PUNE, INDIA // Until less than a year ago in the fertile agrarian belt around Kolhapur on the southern edge of rural Maharashtra state, the internet was seen as a fancy communication tool for the urban elite.
The lives of hundreds of poor local farmers were transformed with the launch of Nokia Life Tools, software that transmits business and scientific information via the internet to a mobile phone, by the Finnish telecommunications giant Nokia. Farmers growing crops such as tomatoes and eggplant pay monthly fees of between 30 rupees (Dh2.42) and 60 rupees to receive regular updates on market prices, freeing them from the middle men who had been profiting from the farmers' lack of information. They also received weather forecasts and guidance from a set of Life Tools experts who upload regular updates about seeds, pesticides and plant diseases.
"Internet and information services in infrastructure-constrained environments can offer improved earning potential, learning and quality of life in different ways to many," says Poonam Kaul, the director of communications at Nokia India. "It can contribute towards empowering people with the right tools to make confident decisions in their daily lives." Across India and much of the developing world, nearly a quarter of the world's population is rapidly adopting new technologies such as the internet. They are helping the world's rural poor to leapfrog into the 21st century.
The UN's International Telecommunications Union (ITU), says internet use has more than doubled with more than 23 per cent of the world's population going online last year compared with 11 per cent in 2003. In India, internet penetration climbed 17 per cent last year to 35.8 million users, according to Comscore, a provider of online audience measurement services. Of the total, 3.3 million people are active internet users in rural India, according to a 2008 survey conducted jointly by I-Cube and IMRB International, a market research company.
The challenges in India remain formidable: of its rural population of 568 million, only 63 million speak English and just 15.1 million are computer literate. But given that rural India is home to nearly two thirds of the country's 1.1 billion people, the government is working to bridge the urban-rural digital divide. The government in 2006 approved the National e-Governance Programme (NeGP), a US$10 billion (Dh36.72bn) effort to provide a range of government services and increased transparency to ordinary citizens online. Connecting rural India to urban centres is a key part of the effort.
Earlier this month, the government announced a plan to spend 180bn rupees over the next three years to lay 500,000km of fibre-optic cable network to connect every gram panchayat, or village council, with high-speed broadband service. It is considering involving the private sector in the undertaking. Still, India's poor telecoms infrastructure is holding back internet gains, analysts say. Internet penetration in India is only a sixth of that in Asia's other behemoth. China, home to the largest internet population in the world, posted a 31 per cent increase in the number of internet users there to 220.8 million, making it the fastest-growing internet country in the Asian region.
And there is the yawning gap between developed and developing countries in communications technology. While internet access is readily available in most of the developed world, it is scant, and in some instances prohibitively expensive despite pent-up demand, in developing nations. Only 5 per cent of people across the developing world have access to broadband internet compared with 20 per cent in the developed world.
"Despite significant improvements in the developing world, the gap between the ICT [information and communications technology] haves and have-nots remains," said an ITU report released last year. With personal computers still a luxury in the developing world, the mobile phone is the primary connection to the internet for a vast number of people. Last year, there were an estimated 4.1 billion mobile subscriptions worldwide, up from 1 billion in 2002, according to the ITU. In India, six million new mobile subscriptions are added each month and one in five Indians owns a mobile phone; many of those mobile owners are in poor, rural areas with inadequate infrastructure, high illiteracy levels and low PC and internet availability.
According to a 2008 study commissioned by Nokia and conducted by the Center for Knowledge Societies, an Indian research organisation, "mobile communication is revolutionising economic and social life in rural India, spawning a wave of local entrepreneurs and creating greater access to social services". Nokia Life Tools delivers its information to farmers by SMS messages on their mobiles. And that is probably the best way to transmit information until the government spruces up rural broadband services.
"Simplicity and ubiquitous access are important to consumers," says Ms Kaul. "Access to mobility and services such as the internet can change people's lives. With the expansion of mobile coverage in smaller towns and rural areas, there is renewed hope to deliver information relevant to people's daily lives." email@example.com