Wi-Fi Buses Drive Rural Web Use


By Jason Margolis

March 29, 2007

Buses equipped with wi-fi are being used to deliver web content to remote rural villages in the developing world.

In rural India and parts of Rwanda, Cambodia and Paraguay, the vehicles offer web content to computers with no internet connection. The buses and a fleet of motorcycles update their pages in cities before visiting the hard-to-reach communities. As well as offering popular pages, the United Villages project also allows users to request specific information. A small box, with an antenna, onboard the buses and motorcycles communicates with the rural computers.

Local business

In many parts of the developing world it is too expensive to lay the fibres and copper cable to deliver a standard internet connection. Wireless technologies also do not reach many remote places. The founder of the United Villages initiative Amir Hassan said the company had been set up to give those people in these areas a slice of the web for a fee.

"There's only 0.003% percent of the web that rural India cares about," he told BBC News. "They want to know the cricket scores, they want to see the new Aishwarya Rai photos, and they want to hear a sample of the latest Bollywood tunes." The village computer was often in the local store, he added. Every time the wi-fi bus rolled by the village - up to six times a day - the pages were updated, he said.

Britney requests

As well as this regular content users can make special requests for a few additional rupees. For example, if there was no information about Britney Spears on the village computer, a fee could be paid to get hold of such information. The bus would then go back to the city and communicate with an internet server. The box on the bus would be updated with the requested information and, a few hours later, the bus would arrive back at the village to zap the Britney Spears pages to the computer. The wi-fi vehicles also deliver and collect e-mails from the villagers.

Product catalogue

The system also made it easier for villagers to buy essential products such as fertilisers, pesticides, books and medicines, Mr Hassan added.

"What we've done is created a catalogue of those products that they can order at the kiosk and get them delivered the next day via the bus," he said. "We're bringing e-commerce to rural India."

Because many people in rural communities cannot read, and because the majority of the web is in English, villagers often rely on the person who operates the local computer to help them. Raj Kishor Swain, who runs the computer in the village of Satasankha, said he is now a popular man. "Right now, more and more people are asking me about what can be done on the PC and internet," he said. "My objective is to show to the village youth that having a PC with connectivity is a viable business so that more and more unemployed youth can take up this as a self-employment opportunity."

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