The internet has become our lifeline. We do not keep count of the number of times in a day we go online to empower ourselves with information. It could be the most mundane matter - like googling 'Is Facebook down today?' It could be a money-saving transaction - like finding out the cheapest listed price for that mobile phone that you coveted. Or it could be discovering a group or resource that enriches your life - parents with special kids find support groups online. Fitness freaks find others who can share their experience. By and large, we take the wonderous worldwide web for granted, while constant access through our smartphones has only made us more dependent on the wealth of knowledge and entertainment that it offers.
Yet, the sobering fact is that more than half of the world's population is not online. Unsurprisingly, the majority of non-users are in Asia and Africa - in both continents, internet penetration is below 50%. Surprisingly, even a small segment of Europe and North American population lacks internet access.
Obviously, the first step entails understanding the barriers to internet access and overcoming them. Barriers of affordability and literacy are tough to tackle and to a large extent fall in the realm of governmental policy initiatives, though non-profits are also making an attempt here. Digital inclusion is coming onto the radar of many governments, including the Indian government. Initiatives to bring in rural users are especially at the forefront.
Microsoft has announced an ambitious project to bring free internet connectivity across the country by making use of the 'white space' or unused spectrum between two TV channels. This spectrum currently belongs to government broadcaster Dooordarshan and is not used at all. It may be the key to bridging the infrastructure barrier in remote corners of the country. Google's balloon-based project to bring Wi-fi connectivity is also addressing the same issue.
What is neglected is the question of what type of content will be required for the new wave of users? And this is an important question. The farmer may not be interested in Facebook. The maid may not really have time to read Bollywood gossip. We need to already start creating the content, websites and applications that are relevant to first time internet users.
Huff Post reports on an interesting trend of US non-profit organisations developing mobile apps that help the underprivileged to document human rights violations, seek free legal aid, understand the law and more. With adaptation to local language, one can see the relevance of such apps in Asian and African countries as well.
Google's Hindi Web marks an attempt to create a place where vernacular language users can find a repository of content. Combined with Google's Indian Languages Internet Alliance, this marks the beginning of a long-term initiative to bring India's non-English speaking users online.
Digital inclusion is a long term program rather than a short term project. What is important, is that the seeds are sown now, so that users can start reaping benefits a few years down the line. As more and more corporates, especially financial institutions and media houses start recognising the importance of engaging with the emerging digital consumers, we will see a symbiotic impact of growth in internet usage. Social and commercial good will truly go hand in hand when digital inclusion becomes a reality.