Microsoft, Hughes taking computing to rural India

Microsoft and Hughes will set up 5,000 kiosks in rural India as part of a plan to have 50,000 kiosks across the country over the next three years.

Microsoft has partnered with Hughes Network Systems to set up a network of 5,000 kiosks connected by broadband across 200 towns in rural India.

Entrepreneurs will set up the kiosks to offer e-commerce, education, e-government and other services, said Tarun Malik, head of rural computing at Microsoft India, on Thursday.

Microsoft announced earlier this year the Saksham program, which aims to set up 50,000 Internet kiosks offering localized content and services over the next three years. The program focuses on rural India, where 70 percent of the country's population lives.

A number of multinational and local companies, including Hewlett-Packard, Intel and Wyse Technology, have been experimenting with various models for delivering the Internet and computing to rural India.

India's rural market is seen as the next large opportunity for several vendors and services. Microsoft is experimenting with high-end kiosks that have projection TVs for delivery of online education, card readers that will enable villagers to buy services such as long-distance telephony and biometric readers for conducting bank transactions, Malik said.

The company has adopted a collaborative model, that involves working with a variety of partners including banks, content providers, hardware vendors, ISVs (independent software vendors) and telecommunications service providers, Malik said. Banks, for example, are likely to take advantage of these kiosks to market their services and experiment with new ones for the rural market, he added.

Banks are also playing a critical role in providing financing to budding rural entrepreneurs to set up kiosks, according to Malik. Besides working with small entrepreneurs who typically set up one or two kiosks, Microsoft is also working with people with enough capital to set up larger networks of kiosks, Malik said.

Microsoft and partners have already set up about 2,000 kiosks, and the connectivity options have ranged from wireless local loop to fixed line, Malik said. In the next stage of deployment of 5,000 more kiosks, Hughes will provide satellite broadband connectivity to the kiosks. "We expect other large telecom service providers to also participate in this project," Malik said.

Microsoft does not, however, expect an early return on its investment. "It will take at least five years for us to start seeing a return on our investment," Malik said. As technology adoption grows in rural India, and more kiosks and services are deployed, Microsoft expects a large market for its products, he added.

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