It’s a great idea—except for one thing.
In October, just a week after the launch of Amazon’s new Kindle Fire tablet, the Indian government and DataWind, a Canadian company, released what surely must be the world’s least expensive tablet, called Aakash. In India, it will sell for less than 2,000 rupees, or about $38—compared with $199 for the Kindle Fire, itself already some 60 percent less than the lowest-priced iPad. The Indian government plans to get 8 million to 10 million of the devices into the hands of students.
Here’s the catch. Aakash connects to the Internet via Wi-Fi—and Wi-Fi connectivity is still sorely lacking in India, as it is in many developing economies. Wi-Fi hot spots are common in North America and Europe where, ironically, the need is not nearly as acute because the Internet is available through a multitude of channels. In India, despite a fast-growing economy, the Internet is barely available at all, let alone through Wi-Fi.
A recent comparison by the Economist of mobile-broadband connections in ten large countries showed India dead last, with fewer than ten connections per 100 people. China, Russia, and Brazil all rank higher. India ranks forty-eighth of 50 economies in The Boston Consulting Group’s e-Intensity Index, which measures the depth and reach of digital activity. In India, most government schools don’t even have dial-up connectivity. Aakash’s chief proponent, Kapil Sibal, is the minister of both human resource development and communications and information technology. Will he seize the opportunity to leapfrog into the twenty-first century—enhancing India’s economic competitiveness at the same time—by creating Wi-Fi hot spots in a few densely populated areas in the country?