Google Going Where No “Internet” Has Gone Before!

LIKE the travelling fairs that still roam India, a snazzy white bus trundles along the subcontinent’s B-roads, stopping in small towns for a few days at a time and inviting locals into another world. But in place of tightrope-walking girls and performing monkeys, its main attraction is access to the internet. For some visitors, it is their first time online.

The Google Internet bus is a free, mobile cybercafe dreamed up by the search giant and run in association with BSNL, a large state-owned internet service provider (ISP). It has covered over 43,000km and passed through 120 towns in 11 states since it hit the road on February 3rd, 2009. Google estimates that 1.6m people have been offered their first online experience as a result. Of those, 100,000 have signed up for an internet connection of their own. Like a high-school drug dealer, though admittedly less nefarious, the idea is to hook them young and keep them coming back. In return for its efforts, Google says it gains a better understanding of their needs. That, in turn, lets it develop products for the potentially huge local market.

Internet penetration rates in the developing world continue to lag far behind those of the west. Last year there were still only 20 internet users per 100 people in the developing world. In the West the figure is 69. (The global average is about 30.) But that is changing rapidly. In the ten years to 2010, internet users in the developed economies just about tripled. In the rest of the world, their number grew ten-fold.

Internet users in India make up roughly 8% of the population, or just under 100m people. By contrast, China’s internet penetration rate already stands at 36% percent of population; Brazil’s is nudging 40%. Google expects the number of users in India to triple over the next three years. The bus set out to take advantage of this vast untapped market—and draw lessons for other emerging markets. According to a Google representative, India represents a microcosm of new users, with a wide range of income levels, linguistic diversity, literacy levels, application needs, demographics and infrastructure challenges. To paraphrase Frank Sinatra, if Google can make it there, it can make it anywhere.

The reasons generally cited for India’s abysmal internet penetration rate are expense, poor infrastructure and meagre local content. Google thinks these challenges are surmountable. BSNL already offers limited-use broadband for as little as $5 a month. The fledgling third-generation mobile networks are making data services available across swathes of the country crazy about mobile phones. As for content, the Hindi Wikipedia recently passed 100,000 entries. Instead, Google argues, it is a lack of awareness that is holding back greater adoption.

That will only work up to a point. Tracing the bus’s route, Google plans to tap India’s internal emerging markets: second- and third-tier cities with more (often much more) than 100,000 residents where metropolitan sophistication has not yet taken hold. Yet these urban centres, even combined with India’s behemoths, still make up only a third of the population. The rest of India lives in villages.

It is there that the government has focussed its efforts. In a series of separate but linked programmes (the most high-profile being the national identity-card scheme run by Nandan Nilekani, a pioneer in Indian IT) the state is erecting a public information infrastructure. The first step is to install fibre-optic broadband connections to India’s 250,000 panchayats, or village councils. Other goals, which the government has outlined in a white paper, are even more ambitious. Panchayats are to be offered not just broadband connections, but also computers, software and personnel “to create, organise, distribute and deliver relevant and useful information related to government programs and services to the people at large.”

Google and the government share the same ultimate goal. “We are trying to democratise information,” says Sam Pitroda, who advises India’s prime minister on public information infrastructure. Between the two of them, they may be able to swell India’s 100m online population—even to a billion.

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