given the typical academic treatment. It doesn’t seem like the rural Indian education system is anywhere near ready to deal with this emergent connected class of students. The education system seems archaic in light of the youth’s mobile/cell phone usage and media consumption patterns. We need to urgently start using mobile technologies to deliver learning; not doing so would be a shame.

3. Networks function as Market Enablers – this struck me as the biggest impact communication networks are having in rural India, they are opening up markets that were unreachable and immature just a few years ago. The penetration of mobile phones has launched an entirely new business area in rural India. The market is not just in the sale and service of the phones, but also in allied supporting businesses.

While rural India is only just beginning to latch onto the utility value of the phone, when it does (which it surely will) providers will be able to deploy a whole range of applications to benefit users. Some which come to mind are micro-payment and barter systems, banking, and information services – weather, market prices, specific and customized agriculture/horticulture information (these are already available in some districts in Maharashtra). As with far-reaching technologies, the most exciting applications are the ones yet unimagined.

As a child I remember my grandfather having to sell agricultural produce at throw-away prices because of lack of viable market alternatives. Today this has changed drastically, today’s farmers use the communication networks to find the most appropriate market and price for their produce; they are rapidly learning to derive maximum monetary value for their efforts. To systemize and automate innovative usage of communication networks will prove challenging and game changing.

As a company, our challenge in the long-term will be helping rural India leverage this wave of network technology to impact learning on the ground in India. That sounds altruistic, but it’s an emergent multibillion dollar market we ignore at our peril.

We cannot fail to mention that there will still be a significant portion of the population that lives below the poverty line and those hapless individuals will not have access to information and communication technology. Only time will tell how these communication networks will affect their lives and the lives of their children.

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