United Villages: “Drive-By Wi-Fi” for Consumer Goods

As an American-born college student who has grown up in the age of instant gratification, I’m used to clicking a few buttons to obtain the information or products I desire. Just a few clicks connect any company’s products to my hands at home; and likewise I am connected to the customer base of that company. But for a rural Indian villager of my same age, and a growing Indian supply chain company, that instant connection appears more difficult to foster.

Chicago-born Indian entrepreneur Amir Alexander Hasson recognized this disconnect between rural village-dwellers and limited supply chain companies, and in 2004, he founded United Villages – India’s first network of consumer goods using wireless and transportation infrastructure. United Villages offers voicemail, text messages, email, Web search, and e-shops to people living in rural areas, especially kiosk owners, through “drive-by Wi-Fi” technology (Mobile Access Points or MAPs) installed on existing buses and motorcycles. Whenever a MAP-installed vehicle is in range of a mobile device or Internet connection, it provides access for Wi-Fi enabled kiosks along the road. In addition, United Village sales people regularly visit rural villages via such motorbikes and take kiosk-owners product orders. This way, the network of growing Indian companies is brought to rural customers via wireless Internet infrastructure and personalized customer service, without villagers ever having to leave their doorsteps.

Locals in the Indian village of Kalapathar wait to use the internet and, inset, the bus that makes it all possible.

Initially, I was skeptical of the 4D aspect of United Villages. It had seemed to me that Hasson had found a way to profit from the digital divide because after all, United Villages is for-profit model. However, as I read deeper into the meaning of the digital divide, I grew a greater appreciation for this technology’s connectivity – its capacity to bring products, services, and information to people typically excluded from the global marketplace. Wireless Internet also allows rural Indians to browse locally relevant websites. The potential side effects of United Villages are that these products, though they aid Indians in big cities, may not be relevant to the needs of rural villagers, perhaps exploiting their vulnerable finances with wasteful consumerism, and adding to environmental pollutants over time.

But that is up to the choice of consumer. I see United Villages as aiding in the advancement of global economic liberalism in the developing world, which provides rural consumers with the means to make informed product choices and with practice, instant connections around the world.



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