Monday, June 18, 2007

Reaching out to the Billions at the Bottom

"Serving the low income markets that comprise of the people at the bottom of the economical pyramid is a prodigious opportunity for the world's wealthiest companies - to see fortunes and bring prosperity to the aspiring poor" - cites the article "The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid, an article by C K Prahalad and Stuart L Hart.


What are the ways of doing this.

One is to repack technology to brings its benefits to the masses. Eric Brewer, a professor at Berkeley University, credited with the popular search engine of yesteryears Inktomi, has come up with a technology to serve the ignored masses. Called WILDNet or Wi-Fi for Long Distance Network, the technology pioneered by Brewer and his graduate students aims to provide Wi-Fi access over distances of upto 60 miles. Two Wildnet transmitters can shuttle 5 million bits per second, as much as a cable modem, over distances of up to 60 miles. A relay station is needed if the antennas aren't in direct line of sight. Wildnet takes Wi-Fi technology and extends its range 100 times farther than an airport hot spot.

Wildnet's most dramatic impact to date has been in southern India, where the high-speed links are bringing better eye care to poor villagers. Forbes quotes the story of Parvathi Shanmugam, a 45-year-old mother in Andipatti, a small village in the state of Tamil Nadu, who used to dread taking her daughter on the 10-mile trip to the eye clinic in Theni, a bigger city to the west. Her family had to take two buses, which took about an hour, and often waited two more hours for a doctor. A year ago Andipatti opened its own eye clinic connected to Theni's Aravind Eye Hospital with a Wildnet link. The clinic now conducts real-time eye exams with doctors in Theni, over a direct connection 150 times as fast as its old dial-up modem, which used to cost $200 a year. The Wildnet link, installed at a cost of $1,800, is practically free to operate.

Cost per visit is 5 rupees, or 13 cents, one-sixth the price charged in Theni. For the billions who form the base of the pyramid and earn less than 1 USD per day, solutions like these bring hope while offering ways for companies to bring technology benefits at affordable costs to them.

Researchers are also working in Nallavadu and similar villages to erect WiFi (wireless networking) antennas that reach distances of up to 30 kilometers to provide affordable and easy access to weather conditions for fishermen, crop prices for farmers, health news, and when possible, warnings of imminent disaster.

For the past several years the 40-year-old has been burrowing away at some engineering problems whose solution would make life more livable in the Third World.

"I don't want to impact just ten people, I want to impact a billion people," says Brewer who is also the principal investigator of the ICT4B or Information Communication Technology for Billions program at the Berkeley lab. He also heads the TIER project short for Technology Infrastructure for Emerging Regions funded by Intel Berkeley Research Lab.

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