Thursday, September 04, 2003


This continues my series of postings on Jeffrey James’ book, Bridging the Digital Divide.

I can hardly fault James’ prescription in this chapter, of promoting “universal access” rather than “universal service”, and of doing so via low-cost (and often new) telecommunications, computer, and software technology.

I might have liked to see more emphasis on developing content to serve the rural poor, and helping them to use the content and technology, but that is quibbling.

I can hardly fault his choice of India as a geographic local to make his points; India has some very impressive accomplishments.

I was very pleased to see the emphasis on e-Post, the Indian Post Office’s system to use the Internet in place of the telegraph for fast messaging.

Similarly, I think low-cost switching, wireless local loop, cheap computers, and open source software all make sense. I especially liked James’ emphasis on using the informal sector in universal access schemes, and on developing sustainable business models for the operation of the telecenters (and the infrastructure operator).

Using voice mail to make telephone service asynchronous is a really great idea! James mentions systems in which messages can be left centrally for individuals who can then pick them up via their village call center phone, or any other phone (with the right pass code). This is the right technological adjunct to a system that provides universal access, but not universal service via home nor personal telephones.

The story of the development of cable TV in India was very interesting. Fifty million connections made by local entrepreneurs, based on antennas each serving a specific small community via cables strung on poles and trees. The role of low-cost, black-and-white televisions was also important. I was surprised that James did not consider this system as an option for producing last mile connectivity for the Internet via set top boxes. The entrepreneur cable operators would seem to be natural ISP operators.

James mentions the plethora of ICT pilot projects and suggests the need for scale up. I would point out that the growth of cable TV in India, as he describes it, does not seem to follow this model. It is more like the viral process described by others, in that when the conditions were right, lots of entrepreneurs started their own businesses – there was no “scale up”. A similar process has occurred in many countries with the development of ISPs, when the eompetitive environment was right. The role of the Government in the growth of cable TV includes not only getting the policies right, but also developing the satellites of course was critical in creating those fertile conditions.

The other two major successes James described, in terms of scale and impact, were probably the development of village call centers (100 million) and e-Post. These were, I suppose, always planned to be large scale services developed by public utilities.

I was sorry that James did not spend time on what I feel to be perhaps the most appropriate ICTs for reaching the rural poor – broadcast radio and television, cassette recorders, desk-top publishing of printed materials, CD-ROM and the like. Most of these may not be digital, but they are wonderful, affordable media for reaching large numbers of poor people!

One of my favorite ideas is merging community radio with telecenters. I think the experience has been good with this means of traversing the “last mile” (even if it does not do much for the “first mile”). I would have liked to see James mention this technology.

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