3 July 2015

Connecting 1 Billion People Is Not Easy; But Here's Why We Must Try

Ankhi Das

India is standing on the cusp of a digital revolution. The government's Digital India plan is transforming the country into a digitally empowered society, with a growth curve that mirrors that of the US a few years ago, and China more recently. However we have to act fast. More than 1 billion people are still offline and India is at risk of missing out on the social and economic opportunities that the internet can bring.

We know that the internet has the power to change lives and communities for the better. It has played an important role in the development of cities like Bangalore, helping innovators and entrepreneurs share ideas and connect with investors from around the world, leading to the emergence of new industries and increasing skilled employment.

At a more human level, connectivity has benefited many in India. We have seenfarmers and fishermen become more productive by tracking weather conditions and comparing wholesale prices through their mobile phone. Students who wouldn't otherwise have had access to education have been able to learn online. A study by Deloitte last year found that increased connectivity in India could create 65 million new jobs, double GDP growth, lower extreme poverty by 16% and child mortality by 14%.

"Connecting 1 billion people is not easy, but that should not deter us from building an internet that belongs to everyone."

Connecting 1 billion people is, however, not going to be easy. There are challenges we have to overcome together if we want to continue to create positive change.

We see three key barriers to achieving connectivity at the scale India requires. The first is an infrastructure challenge. Many people still don't have a cell tower near them to give access the internet, so even if they had a phone and could pay for data, there would be no way for them to access the Internet. The second is affordability. Many people who have access to the Internet can't afford to pay for it. The third, and potentially the greatest hurdle, is the social and educational challenge, whereby the majority of people aren't sure what the internet is or what they can use it for.

We need to tackle these challenges to make Digital India a reality. Technical barriers need to be broken down through innovative and collaborative approaches. The internet needs to be more affordable and, most importantly, we need to help people understand the possibilities available to them online.

For us, it's all about the people. Creating locally relevant content and applications for India's 22 local languages, which everyday people in India will find useful. Perhaps it's a service that migrant workers in cities can use to send money to their families in remote villages, or access to medical information and counselling in areas where facilities are scarce.

Internet.org is just one example of how we are trying to connect the huge number of offline people in India with local services and content in a language they understand. To provide valuable basic internet services that the already connected take for granted: tools for education, healthcare, jobs and local news. Internet.org is available in 90% of India's top 10 languages, which account for 86% of languages spoken in the country. The results speak for themselves.

Launching in India earlier this year, Internet.org has already connected more than 8 lakh Indians and we are already seeing positive stories starting to emerge in other countries. In Dhaka, Bangladesh, one man used Social Blood, a free service available on Internet.org, to post a request for nine units of A+ blood for his wife's labour. Within a couple of hours, 12 strangers had offered blood for his wife's operation.

It is stories like this that fuel our fire to help as many people as possible to get online. Connecting 1 billion people is not easy, but that should not deter us from building an internet that belongs to everyone. Together we can and must find a path that helps everyone get connected - a path that is fair, transparent and sustainable.

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