A news item in the Times of India (November 30, 2013) titled “Govt clears internet wi-fi plan for rural India” states that a proposal to provde wi-fi hotspots and internet connections to India’s Gram Panchayats
has recently been approved. Slated to cost Rs 37.5 billion and targeted to be completed by 2016, the project will be funded by Indian USOF
and will ride on NOFN
This may be an excellent idea with two caveats.
One is that past experience has shown that telecom services in Panchayats
tend to be used only by the rural elite and are unavailable to the common people. During USOF inspections I have seen private public calling offices doing roaring business whereas the USO funded village public telephone located in the village panchayat
(local self government office) bang opposite, on the other side of the village mud track was being exclusively used by the local elite. Villagers were in fact unaware of this state funded facility. Thus, given the social and economic set up of Indian villages such facilities could encourage better data keeping and connectivity within the government set up but are likely to percolate to rural society at large. The village school may have been a better venue for such a facility if empowering the common people is the aim, but then more effort would be involved in managing, maintaining and manning the facility. I have written before about the need to look at various other facets of the demand side eco-system. You need applications and trainers/facilitators in rural India. This requires a multi-stakeholder approach to project design. A good and successful example is USOF’s Sanchar Shakti
My second concern is who is providing the last mile service. I hope it is not NOFN. The entry of NOFN into access segment would in my view negate the very idea of Universal Service as a modern mechanism in a liberalized sector as being different from state owned monopoly service provision. Please see my previous articles in this regard under the same labels.