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"Wireless Internet Access in
Rural South India": a Report
Miller (December 2000).
The following report was written for Dr. Ashok Jhunjhunwalla, Chair, Dept. of Electrical Engineering, Indian Institute of Technology, Madras. Dr. Jhunjhunwalla is a scholar and developer of wireless Intenet technology for rural areas. His work is described at
This report is based in part on my field trip, arranged by Dr. Jhunjhunwalla, to Kuppam village and vicinity in Andhra Pradesh, taken on Saturday, Sept. 2, 2000. The purpose of the visit was to witness social aspects of the use of wireless Internet technology. With this technology, the Internet is accessible wirelessly within a 20 km radius around the central transmitter/receiver.
The report has four sections:
1) Types of Internet Sites
1) Types of Internet Sites Visited.
We (myself and a field guide) toured the area on a lovely Saturday afternoon. The streets of Kuppam were full of people and activity. Although it was a weekend day, the great majority of businesses seemed to be open. There did not seem to be a large amount of agricultural work going on. It seemed an ideal time for people to use the Internet, which tends to busy and slow during weekday business hours. On Saturdays, many community members have free time, as they may not have to work in their regular jobs.
We visited wireless Internet user sites at the following six locations:
a) a school.
The school, community center, and government office were open and bustling with people. However, the Internet rooms at these locations were closed. Students at the school said they were not permitted e-mail addresses. At the community center, there were vague references to the the equipment having been misused, resulting in the room being often shut down. Although precautions against misuse of the technology are of course necessary, it is unfortunate that this often tends to result in general denial of access.
It seems that in institutional settings, one person often controls access and this person often finds it convenient to keep the Internet room locked much of the time, making the technology available only during certain business hours. It might be beneficial for all concerned if ways could be found to reward the access-controlling individuals for enabling more people to use the equipment more often.
At the fertilizer business, there
was a booklet which
consisted of an
annotated list of interesting and useful websites. Each of the
was described in Telegu, the local language. The wide-spread
of such booklets, at low-cost, will promote the use of the technology,
and will increase the demand. (More about this booklet in the
2) The Rural Residence/Browsing-Center Hybrid.
The most interesting usage observed was in the countryside, in a small village, at the residence of M.S. Mani, Vasanadu, Kuppam, <email@example.com>. M.S. Mani, an electrician by trade, had purchased a computer. He explained how people in the area come to the Internet site at his home to send e-mails, get information from websites, and for entertainment. He sometimes shows movies on his computer, having downloaded a movie overnight, or having purchased or rented the movie on a CD-rom.
This is a hybrid situation: his residence is now also part office, part entertainment center, and part browsing center. People can visit by arrangement at odd hours and at night, when they are not working. The process is integrated into the local, informal economy -- we did not discuss it, but I imagine that people pay not just with cash, but with various types of locally grown and produced commodities.
Again, this model presents a number of positive possibilities, including 1) use of the Internet at night and on weekends, when the Internet is faster and less busy; 2) users can use it other than their work hours; 3) users can visit a home, so hours are flexible; 4) the process is integrated into local informal economy; 5) the on-site operator can function as guide and teacher.
There is no sharp line here between
students. Rewards are there for the local operator to enlist
in the use of the technology, whether for him to teach people how to
it themselves, or for him to operate it for them.
2) The Principle of "Funneling."
In the residence/office set-up described above, M.S. Mani acts as a go-between, a guide, or "funnel." The other people work through him. He can operate the equipment and teach rudimentary computer skills (how to send and receive e-mail, browse websites, search for information). One reason he can do these things is that he can read and write English. Until such a time as one can type website addresses and e-mails in the font of the local language (a worthy goal!), the participation of an English-proficient intermediary will be necessary for Internet participation.
The principle of the "many working through the one who has the equipment and/or the know-how" has been extensively applied and refined down through the ages in India. (For example: the traditional practice in rural areas of many people together watching a single TV set.) This custom may in part be due to scarcity of resources, but it is also related to a "spirit of cooperation" which is a deeply-ingrained characteristic of Indian culture. According to this principle, teams of individuals work together, each contributing by performing whatever helpful process he or she can.
In the case of work that can be done over the Internet, facilities might be provided by one party, technical knowledge by another, and others could help with the problem-solving on the verbal level (in the local language). Thus, work -- problem-solving -- can be done as a group, with the results being funneled through the system by a specialist.
The aforementioned website booklets
provide an example of
information about websites is written in the local language, which many
locals can read (those who can't read the local language can find a
person to read it to them). Local people can then go to a
who has the computer skills and the English language skills necessary
type in the website address (or to send and receive an e-mail).
information that is found on websites, whether written in English or a
local language, can then be discussed by the local people in their own
local spoken language.
4) "How Might People Work Over Internet?"
A question that arises is: Why should the Indian government be interested in encouraging and enabling its citizens to use the Internet? Two answers are: The Internet can function as a means for education (literacy, in the local languages and in English) and for work.
What kind of work then can be performed over the Internet? First of all, as mentioned above, people can work in teams, only one member of which need know English and have computer skills; the others can problem-solve orally, kinesthetically, and visually. This is useful especially in cases where creative-practical design is required.
