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

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About the Commentator
  • 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
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  • 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?

    Perhaps. The government’s new draft national-telecom policy, also released in October, says that broadband should be a “right.” The government is “to make efforts to recognize telecom and broadband connectivity as a basic necessity like education and health and work towards ‘Right to Broadband,’” the document reads. As is often the case, the plans are audacious: 175 million broadband connections by 2017 (at 2 megabits per second) and 600 million by 2020.

    But audacious plans have a tendency to become mired in their own ambition. How about a smaller—and much more achievable—start? Let’s put Wi-Fi in a few neighborhoods and see what happens. Take Old Delhi, Dharavi in Mumbai, and Charminar in Hyderabad, for example, and witness creativity cut loose.

    Or why not simply target Wi-Fi for all government schools? Fifteen million children will come of age each year from now through 2020. That’s more than 150 million students who will enter the workforce by 2020. We all know that familiarity with the Internet is essential for any twenty-first-century worker.

    Aakash may or may not propel tablet penetration in India, but the benefits of Wi-Fi are incalculable. Mobile phones are already widespread, and they have Wi-Fi capability. More than a dozen Wi-Fi–enabled mobile phones are priced below 5,000 rupees (approximately $100); the least expensive Wi-Fi–enabled phone is 3,000 rupees (about $60). It’s conceivable that almost all phones will be Wi-Fi–enabled in the near future. Free Wi-Fi would put Internet-enabled handsets in the hands of tens, perhaps hundreds, of millions of people.

    Consider the consequences. In financial services, for instance, Kenya has been leading the way with its M-Pesa service, through which more than 70 percent of adults have a bank-like account using their mobile phones. Minutes are a medium of currency. But think about the potential of a more robust system with actual interest-earning bank accounts. Wi-Fi–enabled phones could make that possible, as described in a recent article by BCG titled “Digital India: The Rush to Mobile Money.”

    Health care is another high-potential field. A recent story in Forbes reported on a mobile health initiative that sends stop-smoking messages to smokers’ phones. Twice as many people who received the messages quit smoking, compared with those who received no messages. Now think about the impact of Wi-Fi–delivered YouTube videos on hygiene, disease prevention, or the importance of vaccinations, to name just a few possibilities.

    Asia is leading the charge to embrace personal technology. South Korea is the top-ranked nation in the BCG e-Intensity Index. Singapore is building state-of-the-art broadband infrastructure. India is right to target a high-potential market, such as education, with Aakash. Children are natural early adopters. The international press is full of reports on how schools are embracing tablets. Many in India were captivated recently by the image of a one-year-old trying to use a magazine as an iPad. Already familiar with the iPad, the child quickly became frustrated and pushed the magazine aside. But the Aakash (or any tablet) without Wi-Fi is like a pencil without paper or a printing press without ink—a great device that is rendered all but useless.

    Wi-Fi is not a panacea. It is a great enabler, though, and it can have an outsize impact on any developing economy. India’s politicians used to promise roti, kapda, aur makan (food, clothing, and housing). In the last decade, they have expanded to roti, kapda, makan, aur mobile (food, clothing, housing, and cell phones). It’s time to make—and keep—a new promise: roti, kapda, makan, mobile, aur Wi-Fi.

    A version of this article was first published on livemint.com.

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