Ericsson, BSNL, Airtel, Apollo Hospitals, Edurite Technologies, Turner Broadcasting and an NGO Hand-in-Hand are partners in reaching out to about one-and-a-half dozen remote villages around the
ancient sea port Mahabalipuram.
Pioneered by Ericsson's WCDMA/HSPA technology (basically 3G), the Gram Jyothi scheme would ensure that these villages are connected to the world through broadband for e-health and e-education. It may look like a programme of combined Corporate Social Responsibility, though in reality, it is the roll out of a fantastic business model to leverage cutting edge technology to tap the rural economy. Not in lakhs or thousands but in installments of one or two rupee per family per day.
Each partner provides a service and has his share in the business. After a visit to Vadugambadi panchayat to have a taste of the pilot project, an Ericsson boss said the 3G technology could be rolled out simultaneously in the villages along with cities once the government grants license for the technology. Using the existing GSM towers of the operators, Ericsson could roll out broadband to lakhs of villages with no landlines across the country but connected through GSM network in a cost-effective manner. Offering 3G using existing GSM network could cost about 25 percent more, said Ericsson's director for 3G Programme.
Radiating 3G signals through existing telecom operators, Ericsson would have business partnerships with like-minded service providers to offer services like e-health, e-education and e-governance for the benefit of the local community. At the office provided by the panchayat free of cost, the staff of the concerned agencies and a few trained village youth help doctors from Apollo Hospitals in Chennai to diagnose the illness of the villagers through a detailed discussion and prescribe tablets or syrup for common ailments. The medicines are also given to the villagers free of cost; for now.
``There is no free lunch,'' says Prof K Ganapathy, president, Apollo Telemedicine. For the system to be self-sustaining, there has to be business in it ultimately, he emphasised. Apollo has a plan to collect 50
paise per person in the panchayat that roughly has about 3,000 inhabitants. The panchayat is yet to accept the plan.
Once the deal is through, Apollo will earn about Rs 50,000 per month from the panchayat. ``If we can offer the e-medicine service to thousands of villages, then it is blue chip,'' Ganapathy said. Insurance companies also are in the loop. We presume that there will not be thousands of patients to be take care for serious illness, Ganapathy reveals his heart. With his experience in tele-medicine for over seven years, Ganapathy feels the 3G platform to be stable. So, the technology is there. Will the villagers accept? Giving away a rupee or two will not be a problem, says an elder adding that the men spend hundreds in bottles.
Simultaneously, a teacher sitting in Chennai starts lessons to three schools around Mahabalipuram. As the technology was being tested, the teething troubles are there. But the video and animation are quite good.
Again, e-education comes free of cost for the first three months, the trial period. ``We will offer lessons in Tamil as well,'' assures a technician from Edurite. It will come at a subsidised rate. Wonder, why the state that distributes television sets to houses is not giving it to schools and have the best teachers take classess. Vikram Sarabai thought this fifty years ago. Still, the governments are thoughtless.
Services on e-governance like obtaining birth and death certificates, paying bills or tax among other things would also be offered in future, for a nominal rate. As e-governance is still in its primitive stages not many villagers have a taste of it. The internet kiosks are basically for kids to play karate and car race. But we are talking about private companies here. Ericsson, plans to have partners for information, entertainment are also
in the loop.
Theoretically, the business model is possible through unwiring and cross-subsidy. Just a reminder. It is not a service. It is purely a business model. It might work but the question is will it work wonders for the rural folk?