From time immemorial, humans have communicated orally and, more recently, through the written word. In the past few decades, messaging has transformed from being time and space dependent to real time, with distance being no longer a barrier. However, while written communication is dependent on literacy, the oral medium, which includes listening, speaking and watching, is more natural.
There is another aspect to medium and messaging. While the written word divided society between literates and illiterates, oral communication does not so differentiate. All who can see, listen and speak are literate, educated and knowledgeable. Clearly, the earlier mode of communication was limited by bandwidth and time, if we have to compare with the modern means of information exchange where the formats are voice, video, text and medium is email, phone messaging web, television, etc.
Having said that, the current mode of communication is highly bandwidth dependent if we include the oral format that includes voice and video. Ironically, if I can reiterate the observation of Google’s Eric Schmidt, if all the connected people in India start using YouTube, the network will crash. Although only 10-12% of India for now is connected. But connectivity in the country is not limited only by Internet infrastructure. The mobile and cellular infrastructure connects more than 600 million.
The challenge for India is how we enable the country with unlimited bandwidth. Only unlimited or bandwidth above 1 Mbps can enable the general mass to have an equitable opportunity to access and produce information in real time to overcome their barrier of being illiterate.
This is where I want to make a strong case for rural Internet service providers (ISPs). India has a provision of three levels of ISPs who have their services at the national, state and district levels in terms of license, fees and jurisdiction. Ironically, if you have paying capacity and want broadband Internet in a remote area, you either cannot have it or you are at the mercy of non-functional and unaccountable Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd, a state-owned firm.
In the past three years, using unlicensed band and wireless technologies, we have been trying to provide Internet connectivity as a social necessity for more fulfilling empowerment of citizens who are tribals and live in remote areas of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and the north east. We have learnt that everybody in remote areas wants Internet with high bandwidth as it provides them audiovisual content. Villagers, even if illiterate, do not see computers and Internet as something they cannot learn fast. They learn and understand faster using the digital tools than any other medium, they find Internet highly attractive, colourful and entertaining and want to be on Facebook and make friends, they love YouTube and like watching movies on the Internet, and they want seamless connectivity.
The potential customers of Internet in remote areas need a community approach. They cannot be treated as retail consumers who would walk into a store or call a number and ask for Internet connectivity. Besides, most of the remote areas and villages in India do not have a feasibility of the availability of bandwidth intensive Internet connectivity. For example, when we wanted to provide Internet connectivity to the Sahariya and Bheel tribes of various remote clusters of Guna district in Madhya Pradesh, most ISPs did not have the feasibility to provide a leased line. With several changes of location, we finally got the leased line, after which we struggled for six months to put together the wireless network to further distribute the Internet on demand to anybody in a given location. The whole process of knowing the community and letting them know and show Internet demo resulted in reaching almost 50 connections within just two weeks.
The moral of the story is that we need Internet, bandwidth, and we need them wirelessly, including specially trained community players who should take the connectivity beyond blocks, tehsils and panchayats. And you need many community workers, at least 250,000 across the country, so that each panchayat has one digital ambassador whose job is to bring Internet to each household.
Osama Manzar is founder-director of Digital Empowerment Foundation and curator of the mBillionth Awards. He is member of the working group for Internet proliferation and governance, ministry of communication and information technology. Follow him on twitter @osamamanzar.