TECH TALK: Envisioning the Future: Low-cost Computing and Communications (Part 2)

Let us start with the computer. At the equivalent of a few hundred dollars for the base-level computer, it is still too expensive for most of the world to own and use. There are 2 ways to change this. One, to create low-cost devices which can connect to the Internet, and secondly, to create Internet community centres which serve a neighbourhood.

We have become accustomed to the big screen computer, with the latest processor, more storage space than we know what to do, multimedia and more. So, even as we do email, word processing (typing?) and browse the web, we are using a Rolls Royce to do the same. What we need is a scooter. And you cannot create a scooter by taking parts away from a Rolls Royce. The starting point has to be very different.

The form and function of devices like the Palm, Handspring and Blackberry offer that starting point. But the price is still way too expensive. What is needed is an Internet access device which costs less than USD 100 (and thus can be rented out for not more than USD 5-8 per month). It needs an RJ-11 jack to connect to the phone network, or an Infra-Red/802.11b (wireless Ethernet) interface so that it can connect to the Net through a server from a distance. In India, work is underway on the Simputer (Simple, Inexpensive, Multi-lingual computer) project.

The communications challenge is the next one which needs to be resolved. Voice over IP (Internet telephony) needs to be adopted for its potential to bring down the costs of phone calls. New, wireless technologies like GPRS will need money from data services to justify their investment (it is unlikely that people will upgrade their current GSM cellphones since they work just fine). Both of these offer the core infrastructure for building out a network of Internet and communications community centres across countries. Connectivity to these centres needs to be high-speed. People can either come to these centres, or use “last-mile” wireless solutions to extend the connectivity.

The vision of “Penny PCs” is not unreal: as computing becomes a utility, what is needed is an infrastructure which can make available the world of computing and the Internet for as little as 20-25 cents (Rs 10) per day. By working to put in place a low-cost computing and communications infrastructure, the benefits of computers and the Internet will reach people who have never before been touched by them.

Also see:

  • Mass Market Internet: (Tech Talk, by Rajesh Jain)
  • Grameen Bank website
  • Simputer Project
  • The Global Village: Aspirations and Opportunities for Developing Countries (V. Chandru and S. Manohar, 1998)
  • Published by

    Rajesh Jain

    An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.