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Global Village: Rural telecom initiatives by India’s neighbours

June 01, 2012

With the large underserved rural population, India and its neighbouring countries provide a major business opportunity for telecom operators. As urban markets in most of these countries are reaching saturation levels in terms of teledensity, operators, over the years, have shifted their focus to rural areas.

The rural telecom strategies in these countries are somewhat similar to those adopted in India. The governments are providing financial assistance to operators for rural telecom deployments. Various funds comprising contributions by licensed telecom service providers have been created, which are dedicated to providing services in unserved and underserved regions.

tele.net takes a look at the rural telecom initiatives taken in India’s neighbouring countries...


Rural areas account for over 65 per cent of the country’s population. The Universal Service Fund (USF) was established in 2007 to provide telecom connectivity across Pakistan. The fund consists of contributions (1.5 per cent of adjusted gross revenues) by telecom operators and does not include any financial assistance from the government. The USF is used to finance telecom projects including basic telephony, broadband internet as well as infrastructure development for these services.

Under the country’s Optic Fiber Programme, over 4,100 km of cables has been laid to connect 58 unserved tehsils and towns. The USF also finances initiatives like establishing telemedicine networks to provide improved health care facilities through information and communication technology (ICT).

Recently, the USF board has approved the establishment of 11 universal telecentres via satellite technology in rural and semi-urban areas for promoting e-services.

In February 2012, Easypaisa, the joint venture (JV) of Telenor Pakistan and Tameer Micro Finance Bank, received $6.5 million of funds from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for improving and expanding the service network in Pakistan’s rural and remote areas. People without bank accounts can also avail of the services of Easypaisa, which was launched in 2009.

In 2007, Telenor Pakistan had launched apnaPCO, a project supported by the Development Fund of the GSM Association, to offer public telephony services to the most neglected rural communities. Under another programme launched at about the same time, community information centres, Rabta Centres, were established to offer high speed internet access to the rural population.


Around 80 per cent of the country’s population lives in 86,000 villages, where the teledensity is very low. In early 2000, Grameen Telecom, a JV between Grameen Bank and Norway-based Telenor, provided women (called “phone ladies”) in villages with a mobile handset and a Grameenphone connection. The initiative was funded by micro loans from Grameen Bank. Since landline penetration was very low in rural areas, rented handsets provided connectivity to people living in these regions. Increased handset availability over the years has led to the emergence of a new concept, “info ladies”, developed by Development Research Network. Today, the service involves the provision of laptops and data cards.

Also, the government has established over 4,500 union information centres. These comprise cyber cafés, from where villagers can source information online. In 2009, the government prepared the road map for the Digital Bangladesh 2021 programme, which aims to provide digital connectivity in rural regions.

Sri Lanka

While internet connectivity was introduced in the country in 1995, service penetration in rural areas remained negligible till 2000. Some of the rural initiatives include setting up of telecentres, increasing awareness among the target audience and the World Bank-funded e-Sri Lanka initiative, which was launched in 2006 to improve rural telephony.

To improve the IT literacy level in rural areas, the Information and Communication Technology Agency launched the “Nenasara” mobile library for digital content under the e-Sri Lanka programme in October 2011. The library contains digital copies of subjects like agriculture, education, and small and medium businesses. The authorities expect to replicate the success of the “Nenasala” project where IT facilities were provided to people in rural areas through telecentres.


The government has taken several initiatives to increase telecom penetration in the country’s rural areas. In August 2011, the Nepal Telecommunications Authority issued 293 licences, of which two were for rural telecom, nine for rural VSAT and six for rural internet services.

In addition, the Nepal government uses the Universal Access Fund to promote rural operator initiatives. Telecom operators and internet service providers contribute 2 per cent of their annual revenues to the fund. Subsidies under the fund are disbursed through competitive bidding.

Further, the government has established over 300 telecentres with the support of non-governmental organisations and private companies to serve the rural population. People can access computers and the internet through these centres. The Nepal government has also implemented an ICT development project, Rural E-Community, in association with the Asian Development Bank. Under the project, the wireless broadband network has been extended to 38 districts in a phased manner.


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