Taking the Internet to the People

At Internet outposts in India, Peru, and Hungary, even the computer illiterate reap the advantages of the Web

13 min read
Ethnographers from Intel Corp. in India listened to the concerns of local business owners.
Ethnographers from Intel Corp. circled the globe to observe indigenous Internet use. In India, they listened to the concerns of local business owners.
Photo: Tony Salvador/John Sherry

In the Morena District in the state of Madhya Pradesh, India, an illiterate woman approaches the local soochak, the manager of an Internet kiosk. She complains about a water well that is not operating, and the soochak, for a small fee, uses a PC to enter her complaint on an electronic form, uploading it to a local hub, where it is registered with the authorities.

In Cuzco, Peru, a woman needs to contact her emigrant son in New York City for money to pay a doctor’s bill. An international phone call would be prohibitively expensive. Instead, she goes to the local cabina pública, a small public computer center, where voice-over-Internet capability allows her to make a short call to her son for a sol or less—about 30 US cents. She has been communicating with him in this way for the past seven years.

In Eastern Hungary, a man named Laszló, who hunts rabbits to sell to restaurants, talks about his business with János, the local operator of a teleház, a small public facility with PCs. János surfs the Web to locate a government grant for the growing of special seed corn. Laszló can use this corn to feed the rabbits through the winter, so they’ll be fatter for spring hunting.

These three cases are all strong examples of people in less-developed areas reaping real benefits from Internet access. The value of the Internet as a development tool manifests itself in surprising ways; none of these users needed to become computer literate to benefit from Internet access.

In fact, only about 10 percent of the people on the planet are familiar with the Internet and what it can do. Most of them live in industrialized countries, or if they live in developing countries, they are part of the well-off, well-educated, and often English-speaking minority that resides in urban areas. Few come from the poor and sometimes illiterate masses.

The split between those with and those without access to digital technologies is referred to as the digital divide. But that phrase hides the complexity of the problem, because it focuses on the “having” and the “not having” of technology. Instead, what really matters is the ability to benefit from technology, whether or not that technology is personally owned.

Although many people and organizations know that simply giving away computers is hardly sufficient to bridge the digital divide, it’s far less clear what else should be done. Conditions in Tokyo don’t match those in Lima, Peru; those in New York City don’t match those in Bangalore, India. And, as it turns out, technology alone isn’t the solution. What the Indian, Peruvian, and Hungarian examples have in common is the careful study of social networks and the local business entrepreneurship that yielded the key insights that led to successful applications.

As ethnographers employed by Intel Corp.’s People and Practices Group, based in Hillsboro, Ore., we spent nearly four years, from 2001 to 2005, circling the world to find out how computers are being used by typical people in different cultures. We investigated communities in more than 10 countries in Asia, Europe, Latin America, and North Africa, visiting more than 100 homes and businesses. We followed people around, participated in their daily activities, and held countless conversations intended to elicit the insights we needed for our work [see photos, "Around the World”].

Our purpose was not to sell Intel Pentium chips, or even to figure out what kinds of computers would sell in emerging markets. Our 10-person, self-directed group is chartered instead to look for socially significant topics that will affect the company in the future—usually five to 10 years into the future. Corporate benefits, particularly at the beginning, were not obvious, but our results are just now being felt companywide in new organizational structures and new product directions. The first new product influenced by this project, the rugged “community computer,” was demonstrated in San Francisco this past August.

All over the developing world, public Internet facilities like the ones mentioned above are springing up to fill niches and make lives better. These facilities are far different from the Internet cafés that are well established on the urban scene, where people who are already Internet savvy access their e-mail or play games. As we’ll show in the following cases, public Internet facilities are solving real problems, defying cookie-cutter categorizations of nonoriginality, and becoming a growing and vital force in the vast developing world.

Bridging the Bureaucracy MORENA DISTRICT, INDIA

In almost any rural village in India, you’ll see the same scene we saw in the Morena District, a region in the state of Madhya Pradesh, one of many stops on our four-year journey. Along the road, camels, bullocks, and donkeys pull carts sometimes piled up to two stories high with goods. Adults and children run freely, and whole families parade on foot.

Speeding by are bicycles and pedal rickshaws, tractors, buses with passengers hanging from the sides and on top, and trucks moving noisily along in various stages of repair. Vehicles with two, three, and four wheels carry any number of passengers (we once saw five people on one moped).

