Connecting the Next Billion Users

Friday, December 19, 2008

Click reporter David Reid travelled to Hyderabad for the Internet Governance Forum – where governments and net users discuss what’s next for the web.

The talk at the IGF was about how to get the net’s next billion users online and how it can aid economic development.

“It is not just about surfing the internet faster and downloading movies, this is actually one of the most vital and important economic tools of the twenty first century,” said Marcus Courtney from Uni Global Union, which represents more than 900 trade unions globally.

He said the internet “can be an economic development tool” provided fundamental human rights are recognised.

“I think one of things that the internet can do is that it can help better distribute the wealth,” said Mr Courtney.

In Hyderababd the hi-tech boom has taken hold – a part of town called Cyberabad has in recent years been transformed from sprawling scrub to hi-tech hub.

Raising questions

But opinions differ on how the internet and hi-tech should best be used, especially in the those places on the planet where few can afford a computer.

Some suspect the debate is driven by hardware and software companies scrambling to gain a hold in new markets.

Kiran Karnik, an advisor to the Indian government on technology, said: “Many companies are in the business of saying there is a serious crisis. There is a digital divide. People are losing out and therefore you’ve got to buy computers, you’ve got to buy software, you’ve got to install this and buy bandwidth.

“I don’t think this is necessarily the only solution,” he said. “There are other ways of doing this.”

Many ordinary Indians in Hyderabad still shrug when asked if they want to buy a desktop computer.

The device that has so far made the most impact on business in the Indian city is the mobile, said Mr Karnik.

“There are 36 million PC owners in India. However, there are 260 million mobile phone subscribers, and that’s why it is the mobile rather than the PC that has changed the way people work,” he said.

Bargaining power

From rickshaw drivers to street vendors, the mobile has put them all in touch with potential customers.

Farmers with fruit to sell before it spoils can now call ahead to find which market has the best price for their produce.

Mr Karnik said the mobile had “empowered” producers and given them real bargaining power.

“Earlier it was the trader who called all the shots because you, as a small farmer, had no idea of the price of tomatoes in the big market outside.” he said “Tomatoes rot fast, so the trader would come and say, ’Hey, this is the price.’”

“Now you’ve got a way of checking what the price is, not only in that market, but in other places,” he added.

But the opportunity that technology affords cuts both ways. While some Indian farmers benefit it has also led to the widespread availability of counterfeit products online.

In India it has aided the distribution of many fake medicines according to research by the Council of Europe.

“Fake medicines are as much a danger to public health as counterfeit medicines or substandard medicines because they don’t treat your illness,” said Roy Vancauwenberghe, a pharmaceutical inspector from Council of Europe. “So if your illness is not treated at all you can die.”

Source: BBC (link opens in a new window)