We had left from Jaisalmer, a small city in the Western Indian desert state of Rajasthan, that morning. After driving past tents, camels and sand dunes for about an hour, we took a sharp left.
“Now we’re entering the no network zone,” our translator, Amrit Singh, turned and said to me. Minutes earlier my phone had been pinging with emails, text messages and Instagram notifications. They stopped completely.
We drove on for another 30 minutes, chatting and looking out at the barren landscape, suddenly without our six-inch screens to occupy us. After a few miles, we arrived at a small cluster of mud houses, a village called Bida.
We set up our camera to interview Sawal Singh, a man who said he was 35 but looked closer to 50. With Amrit translating from Marwadi — the local language — and encouraging our nervous interviewee, we asked him if he knew what the internet was. Singh gave us a blank stare.
When I asked if he had a cellphone, he held up a device smaller than his palm with a numbered keypad. He then got a bit more animated as he explained that there was a big “tower problem” in the area. He showed us how he had to climb up a big tree in the middle of the village to try and make calls. Sometimes it works, mostly it doesn’t.
It was a phrase I heard throughout the day — “tower problem” — referring to the mobile towers that these villagers were sure would transform their lives. It wasn’t even about the internet, which many of them had never experienced. It was simply about being able to reach people by phone and access services in a country with the fastest growing web in the world.
“I want to speak to my children who live in the city,” said Jamna Devi, a resident from the nearby village of Faledi. “If someone gets sick how do we call a doctor? If our animals wander off, how do we call neighboring villages to find out where they went?”
Many of the villagers said they wanted to access government welfare programs that they heard could be done through the phone. Most of them were worlds away from the universe of Google (GOOGL), Facebook (FB) and Twitter (TWTR).
Some of the younger villagers did have smartphones, the ones who traveled to work as day laborers in Jaisalmer on the one bus a day to the city. There they’d use WhatsApp and YouTube, services that are useless in their unconnected village. And even in the city, they often don’t have time to use them except while waiting for the bus back home.
“Do we work and earn a living, or do we sit and watch YouTube?” said a frustrated young man named Rahul. He has a Chinese smartphone that cost him about 10,000 rupees ($140) — an entire month’s salary.
When I started researching this story, I knew I needed to visit a place with no internet access. In two years covering India, I’ve cited the statistic of 900 million unconnected Indians more times than I can remember. But I’d never met any of them, and always wondered who they were. This story gave me the opportunity to change that.
My reporting trip the previous week couldn’t have been more different.
I had flown down to Bangalore, the bustling tech hub often referred to as India’s Silicon Valley, to visit the country’s biggest e-commerce company, Flipkart. When the company started in 2007, India had fewer than 50 million internet users. That number crossed 500 million this year, just as Flipkart was sold to retail giant Walmart (WMT) for $16 billion.
Flipkart headquarters, in an upscale Bangalore area known as Embassy Tech Village, spans three towers of 10 stories each, with about a dozen restaurants and a rooftop basketball court. Those towers house around 8,000 employees from Flipkart’s main online shopping business. Hundreds more work for its digital payments and fashion subsidiaries. The offices next door are home to global names such as WeWork and Xiaomi.
When we visited, the company had just sold more than 3 million smartphones in 24 hours as part of its annual “Big Billion Days” sale. The kind that people like Jamna Devi have never used.
The gap between those two worlds is vast, but one that Google, Facebook, Reliance Jio (more on that here) and the Indian government are racing to close.
And as more people from Jamna Devi and Sawal Singh’s world join the one that companies like Flipkart are dominating, the effects will be felt far beyond India.