FB, Microsoft, Google Hunt For Treasure In Rural India

by Sohini Bagchi    Nov 04, 2014

rural internet

Destination: Rural India. That’s where most global tech giants are heading to this year. Companies such as Facebook, Google and Microsoft are leaving no stones to outshine one other in a bid to capture more rural and non English-speaking Internet users. On one hand, the initiative by these tech majors can not only help in bridging the urban-rural divide, on the other, it can help these companies sell more online advertising on the web and tap into the millions of Indians who own mobile devices.

Read on: Role Of ICT in E-Governance and Rural Development

Facebook: In October, social networking major Facebook, with about 1.2 billion users, and having a little over 100 million of them from India showed a keen interest in connecting Indian villages to the internet with the help of its Internet.org program.

On a two day visit to India, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg met “digitally-savvy” PM  Narendra Modi to discuss how the company can help in taking the Internet to the “more than billion people who are still not connected” and that “cost of internet access has to be made affordable.”

According to Zuckerberg, “Connectivity is a human right and we want to build an internet that works for all.”

Facebook has been emphasizing on local content, as experts believe the lack of relevant local language content is why most Indians don’t use internet and the social networking major is working extensively in rural India to enhance connectivity.

Towards this end, the company also announced that it will fund apps and services in local Indian languages for women, students and farmers.

Microsoft: Similar views were echoed by tech major Microsoft that now wants to play a big role in taking the ‘last mile’ of broadband connections to remote and inaccessible parts of India for access to high-speed internet.

The US major, headed by India-born Satya Nadella, has proposed to the telecom department the deployment of its TV WhiteSpace technology for a pilot project in Bangalore. Experts believe this technology has been successfully implemented in the US and in Singapore and has been tested in Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa and the Philippines, among others.  While Microsoft has discussed the matter with the Wireless Planning & Coordination wing of the telecom department and submitted the proposal on the same with the objective to provide cost-effective connectivity.

As part of Microsoft’s efforts to provide digital infrastructure in India, CEO Nadella, during his visit to India last month, announced that the company would also set up three data centres in the country by December 2015. These data centres will enable access to customers in banking and financial services as well as the central and state governments. 

Google: In order to outdo its other two rivals, Google very recently said it will make the Internet more accessible to India’s non-English speaking population through the Indian Language Internet Alliance (ILIA) that includes media and publishing houses such as ABP News, NDTV, Network18, Jagran Prakashan Ltd and the government-run Centre for Development of Advanced Computing (C-DAC).

According to the company, as the growth in English-language Internet users gets saturated, publishers and technology companies will look at Indian languages such as Hindi to tap into what is expected to be the next wave of online subscribers, targeting 500 million Indians by 2017, compared to an estimated 200 million users currently. The alliance will look at access to technology for non-English speakers, availability of content, and a policy framework by the government.

“Practically, all of the country’s English-speaking population of 198 million is already online. The remaining new users are not proficient in English, for which we are partnering with all these companies to make the Internet more accessible for these people. It is important to contribute more content, so India does not miss the boat,” says Rajan Anandan, vice-president and managing director of Google India.

The rural drive

While each of these companies may have a different approach to tap into the country’s hinterlands, they have a common objective: Making people have access and connectivity through the Web.

As Debjani Ghosh, MD – Intel South Asia notes Internet will largely remain an urban concept if government and private organizations do not significantly scale efforts to increase awareness. “The industry will need to think through ecosystem innovation in areas such as alternate power sources, because lack of electricity is a hindrance to the country’s internet growth,” she said at a digital empowerment conference.

Until now, there is no doubt that Internet potential in rural India largely remained untapped as­­ the rural penetration of broadband continues to remain abysmally low. “The key challenges in achieving a high broadband penetration in these areas include limited access, low relevance and high cost,” says eminent researcher Ashok Jhunjhunwala.

He believes that the Internet is primarily being used as a medium for social networking and entertainment in the country, while its immense potential in enabling widespread access to education, healthcare, banking, jobs and access to government services remain largely untapped.

If leveraged in a strategic way, the Internet has the potential to contribute $100 billion to India’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) by 2015, according to another report by global consulting firm McKinsey. “Unless the Internet is equally transmitted to smaller cities and rural areas, India’s GDP from the Internet economy will not see a significant growth,” says Anu Madgavkar, India head of McKinsey’s economics research in the report.

While the tech giants and several of its partners are already gearing up to woo rural India, experts believe that only a collective effort can drive this disruptive change through strategic planning and cooperation by the Government, academia, industry and civil society.