As a sleepy agrarian town in western India, Baramati may seem an unusual place to attract a visit from the chairman of Intel. But its very ordinariness may be what attracted Craig Barrett in the first place.
Intel has chosen the small town in the state of Maharashtra as the site for several initiatives to bring IT to developing rural areas. Baramati is also the constituency of the country’s powerful agriculture minister, Sharad Pawar, who has shown interest in technology initiatives like telemedicine and mobile computing.
The Indian rural market is seen as a big opportunity for a variety of high-tech products, including mobile phones. Several multinational technology companies, including Microsoft, are taking part in programs to bring IT and associated services to India’s rural masses.
Along with Indian government officials, Barrett was in town Thursday to inaugurate Baramati’s first “digital hospital” and WiMax network. Working with the government and other companies, Intel has set up a high-speed network to connect the town’s community computer center and public kiosks, donated PCs and developed a telemedicine program for Baramati’s government hospital.
As a long-range wireless technology, WiMax is ideal for providing broadband connectivity to vast rural areas, particularly where well-developed fixed-line networks are not present, Barrett told reporters.
IT is only one of the many tools needed by rural people, who may also lack good roads and adequate food and water supplies, he said. IT will, however, play a role in improving education, health care and access to government services, he added.
Barrett’s modest view of technology’s role in rural development is in line with the thinking among some nongovernmental organizations in India, which believe technology’s role in developing rural India has been over-emphasized.
Intel is investing in Baramati as part of its World Ahead program to bring technology to underserved communities. The company said in May that it was investing US$1 billion over five years on new products, broadband connectivity and education for developing countries.
As part of this program, Intel has trained 600,000 teachers in India to use computers and plans to increase that number to 1 million over the next few years, Barrett said. Intel has also launched a rugged “community PC” that can run off a car battery during power outages. The product may be tried in other countries with similar needs to India, Barrett said.
The experience gained in Baramati could lead to a basic recipe that could be applied to other countries attempting to bridge the digital divide, said Barrett, who is also chairman of the United Nations’ Global Alliance for Information and Communication Technologies.
Some of the projects to bridge the digital divide have been successful, while others have failed, he acknowledged.
Intel has more than 3,000 staff in India, about half of whom are involved in chip design. The company does not manufacture chips in India, however, despite requests by Indian government officials. Several countries are competing to attract chip-manufacturing operations, but as the business gets more competitive, a lot will depend on the incentives offered by local governments, Barrett said. Intel will be looking closely at a package of incentives that the Indian government is set to announce soon, he added.
-John Ribeiro, IDG News Service (Bangalore Bureau)
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