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India and the Internet: What it looks like on the ground

"Now we enter the network zone," our translator Amrit Singh turned and told me. Minutes earlier, my phone was pinging…

“Now we enter the network zone,” our translator Amrit Singh turned and told me. Minutes earlier, my phone was pinging with emails, text messages and Instagram messages. They ended completely.

We drove for another 30 minutes, chatting and watching the rugged landscape, suddenly without our six-inch screens to occupy us. After a few miles we arrived at a small cluster of clay houses, a city called Bida.

We set up our camera to interview Sawal Singh, a man who said he was 35 but looked closer to 50. With Amrit translating from Marwadi – the local language – and encouraging our nervous interview, we asked him if he knew what the internet where. Singh gave us a blank stare.

When I asked if he had a cell phone, he held a device that was smaller than its palm with a numbered keypad. He became a bit more animated when he explained that there was a major “tower problem” in the area. He showed us how he had to climb a big tree in the middle of the village to try to call. Sometimes it works, most things do not.

It was a phrase that I heard all day ̵

1; “tower problems” – referring to the mobile towers that these villagers were safe would transform their lives. It was not even about the internet, as many of them had never experienced. It was simply about reaching people by phone and accessing services in a country with the fastest growing web in the world.

“I want to talk to my children living in the city,” said Jamna Devi, a resident of the nearby village of Faledi. “If someone gets ill, how do we call a doctor?” If our animals are wandering, how do we call neighboring villages to find out where they went? “

Many of the villagers said they wanted to access state welfare programs as they could be done via the phone. Most of them were worlds away from the universe in Google (GOOGL), Facebook (FB) and Twitter (TWTR).

Some of the younger towns had smartphones, those who traveled to work as day workers in Jaisalmer on one bus a day to the city. There they would use WhatsApp and YouTube, services that are useless in their undeveloped city. And even in the city they often do not have time to use them except they are waiting for the bus at home.

“Do we work and serve us or do we sit and watch YouTube?” said a frustrated young man named Rahul. He has a Chinese smartphone that costs him about 10,000 rupees ($ 140) – a full monthly salary.

When I began to investigate this story, I knew that I needed to visit a location without internet connection. In two years covering India, I’ve cited statistics of 900 million uninhabited Indians more times than I can remember. But I had never met any of them, and always wondered who they were. This story gave me the opportunity to change it.

My reporting trip the previous week could not have been more different.

I had flown down to Bangalore, the bustling technology hub, often called India’s Silicon Valley, to visit the country’s largest e-commerce company, Flipkart. When the company started in 2007, India had fewer than 50 million Internet users. The number crossed 500 million this year, just like Flipkart was sold to retailer Walmart (WMT) for $ 16 billion.

The flip chart headquarters, in an exclusive Bangalore area, called Embassy Tech Village, spans three tower blocks on 10 floors, with about a dozen restaurants and a basketball on the roof. These tower houses about 8,000 employees from Flipkart’s largest online shopping store. Hundreds of jobs for their digital payments and fashion subsidiaries. Office next to home global names like WeWork and Xiaomi.

When we visited, the company had just sold more than 3 million smartphones in 24 hours as part of its annual “Big Billion Days” sales. The kind of people that Jamna Devi has never used.

The gap between the two worlds is great, but one like Google, Facebook, Reliance Jio (more about this) and the Indian government are competing to close.

And when more people from Jamna Devi and Sawal Singh’s world join in as a company such as Flipkart dominate, the effects will feel far from India.


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Faela