In an effort to kick-start cashless payments and connect residents with telemedicine and tele-education resources, India will provide free Wi-Fi to as many as 1,050 rural villages. This Digital Village scheme will provide regular internet access to anyone who wants to connect to it, most likely using smartphones.
“The project is a public/private partnership and will be driven through the common service centers (CSCs),” Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) secretary Aruna Sundararajan told India’s Economic Times. In rural India, CSCs are where people go to go access various digital services, from filling out government forms to making digital payments. Now, MeitY will work with local entrepreneurs and managers to turn CSCs into “retailers of bandwidth” to get internet into the villages. That may be via the country’s in-progress fiber network, or by piggybacking on the connections of neighboring villages.
Lack of internet in villages is a barrier to cashless transactions: You can’t pay anyone without being online. In December 2016, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi banned almost all of his country’s cash with only a few hours notice, replacing it with newly-issued bills in order to collect tax on black money–undeclared, unrecorded transactions used to avoid taxes. India runs on cash–it accounts for around 98% of all transactions–so replacing it is a big job.
Just as rural areas in developing countries skipped the landline stage of telephone networks and opted for easy-to-install cellular networks instead, India seems to be skipping credit cards and going straight to digital cash. The advantage for the government is clear: E-cash can be tracked and taxed. But it also means that villagers can make transactions online without credit cards, easing access for a variety of resources.
The Digital Village scheme will work via LED streetlights, which will be engineered to serve as Wi-Fi hotspots. Free internet access will be provided for a minimum of five hours per day, and the government has budgeted some $62 million for the scheme. The tele-medicine service will provide people with consultations and refer them to nearby hospitals; through the tele-education service, students can participate in two-way interactive sessions overseen by local schools.
The scope of this 1,000-village pilot, along with the amount of money involved, shows how serious India is about getting its population online. Looked at another way, giving villages free Wi-Fi could be seen as a cheap and efficient way to extend education and medicine to far-flung places, as well as kickstarting India’s online economy.