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December 2008 - Issue #4

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Mobile internet finds new meaning

Story by David Adams

View articles in related topics: Computing, Information Technology, Industry Collaboration

In the state of Orissa, India, the lack of internet access in rural and regional areas has led one company to implement an unusual approach to connectivity.

United Villages Networks has introduced a low-cost internet system known as DakNet that can be accessed through computer kiosks located in village shops or schools.

Rather than providing expensive ‘always on’ connectivity, computers in these kiosks only connect to the internet when a local bus passes by the kiosk on its regular route.

The bus is fitted with a wireless transmitter and receiver that downloads and uploads data from the computer kiosk. When the bus returns to its main depot in the state capital, this data is then transferred to the internet.

The DakNet system is one of many innovative ways in which companies and agencies in India are using technology. It has been unearthed as part of a study into how information and communication technology is applied in low-infrastructure areas of India and the cultural, economic and sociotechnical consequences of these applications.

Known as Moving Content, the project is a collaborative effort between Swinburne University of Technology, Queensland University of Technology (QUT) and the US-based Intel Corporation. Funded by Intel’s Research Council, the three-year project – which is being conducted under the banner of the Australian Research Council (ARC) Centre of Excellence for Creative Industries and Innovation – is about halfway through.

The project team consists of six researchers, based across Australia, the US and India. Their research sites are clustered along the route of India’s Golden Quadrilateral – a major highway development that links the cities of Delhi, Kolkata, Chennai and Mumbai.

Jerry Watkins, a senior lecturer in Swinburne’s Faculty of Design, says the researchers undertook a “substantial” piece of field work in Orissa in April 2008 examining the impact infrastructure such as the internet and the Golden Quadrilateral road project has had on villages and communities.

He says that one of the most interesting aspects of the United Villages system is what people use the internet for. Although the company’s bus-mounted WiFi internet system was originally intended to allow villagers to access the internet for services such as email, voicemail and SMS, Mr Watkins says an e-shopping system has become tremendously popular, not only with villagers but also small-business owners.

“The consumer is buying cheaper products, and small businessmen have been able to order goods that are delivered to their door, thus avoiding the need to shut up shop and go into town to buy stock,” he says.

Associate Professor Jo Tacchi, of the Creative Industries Faculty at QUT says the project builds upon previous work by the research team, including the ARC/UNESCO-funded project, Finding A Voice. This earlier study examined how community-based media and new technologies can be used to help people on the margins of society have a voice in the decisions that affect their lives.

“The Moving Content project is taking that a little further in low-infrastructure areas in India by looking at the conditions that allow for interesting and innovative outcomes to emerge from information and communication technology projects. They might be commercial, they might be public sector, they might be community-based or non-profit.”

Moving Content is one of a long line of research projects that the Intel Corporation has supported to explore future technology directions. Dr Genevieve Bell, director of user experiences at Intel, says recent projects have included tracking the growth of mobile computing in Britain and examining privacy practices in the US.

“Our aim in all of these is really to increase our knowledge base about what people are doing. And the particular aim in social sciences, interactivity design and new media areas is to look at what the patterns of activity are that are going on globally: what are the kind of barriers to adoption that people are facing; and, equally, what are the kinds of compelling value propositions that we see being wrapped around technology that drive their adoption despite remarkable obstacles?”

Dr Bell says the company’s principal interest in the Moving Content project revolves around the last of these. “Part of what this project is already producing is a set of compelling stories about how consumers in rural India are taking advantage of the internet; when, in fact, it’s a fairly complicated thing to go about doing,” she says. “I think it’s also giving us an awareness of the kinds of technology experiments that are going on at a grassroots level in other parts of the world.”

While the project’s findings will be fed back through the academic community and to development groups working in countries like India, they will also be of interest to Australia, where distance remains a major constraint to internet connectivity.

“I think the United Villages example shows how you can achieve this asynchronous connection across a big area at a fraction of the cost,” Mr Watkins says. “The Australian Government is talking about financing a national broadband system and, although these things are desirable, are they really cost-effective? Do we need to attempt to supply always-on broadband across an enormous country when asynchronous systems can deliver nearly the same level of service at a fraction of the cost?”

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