THERE is a concept in telecommunications called "the last mile," that part of any phone system that is the most difficult to connect - the part that goes from the main lines into people's homes. Prem Kalra, the director of the new Indian Institute of Technology in Rajasthan, one of the elite M.I.T.'s of India, has dedicated his school to overcoming a different challenge: connecting "the last person."
"How will we reach the last person?" Kalra asked me during a visit to his campus here in Jodhpur in the Thar Desert of western India. The "last person" in his view is the poorest person in India. And the question consuming Kalra is can "the financially worst-off person" in India "be empowered" - be given the basic tools to acquire enough skills to overcome dire poverty.
In a country where 75 percent of the people live on less than $2 a day, that's a big question. It is why, one year ago, India's Human Resources Development Ministry put out a very specific proposal that Kalra and his technology institute decided to take up, when no one else would: Could someone design and make a stripped-down iPad-like, Internet-enabled, wirelessly connected tablet that the poorest Indian family, saving about $2.50 a month for a year, could afford if the government subsidized the rest? Specifically, could they make a simple tablet usable for distance learning, teaching English and math or just tracking commodity prices for under $50, including the manufacturer's profit?
The answer was yes. Last month, Kalra's team - led by two I.I.T. Rajasthan electrical engineering professors, one of whom comes from a village that still has no electricity - unveiled the Aakash tablet. Aakash is Hindi for sky. It's based on the Android 2.2 operating system, with a 7-inch touch screen, three hours of battery life and the ability to download YouTube videos, PDFs and educational software like Virtual Labs. The government will subsidize the wireless connections for students.
David Fuller's view How do you empower India's 220 million poorer students, who do not have access to the better schools, and perhaps also many of their older relatives who believe in education but never had the opportunity? The affordable Aakash tablet has the potential to be a transformative device, and not just for India.
No doubt some people will use their tablets mainly for social networking, games and other light entertainment, just as they do in more prosperous countries. That is inevitable but bright and ambitious people will also be able to educate themselves as never before. The long-term benefits to GDP will be considerable.