What makes us think that TeleInfoCentres can work as a model to transform Rural India, where previous initiatives have met with only limited success? The TeleInfoCentre aggregates a number of innovative ideas and is different from previous approaches:
Presence in each village vs Sharing across villages: To succeed, access to the centres (or kiosks) must be such that villagers do not have travel significant distances at all. They should be able to use it multiple times a day, and on demand. This means the centres have to be present in each village.
Multi-functional vs Uni-functional: Most current approaches tend to work in silos, thus necessitating duplication of expensive infrastructure. As envisioned here, the TeleInfoCentre becomes a platform for various services which are applications on top of the basic computing grid.
Offline vs Internet-centric: The TeleInfoCentre can begin operations simply with periodic CD-based updates, and without the need for a telephone line or Internet connection.
Information-centric vs Transaction-centric: The initial focus is more on information, communications and community services which do not require real-time Internet connectivity, rather than transaction-oriented services which assume the presence of Internet access.
User-generated content vs Top-down broadcast: The TeleInfoCentre encourages users to generate their content and share it across vertical communities of interest and practice, to complement the information that is sent from the state and district headquarters.
Rs 5,000 computers vs Rs 50,000 computers: Most existing approaches tend to use new desktops with MS-Windows and MS-Office software resulting in a per PC cost of Rs 50,000 or more. (It is hard for the government and its agencies to pirate software so they have to buy legal copies!) The TeleInfoCentre approach uses thin clients for a fraction of the cost.
Multiple Computers vs Single Computer: The TeleInfoCentre has at least 3 computers available for use at any time, thus diminishing dramatically the chances that a villager will come in and not find a computer to use.
Linux/Open-source vs Proprietary software: The use of open-source software eliminates licence fees, while at the same time maintaining compatibility with file formats for document exchange with the external world.
Wireless vs Wired connectivity: The use of WiFi in the months to come can dramatically cut connectivity costs, and at the same time eliminate dependency on unreliable, wired telephone lines. (Cellular phones are still far away from making their presence felt in Indias villages, especially those away from urban and semi-urban areas.)
English and Local Language support vs English only: Support for at least one local language is important. People need to be able to interact with others in the language they feel most comfortable in.
Subscription model vs Pay-per-service: The TeleInfoCentre approach calls for each family to make a fixed monthly payment for a basic set of services, encouraging increased usage. The alternate pay-per-service model actually inhibits usage. That may be right when computing is a scarce resource but with cheap and multiple computers available at the TeleInfoCentre, one needs to take a user-friendly approach.
Taking all these factors into consideration, the TeleInfoCentre is a more practical approach given the realities and constraints of Rural India.
Next Week: Transforming Rural India (continued)
TECH TALK Transforming Rural India+T