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  • Prashant Agrawal
    Prashant is a principal in The Boston Consulting Group’s Mumbai office.

    His columns on public policy issues in India and internationally have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and the Financial Times, among other publications.

A Wi-Fi Future for India—If Not Now, When?

November 03, 2011 by Prashant Agrawal
November 03, 2011

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?