Lack of availability of reliable, high-speed internet connections continues to be a primary challenge for developing nations in delivering e-governance services in rural and remote areas. Connectivity and digital literacy are also important obstacles in the Indian government’s ongoing push to a cashless economy.
According to a report in the Economic Times, The Indian government has announced plans for a new initiative called ‘Digital village’ to provide free Wi-fi hotspots in over 1000 villages. The pilot aims to provide a platform for tele-medicine, tele-education, LED street Lighting, Wi-Fi Hotspot and skill development services for citizens at the Gram Panchayat (local village administration) level in select blocks across various States and Union Territories. Free access to internet would be provided for at least 5 hours per day. The draft specifications for tele-education, LED street lighitng and Wi-Fi hotspots and tele-medicine are available on the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) website. Feedback was sought till 18 January, 2017.
The Economic Times report quotes Aruna Sundararajan, secretary at MeitY, “The project is a public/private partnership, and will be driven through the common service centres (CSCs). We'll be partnering with different service providers to do it.” CSCs are the access points for delivery of a range of government electronic services to villages in India, such as filling out online forms for government services such as driving licence and voter ID cards. They are also tasked with promoting rural entrepreneurship and building rural capacities and livelihoods.
Hybrid technologies will be used to implement the project and village-level entrepreneurs, or the managers of CSCs, will become the “retailers of bandwidth“ in the villages and provide free Wi-Fi hotspots in the gram panchayat.
A budget of INR 4.2 billion (USD 62.4 million) has been approved for the project, which is to be implemented over a period of 3 years.
The national roll out plan for Digital Village is envisaged to be in two stages. After the pilot duration of the pilot of 3 years, the implementation strategy for pan India roll out shall be prepared.
The page on the MeitY website states the project is a shift to a service based approach in contrast with the traditional approach of e-Governance projects, that focused on creating infrastructure.
In 2011, the previous government had initiated an ambitious project called the National Fibre Optic Network (NFON) to connect all the Gram panchayats in the country, nearly 250,000. The plan was utilise existing fibres of Public Sector Units and laying incremental fibre to connect to Gram Panchayats wherever necessary. But implementation has seen limited success.
Meanwhile, Google is partnering with RailTel (a state-owned unit owning a pan-India optic fiber network on exclusive Right of Way along railway track) and the Indian Railways to bring Wi-Fi to railway stations across India. The initial plan is to cover 400 stations. By December 2016, the project hit the 100 stations milestone in December 2016.
Facebook launched its Express Wi-Fi scheme in November 2016, after suffering a setback on its Free Basics plan earlier. The previous plan had been criticised for its violation of net neutrality norms and was banned by the regulators on the basis of "Prohibition of Discriminatory Tariffs for Data Services Regulations" in Februrary 2016. The service was withdrawn in the same month. Express Wi-fi offers software to local entrepreneurs to allow them to to provide quality internet access to the public for a fee. There is no mention of limitations or preferences provided to any websites.
MEITY lists the following components for the pilot Project:
- Tele-medicine services – A group of Primary Health Centers (state-run rural health care facilities; over 25000 are in operation) shall be parented to a lead hospital, which shall be a hospital of repute at block, district or state/UT level. Various consultation sessions pertaining to different fields of medicine shall be rendered under the Tele-medicine service.
- Tele-education services – A group of rural schools shall be parented to a lead school of repute. Classes will be delivered through two way interactive sessions. This is to counter any local shortage of teachers.
- LED street Lighting and Wi-Fi Hotspot services – A high mast LED street lighting tower will be installed at common location in the village. It would be used to provide free lighting at the common location and would also host the Wi-Fi hotspot.
- Skill Development services – The videoconferencing and other infrastructure facilities available in resource centers shall be used for providing skill development training, holding information sharing sessions and organizing interactive sessions with experts, government officers etc.
Among the pilot’s targets are 1.15 million hours of tele-education, 140,400 hours of tele-medicine and 103.5 million hours of free Wi-Fi internet usage.