The Modi government must seriously explore alternative technologies for providing internet connection if it is serious about Digital India targets and mission
R Swaminathan | February 9, 2015
Here’s the big question. Can every Indian have 24/7 internet connection? Two IIT Bombay professors and a couple of their students from the departments of electronics and aerospace presented a paper in 2007 laying out an innovative and affordable way to provide top-quality wireless broadband connectivity directly to homes through tethered mini aerostats equipped with omnidirectional antennas having a range of 10 km. The antenna would be powered by a battery connected to the tether, doubling as a power cord, and would link up to a series of wireless routers set up in small hubs. The internet would then be transmitted to the houses equipped with mini receivers.
It’s exactly how direct-to-home television model works: the hubs are the TV signal transmitting stations, mini aerostats, the satellites and the home receivers the dish antennas (Refer to paper: http://goo.gl/JXoXjw). The interesting part was that this paper was not just an idea or an academic conceptualisation, but was based on a functional proof of concept.
With telecom service providers not showing any interest, having already incurred heavy capital expenditure on licensing fees and setting up cell phone tower infrastructure, and ISPs finding the entire business model a threat to their existing ecosystem and the government having wedded itself to the idea of providing broadband connectivity to 2,50,000 panchayats through an exclusive network of fibre optic cables, the promising solution never had any chance. The paper created a stir in India’s digital policy circles then, grappling as they were with the big question. Yet, as expected, it led to no concrete solutions and outcomes.
The big question for PM Narendra Modi’s Digital India policy still remains the same. For all its right mix of visionary appeal and missionary zeal, the stakeholders still have the same mindsets and policy circles are still dominated by private and public institutions deeply immersed in thought processes of big infrastructure projects and huge capital investment. There is nothing to indicate that ambitious targets of Digital India, like those of the other digital missions of the past, will be met, or even come close: except there is one potential difference. Modi till now has shown a refreshing innovativeness in dealing with intractable problems of bureaucratic inertia, indifference, unnecessary complications and roadblocks put up by vested stakeholders.
He needs to show a similar approach to comprehensively answer the big question of last-mile connectivity. It’s in this connection that one must take into account some of the recent technological developments in the field of white space, offline internet and voice web.
The immediate context, of course, is the recent high-profile meetings of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and his India head Bhaskar Pramanik with Modi and telecommunications minister Ravi Shankar Prasad. In both cases, the digital giants offered Modi and his team alternative technologies for use. Facebook offered its services, and codes, being developed as part of its
internet.org application. It’s a platform that has brought in software engineers and developers with an aim to evolve tightly coded and hence extremely light applications and services for farmers, teachers, migrants and women. These apps can function even at extremely low internet speeds. Microsoft, on the other hand, has offered a relatively new, and a largely unexplored, way to deliver high-speed internet of up to 16 mbps directly to any house. Based on white space, which essentially refers to any unused frequency, the white-fi aims to deliver high-speed internet using excess UHF band television frequency. It’s an innovative idea, but not by any means a new one. It has the potential to turn into an over-the-top (OTT) solution for digitally lighting up homes in remote places, skipping both the telecom service providers and ISPs.
Needless to say, both Microsoft and Facebook are hawking their approaches and technical solutions to India, and specifically targeting the Digital India initiative, since their business models depend heavily on internet penetration. Despite their impulses being driven by market imperatives, and justifiably so, the potential to expose a vast chunk of Indians to the digital world and the resultant socio-economic benefit is undeniable. However, alternative technologies are not just the preserve of market-driven companies. Several government institutions and departments – C-DAC, C-DOT, the IITs, IISc and several private engineering colleges – have done pioneering work in creating a unique digital ecosystem for Indian language content ranging from Unicode solutions to evolving hyper speech transport protocol for creating a voice web to break the literacy barrier.
This is where Modi’s team tasked with taking forward the Digital India agenda needs to display the kind of freshness that the prime minister brings to the table in using existing solutions when tackling seemingly insurmountable issues: just see how the attendance figures of bureaucrats in all central government offices in Delhi are shooting up after the implementation of Aadhaar-based swipe cards. There is always the danger that these alternative technologies would be positioned as the proverbial silver bullet to scale up India’s digital infrastructure; indeed market-driven companies have started doing it already.
There is also, however, the danger of status quoists and vested interests derailing such efforts to create a digital infrastructure using such technologies and solutions. It’s already visible in the unidimensional approach shown by various departments and digital divisions of the government, which seem hell bent on putting all their eggs in the basket of creating a fibre optic backbone to connect panchayats and villages. Such an effort has been in the works for over a decade, and the results, in all honesty, have just not been satisfactory. A case in point is the constant re-evaluation – read lowering – of targets pertaining to the laying of fibre optic cable network to provision of broadband connectivity to 2,50,000 panchayats and the rollout of e-governance and m-governance projects. Even development and deployment of governance apps are routinely delayed. This is not to say that the physical infrastructure, server capacities, G-cloud, software and applications envisaged and created by the government over the last 10 years is not needed. Nor does it mean that we need to abandon this course midway. But what’s needed is a re-orientation of the thought processes to accept that ‘one size fits all’ approach will not work. To hold the digital dreams of millions of Indians hostage to bureaucratic delays is unacceptable.
To break out of this self-perpetuating and self-defeating logic, Modi’s team will have to quickly and decisively demarcate two areas within the Digital India initiative. The first is to clearly identify consumer facing interfaces, solutions, technologies, applications and services. These services and solutions require an immediate access to bandwidth, something that justifiably cannot be denied to anyone anymore on the premise that the fibre optic network has to be laid first. It’s here that the alternative technical solutions should be given a fair trial.
The ultimate aim should be to ensure that quality bandwidth is available to every single household or at least to households where any form of radio, television or telecommunications frequencies reach. The second is to look at governance services as requiring enterprise level solutions. It’s here that the government will justifiably require dedicated fibre optic network, storage space and customised software solutions: after all if a district wants to digitise and upload land records for the past 150 years a standard consumer internet broadband pack will fail. Modi and his team must create the policy and regulatory space for India to develop a diverse and robust ecosystem of digital technologies and solutions. It’s critical for a country like ours where specific digital needs of regions and communities will necessarily require a variety of technologies and services.