So you thought 3G was only for mobile TV and video phone calls? The country launched its first third-generation (3G) telephony service—from MTNL—last week at the Indian Telecom expo, where I chanced by to take a look at the other side of 3G, involving its application in remote rural areas. Qualcomm, a company at the forefront of this business, was showcasing stuff that still has some execution hiccups, but potentially powerful.
I saw something which could be called an iPod-like desktop for the poor, based on the Kayak platform. It is an easy-to-use box that has low-power consumption to help power-starved areas, built with a flash memory, a wireless modem and a stripped-down browser interface that makes viruses difficult to come in.
That makes sense in a world where you can't call someone for tech support, feel confused to see too many icons and the power can conk out suddenly. At Rs. 10,000, I thought I was unimpressed by the price, since one can buy a low-end laptop for as low as Rs. 15,000 these days. But the other side is the sturdy link to high-bandwidth 3G wireless networks – which, if they work fine – can turn a well-designed portable terminal in a rural area into an easy-to-install, multi-purpose ATM-like Web machine.
The key point is that state-run Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd's networks can add this at low cost and power up village communities for the Net. To prove the point, Qualcomm supports a wireless reach programme linking village knowledge centres run by the MS Swaminathan Foundation, in association with Tata Teleservices. In this, fishermen and farmers can get weather information and other helpful stuff like the limits of territorial waters from the centres through uploads—much like the way city commuters get information on traffic conditions from FM radio jockeys.
It is becoming clear that for the digital divide to be conquered, the potent combination is to develop a hub-and-spoke model based on low-cost networking, portable machines with low power consumption, plug-and-play facilities and geographical positioning-based services.
The applications should be designed for the less educated to use without getting confused or needing extra support. We seem to be getting there, slowly but surely.