by Julie Hanson

Global IT: It Takes a Corporation to Wire a Village

Nov 15, 20032 mins
Data Center

In Kuppam, India, people earn less than $1 a day. Few go beyond eighth grade. They’re mainly sugar cane and peanut farmers. And after the sun sets on their labors, they visit their local Internet cafŽ to learn how to grow more peanuts and cane, deal with India’s baroque bureaucracy, or look for the education, grants and jobs that will get them out of those steamy fields forever.

Through a three-year project that began in February 2002, Hewlett-Packard plans to spend $3 million in Kuppam, a community of 300,000, to bring Internet access to 15 local business centers. These business centers already offer copy and fax services, but HP has been stringing 2 megabit lines into these centers and populating them with computers loaded with software designed for Kuppam’s limited literacy levels. HP even built an 802.11 wireless network for mobile units designed to travel to the outreaches of Kuppam.

“The biggest challenge we found was the gap between those offering services and the people needing them,” says Anand Tawker, who grew up east of Kuppam in Chennai, India, and is HP’s leader of the project, called I-community. For example, Tawker says, a farmer could travel an entire day to a government office in another city in search of a specific agricultural grant form, only to find it wasn’t there. Or be told that the form costs $25?when, in fact, it was free.

Now, the farmer can fill out and send those same forms from the cafŽ for an approximate Internet usage fee of $1.50. Tawker estimates a cost of $2.50 to $5 for filling out the form the old-fashioned way, taking travel into consideration but not counting bribes.

For HP, I-community is a chance to see which services might be profitable in India, says Maureen Conway, an HP vice president of emerging market solutions. (One idea: a pay-per-use model for Internet access.) It seems that HP can bank on winning goodwill. Kuppam’s first Internet cafŽ opened in April 2002, and within the first 40 days, more than 1,600 people logged on.