At present, two types of work that people do through the Internet are website design and software programming. To do these jobs, three abilities are required: 1) people need to achieve basic literacy (in English); 2) they must become computer literate; and 3) they must learn to use specialized computer software programs and languages.
Lately, in the USA, more and more people are trading stocks, shares, options, etc., over the Internet. Far be it from me, a poor scholar, to criticize such activities, but it must be pointed out that such activity is non-productive, at least in the literal sense. I would hope that people of India do not follow the people of the USA blindly in this regard.
How then to channel the energy that is out there, in many cases going to waste? In many rural areas, work on the land is periodic, that is, there are long stretches of time during which there is no work. During such times, men often just sit around and play cards. If there were an option for Internet work and education, many would take advantage of the opportunity, and this would benefit everybody.
I look forward to the day when Internet voice chat (pc-to-pc and pc-to-telephone) is widely possible and permitted: In the USA, many people work with brief training as telemarketers (selling, on wage and commission) and survey- and poll-takers (for corporations, political parties, the government, etc.). In India, this telephoning might seem less likely: for one thing, differences in caste, class, and location result in a wide variety of accents. Could rural people call and question urbanites?
One day, language conversation teaching and practice, supervised by linguistics professors, could be led by people in rural areas. A curriculum would have to be developed. People from around the world would converse via voice and video chat (with optional text chat and whiteboard, i.e., electronic drawing) with a villager who had taken only a small amount of training. This way, the student / scholar / NRI / performer / tourist could choose the accent that he or she wanted to learn. Arrangements could be made for language practice on a 24-hour basis. Verbal and other performing arts could also be taught and practiced in this manner.
Possible short-term losses in revenue from long distance telephone calls should be balanced with possibilities of long-term profits from revenues for Internet voice chat language and arts instruction and practice, and increased tourism to India.
Technical limitations must be worked around in a creative and flexible manner. For example, material can be downloaded overnight, worked on, then uploaded the following night. I understand that relatively inexpensive devices and technologies are being developed that allow only reception of websites and e-mail: nothing can be transmitted except the request to see the website. Material could be received in this way, then taken on a disk to another location where transmission is possible.
There is no doubt that physical proximity and face-to-face, unmediated contact provides great emotional, spiritual, and intellectual stimulation, and is the surest form of communication between people. For this reason, whenever possible, in work, educational, and any other contexts, initial and periodic additional communication should be done face-to-face, either, for example, by the urban-based instructor visiting the rural area, or by the rural-based student visiting the city, or some combination thereof (for ex., a trainer could visit a central town, and people from the surrounding areas could come there for training sessions).
Inevitably, some rural people will want to go on to training-centers, schools, colleges, and universities at other locations; but others will be satisfied to stay in the rural area and do Internet work there. There is a tradition in India of taking courses via postal correspondence: this is being extended into e-mail and website correspondence courses.
A major difference I saw in India this past summer as compared to my last trip is that Internet use in browsing centers is up, and cinema attendance is down. Although cinema production and display continues to be a very important part of the Indian economy and cultural scene, I think it is a very positive development that browsing centers have become so popular, and I hope the Government and businesses encourage this trend. Commercial cinema represents passive consumption of escapist entertainment; browsing centers represent active learning, social and professional networking, and also entertainment. In addition, many browsing centers function as constructive social clubs.
Many Indian people are quite accustomed to staying up late, especially around festival events. For some people, some late-night events -- especially those involving certain festivals, performances, and cinema -- include the drinking of alcohol. Excessive alcohol tends to makes people sloppy and violent: Internet work and drinking do not mix at all. To work well with computers, one must be alert and sharp. However, I believe late-night, even 24-hour, Internet access should be encouraged. For one thing, instantaneous communication with people in different time zones often must occur at odd hours. Numerous young people who operate browsing centers in large business buildings are constricted by the fact that many of these buildings are closed at night.
In the USA, incidentally, browsing
centers are much less
people who are interested access the Internet at home, school, or
Browsing centers are largely an Indian (and other developing nation)
they are funneling stations.
The moment equipment is controlled by any sort of business or government bureaucracy, individual initiative is to some degree stunted. What works well with Internet culture is for every user to be allowed to be an entrepreneur. Of course, people can also be employees, and work for larger companies for particular projects, but to unleash a person's full energetic, creative, and productive capacities (for the good of the individual and the nation), on one level each individual should be considered an independent businessperson. As it is not practical for each person in India to have his/her own equipment set-up, there should be a variety of ways in which a person should be able to gain access to the equipment, to training, and to participation in particular projects. In rural areas, in addition to formal government- operated centers, it seems that one of the most effective methods might be for a small number of individuals to work out of their own homes, while at the same time enabling other members of the community to work there also. Of course, due to gender, class, and caste differences, some people will not want certain other people in their homes. All sorts of creative flexible arrangements can be made to work around this issue: for example, there can be workplaces at the far end of a house complex, so visitors do not come into the center of the home area. Women should be able to go to a browsing center operated by, and only open to, other women.
The possibility of working via
telecommuting, or, to put it
way, via Internet cottage industry, is one that applies not only to
in rural India, but also to people worldwide. To the degree that
governments and businesses can find ways to enable people to work
the Internet, the basic social problems of unemployment, extreme
and sociological feelings of alienation, will be a thing of the
India can make advancements in this field that could be valuable to all
the nations and peoples of the world.