Will Cheap Computer Bridge India's Digital Divide?

Nov 2, 2011

India has unveiled what its government says is the world's cheapest tablet computer, along with a promise to make the device available to the country's college students, and possibly, to those in high school as well. The government says it's a major step toward bridging the country's gigantic digital divide.

The tablet is called "Aakash," the Hindi word for "sky," and boosters say it could give Internet access to billions of people.

The Aakash was developed for the government by Datawind, a London-based company founded by two brothers from India's Punjab state.

"We've been focused on the digital divide for a long time," says Suneet Singh Tuli, Datawind's CEO. "We have always felt that if you could reduce the cost of the device and the cost of Internet access, then the opportunity is huge."

Tuli says the government was looking to reduce the price to a level that seemed impossible at first: about $35. At the time, he says, the cheapest device his company offered cost $80 just to manufacture.

On the other hand, the potential market was enormous.

"These guys want the lowest of the low-cost devices, and most important, they're putting a lot of financial muscle towards making it happen," Tuli recalls. "They're saying we're going to buy 10 million of them in the first phase."

That's what it would take to offer a tablet for sale to every college and university student in India. In the second phase, he says, the government wants to expand the program to grades nine through 12, or about 80 million students.

Tuli is a tall man who wears a blue Sikh turban and a long beard that covers much of his necktie. The Aakash fits neatly into the span of his two hands as he demonstrates its features: a resistive touch screen, Wi-Fi and video conferencing capabilities. It has an SD card slot, two USB ports, a 600 MHz processor, 256MB RAM and runs Android 2.2.

Tuli says it has a battery life of about three hours, crucial in areas that don't have reliable electricity.

The Issue Of Cost

Datawind is selling the Aakash to the government for about $50 apiece. In turn, the government is looking to subsidize enough of the cost to make it available to students at about $35, not much more than the cost of a fairly basic mobile phone.

But cost is still at the heart of most complaints about the Aakash, from people who say the government is buying expensive gadgetry when it should be addressing the real problem: that India's education system is a mess.

"Where the people are unable to access the simple education, unable to access even the drinking water in this country, they cannot afford this technology," says Manoj Kumar Jena, a professor of sociology at Jamia Millia Islamia University in New Delhi.

In a country where three-quarters of the population lives on less than $2 a day, he says, even a $10 tablet would be too expensive.

Jena says the government should be investing in improving schools at the most basic level before it sinks a lot of money into distributing technology.

But it's going to take a long time for India to train teachers and build adequate schools for all of its 500 million school-age children, says N.K. Sinha, an assistant secretary at India's Ministry of Human Resource and Development, which led the effort to develop the low-cost tablet.

"How do we reach everyone?" Sinha asks. "The volumes are so large. Through what brick-and-mortar structure could one reach all 500 million? In what time frame? At what cost?"

He sees the Aakash as way to leapfrog over the problem of improving local schools, at least temporarily.

Sinha says the tablets will give students access to Internet-based instruction, along with all the resources of the Web.

Making The Education Dream Possible

Tuli, the Datawind executive, says he thinks the devices will win acceptance from an Indian public that embraced mobile phones, despite the problems of cost and even limited electricity.

India now has more than 800 million mobile phone subscribers in a country of about 1.2 billion people.

Tuli thinks that if Indian parents believe the Aakash tablet can give their children a better shot at getting an education, they'll use that same kind of ingenuity to buy it.

"Every parent in this country, their dream is to educate their kid, and they will take advantage of the Internet if they have access to it," Tuli says. "All we're doing is making it accessible."

The Indian government says it's committed to making sure that all the students who receive the Aakash tablets will have access to the Internet.

That may not be so hard at first, given that the first 10 million recipients are already at colleges and universities that have electricity and Internet. But it's going to become increasingly challenging as the government tries to expand the program to lower grades and less developed schools.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

GUY RAZ, host: The government of India says it's taken a major step toward bridging its digital divide. It's unveiled the world's cheapest tablet computer. At $35 a piece, the government has promised to make the device available to college students and possibly to those in high school as well. But critics insist the high-tech effort ignores India's real problem: a barely functioning education system. NPR's Corey Flintoff reports now from New Delhi.

COREY FLINTOFF: Suneet Singh Tuli holds up the tablet and demonstrates its touch screen, its Android applications and its Wi-Fi capability. He's a tall man who wears a blue Sikh turban and a long beard that covers much of his necktie. The tablet is called Aakash, the Hindi word for sky, and Tuli says it will revolutionize Internet access for billions of people.

SUMEET SINGH TULI: We've been, sort of focused on the digital divide for a long time. We've always felt that if you could reduce the cost of the device and the cost of Internet access, that the opportunity is huge.

FLINTOFF: Tuli's company, Datawind, got in the race to build the world's cheapest tablet in response to an Indian government call for bids. He says the price tag the government was looking for seemed impossible, but the potential market was enormous.

TULI: They're saying, we're going to buy 10 million of them in the first phase.

FLINTOFF: In the second phase, he says, the government wants to expand the program to grades nine through 12 or about 80 million students. Datawind is selling the Aakash to the government at around $50 a piece.

The government is looking to subsidize enough of the cost to make it available to students at around $35, not much more than the cost of a fairly basic mobile phone. But cost is still at the heart of most complaints about the Aakash.

PROFESSOR MANOJ KUMAR JENA: Where the people are unable to access the simple education, unable to access the drinking water, even in this country, they cannot afford this technology.

FLINTOFF: This is Manoj Kumar Jena, a professor of Sociology at Jamia Millia Islamia University in New Delhi. Jena says the government should be investing in improving schools at the most basic level, before it sinks a lot of money into distributing technology. But N.K. Sinha points out that it's going to take a long time for India to train teachers and build adequate schools for all of its 500 million school-age children.

N.K. SINHA: How do we reach everyone? The volumes are so large. Through what brick-and-mortar structure could one reach all 500 million? In what time frame? At what cost?

FLINTOFF: Sinha is an assistant secretary at India's Ministry of Human Resource and Development, which led the effort to develop the low-cost tablet. He sees the Aakash as way to leapfrog over the problem of improving local schools, at least temporarily. He says the tablets will give students access to Internet-based instruction, along with all the resources of the Web.

Tuli, the Datawind CEO, says he thinks the devices will win acceptance from an Indian public that embraced mobile phones, despite the problems of cost and even limited electricity. Tuli thinks that if Indian parents believe the Aakash tablet can give their children a better shot at getting an education, they'll use that same kind of ingenuity to buy it.

TULI: You know, every parent in this country, their dream is to educate their kid. And they will take advantage of the Internet if they have access to it. All we're doing is making it accessible.

FLINTOFF: The Indian government says it's committed to making sure that all the students who receive the Aakash tablets will have access to the Internet. That may not be too hard at first, given that the first 10 million recipients are already at colleges and universities that have electricity and Internet. But it's going to become increasingly challenging, as the government tries to expand the program to lower grades and less developed schools. Corey Flintoff, NPR News, New Delhi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.