Typically, this traffic competes with sheep, cattle, goats, dogs, and birds in sharing the two-lane roads that connect one village to another, villages to the towns, and towns to the cities of India. If the road is paved at all, it may not have a center line. The left side and the right side are pretty much interchangeable with respect to direction of travel. One-way segments are one way only inasmuch as no one is going the other way at that moment.

For a village resident to go to the district headquarters to handle any kind of government business, he—and increasingly she—must get out on these roads and make what often ends up being a daylong journey into town. He must pay for his bus fare and bring food for the journey, and most certainly will lose a day’s wages. And when he gets to his destination, he will probably stand in line for hours, not necessarily completing his task and possibly having to do the whole trip all over again.

The list of tasks that requires this arduous journey is long. Rural Indians make the trek to larger regional cities to learn the market prices for crops or to obtain marriage or gun licenses, caste or domicile certificates, and land records. They go to register complaints about government services—inoperative wells, for instance, or delays in turning on electricity that was promised. And they go to complain about their neighbors—disputes that in more developed locales are handled with civil lawsuits.

The arduous and often fruitless journey to deal with day-to-day bureaucratic necessities is a huge problem for village residents, and a technical solution could make a difference in their everyday lives.

It is an idea that occurred several years ago to Satyan Mishra, a social entrepreneur and the CEO of Drishtee, which is a for-profit, Indian company based in New Delhi. Drishtee is in the business of franchising information kiosks and has some 300 of them [see photo, "Open for Business”].

Inside each information kiosk is a small shop and a personal computer with dial-up access to a Drishtee hub. The hub is an office housed in the main government building of whatever district the kiosk is in. Each kiosk is owned and operated by its soochak, the person a villager meets with to obtain a certificate or file a complaint. The soochak types the information onto the appropriate electronic form, pulled from an assortment of forms he keeps on the computer. At the end of the day, the soochak dials in to the district office hub, uploads the day’s requests, and downloads any returned documents—dispositions of complaints, licenses, and certificates.

At the district hub, two Drishtee employees print out the requests from all of the information kiosks in satellite villages. The next day they hand-carry the requests to the appropriate government offices, and wait or return later to collect the results. Villagers return to the information kiosk to find out the resolution of their complaint or request.

The cost to the villager is the standard filing fee of whatever document is used, plus a little extra as profit for Drishtee; that markup is usually less than the equivalent of US $1.

One of the most challenging aspects of Drishtee’s business is locating appropriate soochaks . Drishtee staff members approach village and business leaders inquiring as to who might be an appropriate candidate. As franchisees, the soochak s not only have to be able to work the PC and operate a business. They must also assume the capital expenses of the kiosk, either on their own or by qualifying for a loan for the licensing fee charged by Drishtee and other costs, like hardware and phone services. The equipment expenses include the PC and an uninterruptible power supply that keeps the business going even in the face of daily power outages.

The technology is modest and completely straightforward: dial-up Internet access from an off-the-shelf PC to a Drishtee server in a distant city. The business works not because of any custom software or hardware innovations but because Drishtee’s employees at the district capital painstakingly build relationships with the highest officials there, enabling them to smoothly navigate the choppy waves of local bureaucracy. The district officials in turn benefit by more easily attending to rural areas that since time immemorial have been difficult to reach. Between Drishtee and local officials, there are typically no formal contracts and no bids.

Also important is the ability of the Drishtee employees to work within the social networks of each village, building trust, because many of the matters handled are highly personal. Drishtee selects the local kiosk operator in conjunction with leading citizens in the village. Drishtee might approach the village elder and begin inquiries: “Who is the most educated? Who’s the wealthiest?” These characteristics are important to finding people who have a good chance of succeeding.

Eventually, the choice is made. Implicit in the approval of the village elder and the other important citizens is the understanding that these people will support the new entrepreneur in whatever way they can. Several times we saw the village elder actively work to promote the new business. The new soochak likewise understood the best ways to mobilize additional people in his sphere of influence, for example, by asking friends and colleagues to assist in such chores as gathering people together or distributing flyers, both ways of publicizing the business.

With a Drishtee franchise in place, village residents save time and money in their dealings with the government bureaucracy, making their lives much easier. Though the value of the technology is shared, its use is not; only the soochak uses the PC. Computer literacy is not required for computers and communications to make a huge difference in daily life.

Phone Booths and Movie Theaters LIMA, PERU

imgIllustration: Tony Salvador/John Sherry

When we visited Lima, Peru, the weather forecast in the newspaper said 100 percent humidity but no rain. It’s a climatic condition called garúa, and it goes on for five to six months every year. Tiny water droplets are suspended in the air. You might even feel wet, but you’d be hard-pressed to prove that you’re wet. It’s an odd sensation.

