Just past 2 p.m. on Sept. 3, with the sun glaring overhead, there is a flurry of activity among the waiting crowds at Tindivanam Taluk Hospital in Tamil Nadu, India's southernmost state. Bugle players straighten the tassels on their instruments, line up on each side of a long red carpet, and start to blow. Drummers accompany them in a cheerful welcome. Women in gaily-colored saris wait in the heat, trays of rose petals in their hands, for the very important guest to arrive.
A convoy of cars arrives at the hospital's small gate and a tall, straight-backed American in a gray suit and white shirt steps out, not a bead of sweat on his brow despite the heat. Craig Barrett, chairman of Intel (INTC), allows his forehead to be smeared with the auspicious vermillion mark of the Hindu and rose petals to be thrown over him as he waits for the bugles to stop before walking toward the new room in the hospital that has been set up for telemedicine using Intel's WiMAX technology. A related portal has been created by Tata Consultancy Services (TCS.BO), which partnered with Intel for the pilot project. Barrett is a crowd-pleaser. "Technology can bring improvements to all areas of life, especially the area of health care," says Barrett to the gathered crowd of more than 500 locals. "If we can make it happen in India, then it can happen in the rest of the world."
Making "it," i.e, broadband connectivity, happen in India is Intel's big goal. The company has bet its future growth on WiMAX, a technology that is often referred to as "Wi-Fi on steroids": a high-speed, wireless broadband technology that enables connections over far greater distances than conventional wireless and at far faster speeds. And developing countries—virgin markets without the historical load of copper landlines—are the perfect places for experimenting. That's why Barrett has added India to the list of more than 250 trials and commercial deployments in more than 12 countries worldwide, where he's running pilot WiMAX projects in schools and hospitals.
Bridging the Digital Divide
It's not just the massive business that could result that's on Barrett's mind—the effort is part of the company's pro bono efforts. Barrett is involved in the U.N.'s mission to bridge the global digital divide and use technology to reduce poverty. As chairman of the U.N. Global Alliance for ICT (Information & Communications Technology) & Development, he travels the world in a bid to persuade governments "to help increase access to and use of technology through public-private partnerships, local content, and electronic services." Part of that effort has been Intel's linking up with technologist Nicholas Negroponte, who has been developing a $100 laptop. Hardware is one part, but "connectivity," says Barrett, "is just as important." Homegrown Indian hardware companies like HCL Technologies (HCLT.BO), he notes, have a large opportunity here.
Intel is going it alone with some programs and partnering with local companies for others. It donated 500 computers to 50 municipal schools in Tamil Nadu, equipping them with WiMAX technology—an experiment Intel has already put in place in government schools in China, Egypt, Russia, Mexico, and elsewhere across the world. With partners, Intel is more creative. Tindivanam is a village of 70,000 that is represented in India's Parliament by Anbumani Ramadoss, who is now the country's health minister. Here, Intel partnered with a Bangalore hospital, Narayana Hridalaya, a pioneer in telemedicine in India, Tata Consultancy Services, the country's largest IT services player, and software startup Microsense to deliver Web-based telemedicine via broadband to the local 100-bed hospital that serves more than 200,000 people in the surrounding areas.
Tata Consultancy developed the portal, WebHealthCentral, which, for the first time, will enable patient information to be stored on the Web, while Microsense developed the software that connects the site to Intel's WiMAX. At a local girls' school, St. Philomena, Barrett introduced a health-monitoring system, also with Tata Consultancy and enabled by Intel's WiMAX.
Health Minister Ramadoss is excited about the possibilities. "We have a multipronged strategy and an integrated national health-care plan," he says. If the project at Tindivanam succeeds, it will be extended to other parts of India. "We are going to bring technology to rural India with the help of American companies like Intel," he says. Anti-Americanism is nowhere to be seen in this part of the country.
That's reason enough for Barrett to choose Tindivanam. The company's modus operandi is clear: Go where the political heavyweights are because the likelihood of success is greater and generates demand in surrounding rural communities. Barrett also decided that showing, not just telling, was the way to initiate projects in India. "You can talk and talk and talk and talk, but eventually we decided to show what connectivity can do," says Barrett. So last November, he made his foray into the countryside—to Baramati, a village in the western state of Maharashtra that has become prosperous because it is also the political constituency of Sharad Pawar, India's agriculture minister. There, Intel implemented a telemedicine diagnostic center. It has been such a success that Barrett decided to replicate the Baramati experiment. He invited Ramadoss to Baramati, and the minister was so impressed that he committed more than $500,000 to power other local hospitals with telemedicine and equip schools with health-care monitoring systems—and invited Barrett to work his magic in Ramadoss' hometown of Tindivanam. "What I like about this place," says Barrett, "is that I see the commitment from the health minister. There is investment happening on the ground—India has a national commitment to health care."
Of course, India has many commitments to health care and education—but few are ever implemented in full. The country is notorious for starting projects and then leaving them incomplete. How does Barrett intend to overcome that kind of national malaise? To ensure implementation, Intel sends its executives to check on projects every three months until they are fully implemented. Ramadoss agrees that execution is a problem but says the public-private partnership model, like India's with Intel, is the best way to ensure that projects are completed. In addition, he says, the state sends independent auditors and has e-governance programs that help to monitor projects and make sure they produce results.
Fingers Crossed for Follow-Through
Everyone here hopes Ramadoss will deliver. Although India has a reputation for being a formidable emerging IT power, the country is woefully behind the top 10 economies in most IT statistics. In connectivity, India trails "everybody except Africa," says Barrett. Its slow-moving government lost India the opportunity of locating an Intel assembly and testing facility in the country. The company is now building a fab in China and an assembly-and-testing operation in Vietnam. "When we need more capacity, India will be high in our sights," Barrett told a press gathering recently. But that's on the assumption that India will start to close the gap.
India's entrepreneurs are betting on it. R. Vijaykumar runs Point Red, a Madras-based, leading Indian provider of WiMAX base stations built around Intel chipsets and used by the Internet service providers. "The Indian government desperately wants to close the digital divide and will do anything to make that happen," he says. Bringing Barrett onboard is a good way to make sure it happens.