ICT adoption flows like water. It finds its own level, moving from higher grounds to lower plains.
The government’s recent announcement to launch rent-a-PC scheme for rural areas is well intended, but is akin to pumping water where more natural flows can be achieved.
Look at the growth of mobile services for instance. With the urban mobile teledensity saturating, operators have been focusing on rural pastures for growth. Business models that succeeded in urban India are being adapted and ported to suit the needs of rural India.
San this natural market progression, the government’s earlier attempts to spur rural telephony growth had yielded little result and the rural teledensity could not even move past the double digit. Only after market conditions matured in urban areas did growth gained momentum in rural areas too. As per Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, as urban teledensity moved from 88.7 per cent in March 2009 to 119.7 per cent in March 2010, rural teledensity grew from 14.8 per cent to 24.3 per cent for the corresponding periods.
The basic framework of delivering mobile services remains the same, both for the urban and rural consumers, even though features and applications keep changing to suit local tastes and preferences.
Likewise, for PC adoption to naturally flow into rural areas, it is a prerequisite that adoptions in urban areas reach required thresholds. That doesn’t seem to be the approach being undertaken. In fact, PC adoption in urban areas is itself far below a required threshold, and therefore subsequent channels to rural areas are yet to get fully developed.
It will be advantageous to float schemes like rent-a-PC not just for the potential rural users but also for the existing urban users. This will reduce the risk of a scheme’s failure, so unwanted in a low state of PC adoption in the country.
It is even more important that stakeholders take care not to waste energies in reinventing vehicles of delivery. It would be more advantageous to leverage and strengthen existing models, most notably the cyber cafes.
Cyber cafes have been a proven vehicle for developing the PC and Internet user base in urban areas. Their role can be even greater in rural areas, given that the power situation is worse there and alternative means of power generation and backups at individual levels would be unviable for the vast rural majority.
It will be more feasible to ensure power backup at centres like cyber cafes, more so if they can also double up as rent-a-PC centres. Users can book PCs on a first-come first-serve basis, without the hassle of setting up the underlying infrastructure or worrying about power outages. This will also ensure better upkeep of the PCs and their right usage.
Apart from cyber cafes, the existing and upcoming common service centres (CSCs) being developed under the National e-Governance Program (NeGP) can also be roped in to serve as rent-a-PC centres.
A survey report recently published by Internet and Mobile Association of India and market research firm IMRB International, which says 84% of respondents are not aware of the Internet medium, too has stressed upon the role of cyber cafes and CSCs for growth of Internet usage in rural areas.
CSCs can also double up as coordinating entities for promoting PC and Internet usage locally through cyber cafes, which would continue to be the user-facing facilities they are.
(As published in Deccan Chronicle, Sept. 16, 2010.)

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