India's $35 Tablet To Bridge The Digital Divide?

The Indian government recently launched the world's cheapest tablet computer, which will be sold to students at a subsidized price. Michel Martin speaks with Columbia University Digital Media Professor Sree Sreenivasan about whether the world's largest democracy — with more than half its population living below the poverty line — can bridge the digital divide.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host: Switching gears now, we'd like to take a look at the global frontier of the digital divide. India, the country that launched the world's cheapest car, is now bringing the world's cheapest tablet computer to market. The Aakash will first be given to students, some 100,000 students, and then sold at a subsidized price of $35 each with the explicit goal of bringing technology to that nation's poor.

This is Kapil Sing (ph), India's information, technology and human resources development minister.

KABIL SIBAL: This is for all of you who are disempowered. This is for all of you who have no access. This is for all those who are marginalized.

MARTIN: It's a bold idea, but will it work? We've called on Sree Sreenivasan for his take. He's a digital media professor and dean of student affairs at the Columbia Journalism School in New York. Welcome back to the program. Thanks so much for joining us.

SREE SREENIVASAN: Great to be here.

MARTIN: So you are, if you don't mind us pointing out, of Indian heritage and you do travel there often. Can you give us a sense of how vast is the digital divide in that country?

SREENIVASAN: Well, India is a place where there are 1.2 billion people and about 100 million have access to the internet. That means that they don't all have home computers. They have access either in cyber cafes or at work and places like that, in some schools.

But what's also interesting at the same time is that there are hundreds of millions of cell phones that people are using and they use text messaging for the most part, but as those phones get more sophisticated, maybe some of that divide will be lessened. That's at least the hope and then this effort is part of that.

MARTIN: You know, countries often subsidize essential goods for political reasons as well as for the social good, you know, essential food stuffs, for example, in lots of countries are heavily subsidized. What's your sense of why this and why now?

SREENIVASAN: Well, Kabil Sibal is one of the technocrats who is helping run India and he - that's the gentleman whose voice we just heard - really believes in the importance of technology and he thinks that having the ability for Indians to be part of the digital conversation and the digital landscape is going to be very important. And so you can see there is some definitely political aspect of this, but also getting more kids online and having access, and not just kids, but others as well, having access to information is going to be very important.

But we have seen how the cell phone has changed India. Poor farmers, workers are able to use the information that the cell phone provides to find work, to find better prices for their goods, all kinds of things. So if they can do that with just SMS, maybe there's more potential with more sophisticated programs and services.

MARTIN: I was going to ask - what is the potential if first there's the device and then there's the operating system, there's the Internet access or the Wi-Fi access to actually utilize the device - is that actually available?

SREENIVASAN: Well, you know, we're talking about a country where a lot of people have, even in big cities have problems with electricity and water, and this is what a government has to kind of decide. Where do we put our resources? We have seen criticism of this already, saying, you know, throwing a bunch of computers at kids is not the answer when there's a shortage of teachers, for example.

So what we're looking at, you know - there's an expected growth of the total number of Internet connections in India. It's expected to go up from 100 million now to about 300 million in the next couple of years, but we're talking about still a slice of a much bigger country.

MARTIN: You know, this is one of the interesting dilemmas of the modern age. If you compare India to China, which people often do, and you know, 40 percent of Chinese have access to the Internet. And is this in part a kind of - how can we put this? A kind of geopolitical competition to see whether these two, you know, populous and rising countries can equalize, you know, in that way?

SREENIVASAN: Yeah. It's a comparison that's constantly made and this is one of many examples where India is lacking, when you make the comparison. But China is able to also - because it is not a democracy - be able to put, you know, emphasis on infrastructure, technology and do things that, in a country like India, which is a very messy democracy, it may not be possible to just kind of force things that might be possible in China.

MARTIN: And I'd also mention that India is also the home of the world's cheapest car, the Nano, which was also an effort to bring something that many people in the West value and consider, you know, essential to economic growth, you know, to the masses. How is that experiment going?

SREENIVASAN: Well, so far, it's a mixed situation. You know, we're talking about a $2,000 car, roughly, as a price. And what has happened with that is that there, the idea that people would jump to buy this car has not completely panned out. They have obviously been selling, but there's - Indians have a great sense of aspiration and you don't really aspire to be in the world's cheapest car if that's all it's known for. And you might say, well, maybe I can buy something that's a little bit more expensive, but it's not known as being so cheap.

So that's one of the concerns, also, people have with this laptop. I was emailing with someone who is looking at this kind of technology and saying that, you know, this is fine, but maybe for a few dollars more the computer might get better, so that might be part of something that people are considering when they decide to deal with this technology.

MARTIN: My final question in the 30 seconds we have left, how is this playing in India? Are people excited about it or do you think it's suffering from a branding problem that you've identified, which is people saying, maybe I'd kind of not want to be the cheapest, I'd like something a little bit nicer?

SREENIVASAN: As you know, also, you know, with anything that's the first version, there are going to be issues with it. Even with iPad, there were issues, so I think that it depends on which section or sector of society you're talking to, but there's certainly some excitement that the prices are coming down. That's going to be important. Whether people say this is the solution, we don't know yet.

MARTIN: All right. Sree Sreenivasan is a professor of digital media. He's also dean of student affairs at Columbia Journalism School in New York and he was kind enough to join us from the studios there. Professor Sreenivasan, thank you so much for joining us.

SREENIVASAN: My pleasure.

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