S.K. Bharadwaj's octogenarian uncle S.N. Bharadwaj has never seen a computer. That's not surprising, since he is a farmer in India's remote state of Uttar Pradesh. His village has no phones, never mind Internet access. Even so, the old guy is "delighted" to get emails several times a week from his nephew in Delhi, some 300 miles away.
India Post's ePost system allows anyone with Internet access to send email to those without it and vice versa. The logistically ambitious project is emblematic of modern India: Though it's a global technology powerhouse, life for many of its people hasn't changed much in centuries. A quarter of Indians live below the poverty line, and only about 6% use the Internet.
Using ePost, Bharadwaj can send an email to his uncle's local post office, where it is printed and hand delivered. In reverse, rural patrons can handwrite letters and have them translated into emails. Delivery by ePost-gram costs less than 25 cents per page and usually takes a day, compared with about a week by snail mail. R.R.P. Singh, a general manager of marketing with India Post, says he has heard of expatriates using ePost to reach relatives back home who are off the grid. "You can talk about any technology you like—but somewhere the last mile has to be walked by somebody," Singh says.
Now India Post is aiming the service at corporate customers with bigger budgets, promoting ePost as a way to easily and affordably reach the unconnected masses. A recent upgrade to the technology, in fact, allows emailers to reach 9,999 addresses at once. That's right: Even villagers on the wrong side of the digital divide can enjoy the wonders of corporate spam.
Estimated number of Internet users in India,
2000: 5 million.
In 2006: 40 million.
Source: Internet World Stats
A version of this article appeared in the March 2007 issue of Fast Company magazine.