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Wednesday, Aug 07, 2002

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Dusty lanes join info highway

S. Gopikrishna Warrier

A shack-like structure in an interior TN village spells hope — it's no arrack shop but an Internet kiosk.

The operator at the Chiraag Internet kiosk at Keezhvalavu holds up a moth-eaten teak leaf for treatment tips over the Internet

MUTHUPANDY, a school teacher working in back-of-beyond Eritrea in Africa, could not believe his eyes when he received an e-mail from his village, Pathinettankudi, in the interiors of Madurai district in Tamil Nadu. He sent a message to the `Chiraag' Internet kiosk operator at the village to confirm that the mail was actually sent from his village.

For V. Muthuswamy, father of Muthupandy, a farmer at the village, the opportunity of corresponding with his son through e-mail from the village itself meant many benefits. First, instead of the earlier once-in-a-month communication, he could send and receive a message whenever he needed to do so. Two, it saved on costs and time, which was required earlier to travel to Madurai city to send e-mails.

Spirit of enterprise

At Keezhvalavu village, the enterprising kiosk operator, A. Abdul Razaak, has been able to get his neighbours to use the Net for various uses. Having learnt his marketing tricks from running a franchise computer training class for Aptech at another village, Razaak has been giving his villagers a whole range of services at cheap rates so that they get used to the concept of Internet use.

Among the most popular service is e-governance, where the villagers file applications for birth certificates, death certificates, etc., through the Net. Since the Tamil Nadu Government has taken a policy decision to encourage e-governance, the villagers get a response from the Melur taluk office within two days.

Once the certificate is ready, Razaak provides another value-added service. He sends his man to collect the document for them. All this at a total cost of around Rs 25, of which Rs 15 is the government fee.

The villagers do not have to lose time (which immediately translates to money for anyone who works on a daily wage) travelling to the taluk office. And they do not need to face the uncertainty of being asked to "come tomorrow" by the officials at the office.

Using the webcam on his Internet machine, Razaak has also sent pictures of moth-eaten teak leaves to the agriculture college at Ottakadai. With cooperation from the scientists there the farmer gets a diagnosis and also a prescription on the treatment.

Keezhvalavu also has an e-referral facility with the Arvind Eye Hospital of Madurai for ophthalmological problems. Earlier Razaak had invited the hospital staff to conduct a free eye camp at the village.

The Internet kiosks, with the brand name `Chiraag', are among the 47 Internet user centres set up by n-Logue Communications Pvt Ltd using the indigenously developed CorDECT wireless in local loop technology. N-Logue was promoted as a company to set up this technology in a rural area by Vishal Bharat Comnet, a trust set up by several Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) alumni and IT industry professionals.

The Chiraag kiosk at Pathinettankudi village in the interiors of Madurai district, Tamil Nadu.

While Melur is one of the 14 projects that n-Logue is implementing across the country, it is different because of its sponsorship from the Sustainable Access in Rural India (SARI) project.

According to Joseph Thomas, Project Manager of SARI, the Melur project is being sponsored by SARI to experiment on the impact of technology application in rural areas.

"Through this project we have managed to set up among the largest concentration of Internet kiosks in a rural area," he says.

SARI itself is a joint effort of the TeNeT Group at IIT Madras; Berkman Centre for Internet and Society at Harvard University Law School; Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Media Labs Asia; I-Gyan, New Delhi. The project funding is from ICICI. The aim of the project, according to Thomas, is to show that viable markets exist for information and communication services in rural, poor areas. This can be tapped by inventing and deploying innovative technologies and business models. "The ultimate aim is to link these activities to sustainable human development objectives."

The technological backbone is the wireless in local loop connectivity between the access centre at Melur and the Internet kiosks.

The initial access is in a 10-km radius from the access centre, Thomas says. This can be stretched to a radius of 25 km with the setting up of relay base stations, work on which has already begun and some connections have been established. Within the 2,000 area covered in this circle, between 500 and 1,000 Internet connections can be provided.

According to Y. Srinivas, Vice-President, n-Logue, from the access centre a 35 kbps Internet connection has been provided to the kiosks. Though the system also has the capability of providing voice connectivity, the licence obtained by n-Logue is only for Internet connectivity.

D.K. Jain, Senior Vice-President, n-Logue, explains that the Melur project is being implemented in the three-tier model that has been designed for all such projects.

At the first tier is the kiosk operator. The second tier is represented by the local service provider (LSP) - in this case SARI, and in other cases a local entrepreneur - who runs the access centre. The third tier is n-Logue, the company that implements the project.

The entire collection is made by n-Logue, since it owns the licence. As per the arrangement at Melur, the kiosks, at present, pay Rs 750 a month to the LSP. However, at other places the kiosks are expected to pay Rs 20 for an hour's usage. The net returns after reducing the access centre expenses are shared 50:50 between the LSP and n-Logue.

"While the LSP owner has to invest only 25 per cent of the access centre cost, he gets 50 per cent of the returns," says Jain. "With this model we hope that the kiosk operator breaks even in one year, the LSP in 18 months, and we in three years time."

For the kiosk operators in the Melur project, the revenue has gradually started pouring in. Thomas says that most of them using the computer for Internet browsing is only one of the three streams of revenue.

The other two are computer training and jobwork printing.

From his kiosk Razaak gets around Rs 3,000 per month from Internet browsing charges. His computer education classes earn him Rs 7,000. With an expenditure of Rs 6,000 he has already started making a reasonable profit. And maybe if the profits continue, his business interests will be nurtured, while the other people of his village find more utility from the Internet connection.

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