The Internet as a catalyst for development

Some three years ago, in October 2010, we deployed the pilot network infrastructure for the Wireless for Communities project in Chanderi, a small rural town pretty much in the middle of India. Getting to the site itself was a bit of an adventure – using a combination of cars and trains that took us some 10-odd hours from Delhi.
We had an idea of what we wanted to achieve with the pilot and thought that if we could get two-thirds of what we wanted done, we would have won. First priority was to get a bunch of young folks (male and female) selected from communities across India trained on building and maintaining community wireless networks. The thought was that they in turn could go back to their communities and try and start something – no matter how small – and engage with peers and seniors alike to help improve connectivity in their own communities.
The second priority was to complete a pilot network infrastructure deployment (which the trainees themselves would actually deploy as part of the training). The training was intense – covering everything from radio physics to crimping cables to mast design. There were a lot of eager young minds with willing hands ready to do what was required – including scaling a hill in semi-darkness to set up a radio mast.
Once the network was deployed, the next step was to promote the network within the community and encourage interest. We did not have to try very hard – local media picked up what we were doing and the locals themselves spread the word far and wide. Suddenly we had a ready mass of users… and within months had to expand network capacity and reach.

Expanding the impact

The same holistic project framework was replicated in other locations around India. In addition to the technical training for the community and network deployment, we also delivered courses on computer and Internet use, content creation and in subsequent phases on running micro-enterprises, e-commerce and also targeted women and youth groups as the audience to help further empower them.
In addition to all these, local schools and medical centres hooked up to the network and we now have teachers and children alike using ICTs for education and medical personnel making use of telemedicine to save time, travel and cost for specialist diagnosis. Hotels in the area use the network to provide services to guests and cybercafes have popped up to support tourists and locals alike. In one particular location, video conferencing is widely used to communicate between villages on the network. In another, the network is used to market local handicraft to a global audience.
On reflection today in November 2013, we have far surpassed all the expectations we had when we started out in 2010. We went way past the hope of achieving the two-thirds target, but rather we ended up with a ten-fold achievement that touches all sectors – from education to commerce to medical services to e-governance.
I am also pleased the project has also received international acclaim. Earlier this week, the project (and specifically the site in Baran, Rajasthan) won the "ITU-MCMC Contest to Promote the Transformational Power of Broadband – Connecting at the Roots" in the "Broadband for Communities" category. As well, the project has been short-listed for the Public Affairs Asia Gold Standard Award in the "Internet for Good" category.
Fittingly, the project really has shown the transformational power of the Internet and how it can contribute to socio-economic development starting at the bottom of the pyramid. More so, the project demonstrates how, with the correct approach, a whole ecosystem can evolve, enhance and sustain itself using the Internet as a catalyst for development.