Bringing Wi-Fi to the Third World

By Gerry Blackwell

October 08, 2007

It takes a village: shared access model with store-and-forward environment gets rural Indians online.

When the United Villages bus comes to town in rural Orissa, India, it might bring some lucky farmer long-awaited news of his ideal bride—or just the bag of seeds he ordered, or a voice mail from his brother in town, or a Web page with the latest cricket scores.

 

All of this is thanks to a unique Wi-Fi-based solution developed by Cambridge, Massachusetts-based United Villages Inc. (UV). For poor Indian villagers, who have no Internet access, or even phones, it opens a whole new world. And for a few it offers a relatively low-cost entrepreneurial opportunity.

 

The technology, developed by First Mile Solutions, an earlier incarnation of United Villages, is also in use by NGOs (non-governmental organizations) in Cambodia, Paraguay, and Costa Rica. The Orissa, India service, a pilot, is the first commercial venture to use it.

 

The service has proven itself now, says founder and CEO Amir Alexander Hasson. With $3 million in the bank, the proceeds from a recently completed Series-A financing, the company is gearing up to take the world by storm.

 

“Our investors believe we will be the largest rural ISP in the world within the next five years,” Hasson says. “We’ve got it working on a small scale, now we’re figuring out to make it work on a larger scale.” 

 

Back on the bus

 

The buses in the pilot project are just the regular coaches that ply the dusty back country roads—six altogether on four routes, each passing through about ten villages. Each carries a Wi-Fi “appliance,” developed by United Villages, that automatically communicates with a “kiosk”—a Wi-Fi equipped PC in one of the local shops.

 

Each time the bus comes through the village, it picks up voice mails, text messages, and e-mails left by villagers at the kiosk, along with requests for Google searches, orders for products from UV’s e-shopping service—and new registrations for the company’s online matrimonial service.

 

At the same time, it drops off electronic messages, new Web pages requested the last time the bus came through, and updates to popular Web pages cached at the kiosk—such as the latest cricket scores and seed prices.

 

When the buses return to Bhubaneswar, the nearest town of any size and the hub for the Orissa rural bus service, the appliances automatically connect over Wi-Fi to the company’s office just across the street, and synchronize with a UV server connected to the Internet.

 

The server has already updated popular cached pages and collected responses to previous messages from villagers. Now it fulfills the new Web requests and then syncs everything to the device on the bus.

 

Developing a good idea

 

Hasson developed the concept—“almost as a joke,” he says—for an MBA course on developmental entrepreneurship at MIT Sloan in 2001. His professor pushed him to build a business plan around it and then to develop it further in a small business incubator he was launching in India.

 

Hasson recruited United Villages chief technology officer Femi Omojola to develop the technology that makes the service work.

 

“Most of the development work went into the network intelligence, in the delay-tolerant routing structures and applications we set up,” Omojola says. “To the villagers, it feels like they’re online [at the local kiosk] even though they’re not.”

 

A good part of the intelligence in the system is figuring out the Web-based information most important to the villagers—“the .003% of the Web that is relevant to them,” as Hasson puts it. The United Villages system then regularly updates that information in the caches at the kiosks.

 

Some of the development work did go into the devices on the buses, which are ruggedized, have no input/output and don’t require a human operator. They automatically connect to the village kiosks at each stop and synchronize data, and then do the same at the hub in Bhubaneswar.

 

Bringing in business

 

First Mile Solutions’ first customer was an NGO that bought the technology to provide basic, free Internet connectivity in rural Cambodia. Other sales followed. For the first few years of the company’s existence, Hasson and his crew traveled around third-world countries, installing systems for NGOs.

 

“It was a lot of fun,” Hasson says. “But we weren’t growing fast enough, it wasn’t scalable. So we went back to the drawing board.”

 

They came up with United Villages, the service, which they began piloting in Orissa starting in August 2006.

 

The company owns the mobile infrastructure and the facilities at the Bhubaneswar hub. It sells the kiosks to shop owners in the villages. “They provide the human interface to the services,” Hasson explains. It’s a crucial interface since many of the villagers are illiterate.

 

The pitch to shop owners is that they’re investing in a new business opportunity that complements what they’re already doing. The kiosks—off-the-shelf Wi-Fi-equipped Windows PCs with VoIP phones attached to enable the store-and-forward voice mail application—cost about US$450.

 

Shop owners also bulk-buy prepaid United Villages cards and sell them at a profit to customers. The villagers use the cards to pay for services such as e-mail, voice mail, Web browsing, teleshopping, etc.

 

“The whole idea,” Hasson says, “was to use the technology to break down barriers, to provide poor villagers with an e-mail account and phone number for under a dollar. That was our mission.”

 

But he soon discovered that providing basic services wasn’t enough. “Solving the last mile problem does not necessarily solve the last meter problem. We realized a couple of years ago, to our dismay, that just putting connectivity out there doesn’t mean you make money. You have to make it relevant to each person.”

 

So the company began developing value-added services—like e-shopping. It started with requests from villagers that United Villages staff pick up items in town and send them back on the bus.

 

Now it’s a full-scale commercial service, with United Villages wholesale buying about 600 commonly requested items and merchandising them at a Web site. Because the company gets volume discounts on the products it stocks, it can sell them to the villagers for about what they’d pay in Bhubaneswar, occasionally less—and the service saves them the time and expense of a bus trip.

 

The company hires teenagers to ride the buses from village to village, dropping off orders at the shops where the kiosks are located. The next phase was to recruit commission-only door-to-door sales people to sell the products in the village and then deliver them right to customers’ doors when they arrived on the bus.

 

“That’s, again, the necessary human interface,” Hasson says. “It helps overcome the literacy challenge—and the newness challenge. The [door-to-door sales people] are like the Amway woman.”

 

The matrimonial service came about in a similar way. Online matrimonial match-making services are all the rage in India, but the popular services cater mainly to city people. It was difficult for villagers to find suitable matches, so United Villages filled the gap with its own service just for them.

 

Turning a profit

 

It’s free for now. Anyone who registers and uploads their profile can view the database, but once there are enough participants, the company will turn it into a commercial service, Hasson says.

 

He knows exactly what he needs to do to make the company profitable. In India, it will take about 1,500 villages with 70 users per villages each spending about $1 a month. The company is on target in Orissa. Now it’s set to roll out across the country in the next few months, starting in Rajasthan, one of the largest states.

 

Next on the horizon: Brazil—within six months, Hasson says—followed by China.

 

The gradual spread of cellular data services is adding a new wrinkle. Now the buses can sync whenever they pass through a cellular coverage area. But the spread of cellular won’t eliminate the need for United Villages’ services, Hasson says.

 

Nor will the spread of WiMAX—still a long way off in third-world countries—or Nicholas Negroponte’s $100 laptop project (now $188).

 

“Most users don’t have their own computers and we don’t think that’s going to change anytime soon,” Hasson says. “They just don’t have the money for it—even if it’s only $188. It’s not on the top of their list.”

 

“We think the shared access model, with the village sharing one or two computers, and a store-and-forward environment will continue to make sense for a long time.”

 

Much was written a few years ago about the digital divide, the desperate plight of suburban and rural Americans who couldn’t get broadband Internet access. Poor lambs.

 

But the true digital divide was always among the world’s teeming poor, especially rural poor in countries like India. They can’t afford telephones, let alone computers and broadband access—and even if they could, it’s rarely available.

 

Kudos to Hasson for seeing a business opportunity in such dire circumstances--especially as it's one that also creates business opportunities for the people in those countries.



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