India and the Digital Divide

The Minister for Communication & Information Technology, Kapil Sibal, announced with much pomp on 5th October, the breakthrough pricing of a tablet computer at US$35 for "millions of India's schoolchildren" to become digitally connected and benefit from online education. Kapil Sibal, also the Human Resources Development Minister, scored on both counts politically for national and international media coverage.

An earlier 'US$100 laptop' computer ambition failed to materialize.

The 'Aakash', manufactured in Hyderabad, is a 7-inch tablet with 800 x 480 resolution, running the Android 2.2 operating system. It comes with 256Mb of RAM, a 32Gb expandable memory slot and two USB ports. It will be pre-loaded with internet browsers, PDF reader, video conferencing, media player, open office, microphone, stereo headset and multimedia content viewer. The project is aimed at 25,000 colleges and 400 universities.

The government-procured version incurs no duty and is subsidized. It will have no inbuilt cellular modem or SIM card for GSM through Telcos. The commercial version which will have both and pay all taxes, will retail at US$60.

Like the other famous Indian attempt at pricing for the poor, the Nano car from Tata touted as the "car for the masses" at US$2,000 per unit, the tablet to enable the rural poor to join the ranks of the digitally connected looks destined for a reality-crash.

The Nano had an alarming tendency to burst into flames. It also carried the stigma of being labeled 'cheap' and targeted at the 'have-nots', which steered the middle classes away from acquiring a Nano. The brand positioning tainted its appeal and the spontaneous combustion of early Nanos sealed its fate.

Replacement not repair

Perhaps to avoid the negative publicity that attended the Nano, the government insisted on a one-year replacement warranty from Datawind, the supplier which met its tender specifications on design and price.

The logistics, disruption and delays involved in looping faulty tablets through repair and return cycles could potentially turn a political triumph into yet another Third World over-reach. The government thought it wiser to pre-empt that experience by prompt replacement.

Suneet Singh Tuli, CEO of Datawind says that the one-year replacement warranty adds US$14 to its basic price of US$35, making it US$49 to students and teachers. The government has placed an initial order of 100,000 units and has pledged it will deliver a million units this year to students. The government will subsidize 50 percent of the cost and participating educational institutions the balance.

'Resistive' not 'Capacitive' touch screen

The Aakash unfortunately will quickly disappoint users with its choice of resistive screen technology. It will not be readable in bright sunlight, reflects glare, needs finger pressure to activate - leading to response loss with prolonged usage, and is easily scratched or damaged.

Addressing the Digital Divide? Hardly.

Activists in rural poverty alleviation and NGO projects are unimpressed. They see the unsolved disconnects of basic lack of power, clean water, teachers and a failed primary schooling system as the issues which continue to block the dispossessed from information and knowledge.

Sunny Ghosh, CEO of Wolf Frameworks, a successful digital entrepreneur in Bangalore, dismisses the Aakash initiative as political hype.

"Beyond the 50-100 mile radius of the urban centers, there is no basic power availability to households,” he said in an interview. “If there is no electricity, what is the point of having a tablet device? If there is no GSM connectivity either, that truly defeats the intent of bridging the digital divide! Policies like this one will only further widen the gap between the digital haves and have-nots."

Sunny further sees the low literacy rates in rural communities being bridged by audio-visual content distribution so the poor can absorb the information or knowledge without having to struggle with inability to read or write. That will require even more powerful computer power to make audio-visual communication effective. Stripped-down devices like the Aakash limit the opportunity to bridge the literacy gap.

Beyond the reach of Tablets

Osama Manzar, founder and director of the Digital Empowerment Foundation in New Delhi, who is on the Working Group for Internet Governance at the Ministry of Communication & Information Technology identifies the woeful state of the nation's primary schooling system as a fundamental problem of absentee teachers and missing students.

Some 72 percent of primary schools have only three or fewer teachers. At any given time, 25 percent of teachers are absent from classes. Of those present only half engage in teaching. These appalling statistics were gleaned from random field visits across a representative sample of schools in rural communities. India also has a critically low ratio of teachers - only 456 teachers per million of population.

Manzar notes that 70 percent of micro, small and medium enterprises have no digital connection and thus no possibility to benefit from efficiencies or opportunities that connectivity can facilitate.

His own digital platform for the 3.3 million NGOs registered in India is handicapped by 70 percent of them lacking digital infrastructure and connectivity to even support a website!

Of the 250,000 panchayats (village councils) across the country, only 50,000 are equipped with computers, most of them unused because of computer illiteracy and/or lack of connectivity.

While he despairs of the sorry state of infrastructure and the dysfunctional primary schooling system, Manzar feels that the affordable tablet should be distributed to teachers and school managements to monitor the proper functioning of teachers and attendance of students. Until the basic system functions, the distribution of cheap tablets will achieve little.

Manzar is convinced that the full exploitation of the available connectivity for students will be through the acceleration of education content apps and facilitation of such content investment by the authorities. Without the value of content tailored for purpose, the mere provision of a tool is a waste of time and money.

"How is the US$35 tablet going to solve any of these problems?" is Osama Manzar's parting question.