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First woman space traveller to take internet to rural India through TV

Anousheh Ansari

Bibhu Ranjan Mishra  |  Bengaluru 

Anousheh Ansari
Anousheh Ansari enters a space capsule during a training session in the Black Sea in this 2006 file photo. Reuters

Anousheh Ansari, who had in September 2006 grabbed headlines for becoming the first woman space traveller, is now dreaming of connecting rural India with the internet via television screens. The Iranian-American entrepreneur, who is working with Tata Trust to help the rural areas in three districts of Rajasthan get access to select content on the internet using their TV sets through an innovative technology developed by her company Prodea Systems, is now planning to expand it across the state before taking it pan-India.

Ansari says the idea to use the television screen to provide interactive digital services to rural people came to her almost one-and-a-half years ago when she visited a few villages in Rajasthan. She found most of the villages had access to 3G network, but people didn't have access to internet as they felt it was either too complicated or they didn't have the right device to access it.

"Someone told me that these rural households may not have a refrigerator but they have a television; so we thought if we can make use of the TV sets to offer some services which are already there. A part of the technologies that Prodea has developed is delivering services through TV. So we took out that part of the technology, and decided to deliver interactive digital content related to education, health, agriculture, financial literacy and other government service to rural household," Ansari, who is the chairman and CEO of Prodea Systems, told Business Standard.

In November last year, Prodea and Tata Trust had launched this as a pilot project in Ajmer, Sikar and Jaipur districts of Rajasthan with the support of the state government and a few non-governmental organisations. In the next phase, Ansari said the plan was to take it to other districts in the state.

"We started with just three districts and the plan is to take it to other districts of Rajasthan so as to reach around 100,000 households by the end of the current year," said Ansari, who had spent eight days on board the International Space Station. "We also plan to expand to other states in association with Tata Trust as the success of such projects depends on the local know-how and local content."

Ansari, along with her husband Hamid Ansari and brother-in-law Amir Ansari, launched Prodea Systems in 2006 after their first venture Telecom Technologies was acquired in 2001 for $1.2 billion. The Texas-headquartered company builds technologies for delivery of digital services on internet of things. One of the technologies developed by it is to offer digital services on television sets through interactive video and audio.

"I believe internet is a powerful tool that can being about a lot of transformation among people in rural India by disseminating information and knowledge on various subjects. One such area is education of the female child and many of them drop out from schools quite early due to various social stigma. With this technology, we can deliver the classroom to their homes which they can access whenever they are free after competing household chores," said Ansari.

Born in Iran, Ansari emigrated to the US in 1984 at the age of 16. She earned her bachelor's degree in electronics and computer engineering from George Mason University and a master's degree in electrical engineering from George Washington University.

In 2006, she became the first woman who paid her way into space. She was the first person of Iranian descent to get there.

Ansari had a fascination for space at a very young age, when she was in Iran. "In summer nights, while sleeping outside, I used to look at the stars and imagine myself floating among them, always trying to find answers in the universe. That made me fall in love with astronomy and space."

She has also invested heavily in the area. "My husband often says I have a 'costly hobby'," said Ansari. "I have no interest in jewellery and we don't own a house."

The Ansari family also sponsors the Ansari X Prize, a $10-million cash award for the first non-governmental organisation to launch a reusable manned spacecraft into space.

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First Published: Sat, March 05 2016. 21:43 IST