Similarly, to a world traveler who’s familiar with a wide range of cybercafés, it’s odd to step into a cabina pública. It feels like other cybercafés you’ve been in, yet something’s different.

Cabinas públicas are public booths or cabins that are independently owned, for-profit businesses providing shared access to computing, communications, and the Internet. Situated almost exclusively in cities and large towns, they appear to be no-frills cybercafés to a passing observer.

Physically, a typical cabina occupies a small storefront. Most have 10 or 20 PCs and connect to the Internet through one DSL line for every 10 computers. Cabina hours are often very long to accommodate a wide range of users—from early morning commuters to young people who play networked games with each other well past midnight. The latest estimate we have puts the number of cabinas throughout Peru at 2500 to 3500, mostly in and around the capital, Lima; others put the total closer to 2000.

The distinction between cybercafés and cabinas is best seen in Cuzco, the former capital of the Incan empire in Peru. This key tourist destination is the starting point for treks to the famous ruins of Machu Picchu. The self-proclaimed “Internet cafés” located near the town’s center appear just as you might expect. These cybercafés offer breakfast, evening snacks, full bars, comfortable seating, music, and in some cases, an interior decor theme—a jungle setting, for example.

The cabinas públicas, on the other hand, are located roughly a mile away from the center of Cuzco, near the National University of San Antonio [see photo, "Cuzco Cabina”]. They are virtually indistinguishable from their sibling cabinas in Lima. Inside you see 10 to 20 machines, side by side, with minimal surroundings—no drinks, no food, and no fancy decor.

Cabinas are not a luxury but rather an economical alternative for several important services. They get most of their profits from their role as phone centers, allowing families to keep in touch with relatives all over the world. Using voice over Internet Protocol, cabinas let customers make international phone calls far more cheaply than they could with conventional telephones.

Families need to talk, even if only to arrange for sending remittances. Making these calls not only satisfies familial and social obligations, but the money sent as a result represents a significant portion of many household incomes.

Some cabina operators have figured out how to download movies over the Net and put them in shared files on their network. Individuals and couples come in, sit together, and, for the cost of a couple of hours of computer rental—about US $1 or $2—watch a movie. It’s cheaper than what it would cost to go to a cinema—and most neighborhoods in Cuzco do not have cinemas, anyway. Some people also use the computers at the cabinas to maintain their business accounts, keeping the data on floppy disks.

But perhaps the biggest factor distinguishing cabinas from conventional Internet cafés is their history. José Soriano, a Peruvian journalist who wanted to develop a computer network and also help his country progress, conceived cabinas. He figured out a formula for them and proceeded to offer, throughout Lima and then in Cuzco as well, free how-to classes on setting one up. More than 100 000 people attended at least one of his classes.

In these sessions, he basically gave out the recipe for starting, operating, and making money with a cabina. Any attendee who could afford the capital expenses and could arrange for the DSL lines could start one.

While cabinas públicas continue to thrive in Peru, competitive pressures have emerged from this seeding. So many have opened up that the price competition is intense; imagine if a big city were to deregulate taxi services so that any car could be a taxi. In India, by contrast, Drishtee guarantees its franchisees a certain number of villagers per Drishtee information kiosk. And yet, somehow, cabinas seem to thrive and replicate, bringing real benefits to the people who use them, profits for owners, and jobs for employees.

Social Clubs—And More Pócspetri, Hungary

imgIllustration: Tony Salvador/John Sherry

We arrived in the northeastern Hungarian village of Pócspetri in early evening. The teleház (a word that, loosely translated, means telecommunications cottage) is in an unassuming building in the center of the village. The entire two-room facility measures approximately 8 by 15 meters. Immediately inside the front door of one room is a table with some local and regional magazines; a bench crammed with 10 PCs lines the perimeter of the room on three walls. Groups are clustered around each computer, some people sitting in chairs, some standing. Ranging in age from the early teens to the early twenties, the youths are playing games, surfing the Internet, and doing homework [see photo, "Hungarian Hangout”].

In the second room, partitioned off from the first with flimsy accordion doors, is the desk of the teleház operator, who sits in front of a computer facing a group of three sofas. Several people are already there as we sit down and are offered drinks and snacks. The operator deals with technical problems as they come up, but her main job is to search the Internet for grants that could benefit village residents and then help the people write the grant applications. She has successfully obtained funds to nurture a local children’s clothing business, build a center to do contract data entry, and even buy a machine that automatically serves tennis balls.

