It isn’t everyday that I get to sit on a panel to talk about our favourite development project in the Asia-Pacific region – the Wireless for Communities (W4C) project in India. So I jumped at the opportunity when this opening came up at the Aid & Response Summit Asia in Bangkok this week.
W4C is a project that we are particularly proud of at the Internet Society Asia-Pacific office – not only because it has won two international awards namely the ITU/MCMC (International Telecommunications Union – Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission) Connecting at the Roots Award for Broadband for Communities/Schools and the Gold Standard Internet for Good Award by Public Affairs Asia – but also because of how the Internet was able to empower and transform peoples’ lives for the better. This project totally democratises the availability of connectivity, enabling access to information in rural parts of India and allows for content and services to originate from rural areas.
The brainchild of the Internet Society Regional Bureau Director for Asia-Pacific Rajnesh Singh, W4C began its pilot in 2010 in collaboration with our partner the Digital Empowerment Foundation (DEF) at Chanderi, a small municipality in the Ashoknagar district of Madhya Pradesh, India. Chanderi is renowned for Chanderi silk which had Geographical Indication (GI) status. In Chanderi we began by providing basic connectivity and access to content and services and saw first-hand social innovation evolve, using the Internet to meet the social needs of the local community.
Thanks to various ICT interventions, average household incomes more than doubled. A variety of ICT-related programmes enabled new vocational skills to be gained, which in turn have helped people establish their own micro-enterprises. Internet access helped preserve local heritage, digitised local knowledge and assets, linked patients at the local health centre to the district hospital using telemedicine and helped children improve digital learning in school. All this originating from a base population where very few were digitally literate, had poor access to advanced health facilities and had no computers in schools.
Fast forward to the present time, and for the record, we have brought Internet connectivity to more than 200,000 people in 10 rural locations across India. Many that we have worked with are minorities, marginalised and from migrant communities. We have made more than 4,000 rural youth, children and women digitally literate and provided telemedicine facilities to several communities that had no access to advanced health care. More than 50 panchayats (local village councils) and 50 rural schools, several non-government organisations and a number of micro and SMEs have been linked to the Internet enhancing their productivity and operational efficiency.
W4C is both self-sustainable and replicable and our basic model relies heavily on local communities. To keep things simple, we used unlicensed spectrum bands and low cost WiFi equipment. Infrastructural sustainability was enabled by training grassroots barefoot engineers in basic wireless technology, enabling them not only to run and manage the networks but also pass on their skills to others. Digital skills for the community was facilitated and nurtured.
Notably, the latest phase of the project focuses on the empowerment of women in these rural communities through the Wireless Women for Entrepreneurship and Empowerment (W2E2) initiative. This part of the project took on 40 women across the 10 W4C locations and provided them with training on using ICTs and the Internet to set up micro-enterprises providing digital services within the local community. This helps improve their social standing as well as provide a livelihood. The women also are encouraged to train and encourage others in the community, thereby further democratising the availability of information to the wider community, and helping navigate cultural and social barriers.
More information on the project may be found on the W4C website.