India plans to build over 1,000 digital villages

Enticing the next billion with free wifi.
Enticing the next billion with free wifi.
Image: AP Photo/Manish Swarup
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India took another step toward a digital economy with the government’s announcement that it would provide free wi-fi to 1,050 villages in the next six months as part of its Digital Village initiative, CNN reported. Cell phone users will get access to the internet via wi-fi hotspots mounted on towers.

The Digital Villages initiative will initially cost over Rs420 crore ($62 million) and, along with basic internet access, will provide avenues for interactive telemedicine and educational sessions. “The project is a public-private partnership, and will be driven through the common service centres (CSCs),” Aruna Sundararajan, secretary at the ministry of electronics and information technology, told The Economic Times.

“We’ll be partnering with different service providers to do it,” Sundararajan said. Common service centres are used by rural residents for a variety of digital services, such as filling out online forms or making digital payments.

The draw of cashless transactions accelerated the country’s efforts to become a digital economy following prime minister Narendra Modi’s move to demonetise India’s two most-used high-denomination bills—Rs500 and Rs1,000. The northern state of Haryana recently connected 100 villages with wi-fi, and in the south, Karnataka converted Sherewad into a digital village. The Assam government has promised a Rs5-lakh ($7,373) reward to the first village in the state to go completely cashless by March 31.

India has more internet users than any other country outside China, yet relative to its population availability remains low. Nearly two-thirds of its 1.3 billion people don’t have an internet connection.

In 2011, authorities introduced the National Optic Fibre Network (NOFN) project, rechristened BharatNet in 2015, to provide broadband connectivity to 250,000 gram panchayats (local village governments) through fibre optic connections by the end of 2016. However, laying down cables has proved difficult—out of the 61,000 villages served so far, only 7,000 are said to have a working connection.

Wi-fi hotspots may work as an alternative technology. If successful, the plan will be expanded to other parts of the country.

Google and Facebook have already made inroads when it comes to wi-fi connectivity in India. Google is bringing wi-fi to 400 train stations across the country. Menlo Park, California-based Facebook, which faced a backlash for its now-ousted service in India, has introduced Express Wi-Fi. This allows customers to purchase low-cost data packages from their local internet service provider to access fast internet via local hotspots.