Two kilometers away, in Máriapócs, is another teleház. This one is slightly smaller, housed in an old, run-down house. The front room is similar to that of the Pócspetri teleház—10 computers ring the periphery. The second room again has the manager’s desk and computer, but it is dimly lit and dominated by a large television. This room becomes the local movie house in the evenings, after the manager’s computer is attached to the television.

The real elegance of the teleház is the subtle way that these places are all the same, and yet each is customized to its community. The Máriapócs teleház is very much a social center; the No. 1 job at the Pócspetri teleház is economic development. Nevertheless, superficially, the two buildings are almost identical.

Mátyás Gáspar, the president of the European Union of Telecottage Associations, is credited with the establishment of the first teleház. He’s also responsible for the conception and ongoing promotion of the teleház in Hungary, as well as in Slovenia, Slovakia, and Romania and in African countries.

In Hungary, the business model for the teleház has three legs. Each is sponsored by a local nonprofit civic organization, created by the local government explicitly for the teleház, and by an independent for-profit operator. The official owner is the civic organization; the local government supports the enterprise with either a building or land or some other resource. The operator who runs the business profits through a variety of means, such as charging for the computer time used in playing games or in searching the Web. The operator also writes grant applications for community members and gets a fee or a percentage of the grant if it’s accepted.

Although these legal and operational structures are the same, each teleház we visited differed in its goals, the services and products it offered, and its primary beneficiaries. If it is owned by an arts organization, for instance, the teleház might run a festival, whereas one owned by a chamber of commerce would focus on economic development or tourism. The teleház in Pócspetri belongs to a loose confederation called the Teleház Association in Hungary.

The differences also depend on the operators themselves, as well as on the patrons and the needs of the community. Some of these telecottages serve primarily as the equivalent of a social club without alcohol for teenagers. Others provide connections for people eager to do business in the area. Some are thriving businesses in their own right, integrally embedded in their local ecosystems. One we saw, for example, catalyzed an entire tourist economy in the area, sparking the development of restaurants, hotels, and other tourist facilities.

The first 30 telecottages in the teleház movement were funded in the late 1990s with a variety of grants from independent organizations and governments. The funding was part of a wide-ranging effort to develop the country following Hungary’s emergence in the late 1980s from decades of Soviet control. The telecottages thrive today because local operators know their communities and can work with residents to match their needs, whether for government grant writing or for game playing.

An information kiosk, a cabina pública, and a teleház are different in appearance and in operation. Each, however, is economically valuable to its local community. The proprietors and entrepreneurs running these establishments rely on local social networks and the knowledge of how to mobilize resources locally to benefit the community. They use—and in some cases co-opt—technology to meet the needs of their local customers, needs that are usually very different from those of people living in more developed countries.

The work of our group, though most often begun as pure research without a particular product concept in mind, has begun to make waves within Intel. The company now has a product in development that relates to the way computers are used to support local economic development in rural India, but exactly how it works is confidential at the time this article is going to press. And the knowledge gained by our research will likely affect other products and business strategies in development.

In January, Intel completely reorganized its corporate structure. Previously aligned over product lines, the company is now aligned by markets. Moreover, Intel itself is beginning to define and design indigenous products. During a recent speech in Brazil, Intel CEO Paul Otellini announced that the company would establish a center in São Paulo, to help define new computing platforms and technologies that meet local market needs. The São Paulo center will employ local resources and look for specific products and technology concepts that address the needs of the Latin American markets. Otellini said Intel is making a concerted effort to establish such localized technology centers around the world.

To date, the people who developed the world’s computing hardware and software created it to fit their world—the world of the “haves.” Our study provided a glimpse into the way technology is being applied in the rest of the world, and how, in the future, it might be designed to better fit into that world.

About the Authors

TONY SALVADOR and JOHN SHERRY are ethnographers with Intel Corp., in Hillsboro, Ore. Salvador has a Ph.D. in human factors and experimental psychology from Tufts University, in Boston. Sherry has a B.S. in computer science from the University of Portland, in Oregon, and a Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of Arizona, in Tempe.

To Probe Further

Details of the history and franchising of information kiosks by Drishtee in New Delhi are available at https://www.drishtee.com. A discussion of the development of Hungary’s teleház “telecommunications cottage” movement is at https://www.itu.int/itud/ict/cs/hungary/material/hungary.pdf.

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