India’s last-mile challenge

Modi’s Digital India programme is bound to fail if it doesn’t seriously look at emerging technologies to provide direct internet connectivity to every single house


Pratap Vikram Singh | February 12, 2015

#Egovernance   #digital india   #narendra modi   #narendra modi digital india   #egovernance news   #technology news  

It is an unpalatable truth for prime minister Narendra Modi. The government still doesn’t have a coherent plan on how it’s going to pipe in high-speed internet broadband connectivity to every single house. The truth no doubt has a bitter taste, but it needs to be ingested if at all Modi’s ambitious digital dreams of connecting every single Indian to a broadband pipe is ever to be realised. The Digital India initiative is looking towards the national optical fibre network (NOFN) to provide the backbone for connecting all villages.

The NOFN was specifically tasked by the UPA regime in 2011 of connecting 2,50,000 village panchayats with a fibre optic network in the first phase, and then extending it to 3,90,000 village panchayats. The project, for a few justifiable and several unjustifiable reasons, has been delayed and now it is said that the first phase would be completed only by the end of 2016. There is no clear horizon for the second phase. It must be mentioned that India has 6,40,000 villages and only 13 percent of India’s population is connected to the internet. Of this less than 10 crore users are in rural areas. The broadband reach is even lower with only 7 crore subscribers across the country in July 2014, with over 80 percent of them residing in urban areas.

Each stakeholder has reasons for not playing their part to perfection. Telecom service providers (TSPs) and internet service providers (ISPs) bemoan the lack of a viable business model in the rural areas, the government complains about the lack of interest from the market players for all their efforts and initiative in creating hard infrastructure, while the regulators and government cannot seem to agree on fundamental policy issues from norms on speed and pricing to spectrum regulatory frameworks. This has been a recurring story every time a push is sought to spread out the digital network in India. However, this kind of network is required in India for creating a framework for electronic and mobile governance services, enterprise solutions and for giving a boost to digital transaction and commerce ecosystem. Yet, the fibre optic network doesn’t lay out a clear pathway or a guarantee that every single house will get quality internet connection; a connection that today does not have to necessarily depend on either the NOFN or the conventional internet delivery ecosystem of the TSPs and ISPs. 

Alternative technologies can be two steps forward

It is in this context that the Modi government needs to look at some of the alternative technologies on offer, not only from the likes of Microsoft, Facebook and Google -- companies with a clear-cut profit motive -- but also from institutions as diverse as the Indian Institutes of Technology to C-DAC that have the potential to resolve the seemingly untractable last-mile challenge. In the past couple of months, founders and CEOs of several companies have visited India and met either the PM or communications and IT minister Ravi Shankar Prasad and showed their willingness to work on the Digital India programme. The aggressive promotion of last mile connectivity by these companies is about ‘increasing the size of cake’, a senior official with Microsoft India noted. “The more people start using computer and internet the larger will be the consumer base for these companies,” he said. 

On his recent India visit Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella had shown his company’s willingness to help deploy the White-Fi technology to provide high-quality internet connection up to 16 mbps to every single house. The core proposition of the technology has been in existence for some time, and uses the unused television frequencies to provide internet connectivity directly to a household. The digitisation of television transmission, combined with better compression techniques, satellite transmission and set-top boxes have freed up a quite a bit of space in the existing frequencies in India. White-Fi has the ability to use free space in existing frequencies as well utilise any UHF band. The software giant doesn’t own intellectual property rights on this technology. The company, however, is helping IIIT Bangalore with rolling out prototypes and experiments.

Similarly, Google is working on Project Loon which aims to provide internet in remote areas through high altitude balloons. Vinton G Cerf, chief internet evangelist, Google, on his Delhi visit in January, said it is still being worked out at the laboratory level and yet to be deployed. (See interview on page 73.)

Facebook, on the other hand, is taking two different approaches. The first initiative is called the, whereby it is actively engaging with developers and coders to create extremely light applications and services that can be delivered on all forms of mobile phones and in low connectivity areas. The second approach – officially unconfirmed but apparently suggested by Mark Zuckerberg to – is to provide internet to villages with the help of drones.

White-Fi and the great hope

The most promising alternative technology both in terms of practicality and operational possibility is White-Fi. If the ongoing experiments succeed, India would cover a long way in bringing internet closer to its billion plus population even as the existing service providers continue to weigh pros and cons of investing in rural areas. In India, as is the case with other countries, huge tract of spectrum band is lying unused with the state broadcaster Doordarshan.

Institutions including IIT Bombay and IIT Madras have also been working on this technology for a few years. The 400 Mhz band in our country is allocated to TV. But there are no private TV channels which are broadcasting on air in this band. This spectrum is used by only two Doordarshan  channels – DD 1 and DD 2.

Out of 400 Mhz only 16 Mhz is required by these two channels. It is primarily this unused bandwidth that the proponents of White-Fi are eyeing. The equipment which enables this comes in a size equal to a VCR box, with a 15-foot mast attached to it.

For transmission, this box is connected with the broadband cable, at the village panchayat. At the point of reception, there is a small conversion device at the gram panchayat, which would convert the broadcasting frequency to 2.4 gigahertz which is used for Wi-Fi. Once it is converted, Wi-Fi zones can be created in villages.

Abhay Karandikar of the department of electrical engineering in IIT Mumbai has been working on this technology for couple of years. He piloted it at IIT Mumbai and found encouraging results. He has sought experimental license from department of telecommunications (DoT) for piloting it in Palgarh district of Maharashtra. Though he applied for the licence in May 2014, the DoT is yet to respond. “The spectrum available in 470 and 590 Mhz has better propagation capacity. It covers a larger radius, up to five kilometres. After Palgarh, we want to pilot it in Ajmer using the NOFN connectivity,” he said. The IIT professor has taken the help of a Bengaluru-based start up Sankhya Lab to develop the equipment for transmitting the radio waves. Currently one box costs '5,00,000. “The price, however, will come down to '50,000 per unit if made in large scale,” Karandikar said.  Ashok Jhunjhunwala of IIT Madras suggests that the manufacturing of these boxes could be done locally and can be linked to the government’s ‘Make in India’ campaign.

Spectrum deregulation

However, there is a catch. The white space technology would bring down the cost of providing internet only when the government doesn’t charge a licence fee from the service providers. At present, telecom companies pay an eight percent licence fee on spectrum. “As of now the major expense for a telcos is on spectrum and managing the backhaul. The opening of TV band could reduce telcos’ cost of providing internet,” said Karandikar.

Mahesh Uppal, a senior consultant dealing with telecom regulation, said there is a need for revamping the licensing regime in order to provide affordable internet in rural areas. “The government will have to deregulate the spectrum if it wants to deliver internet to the last mile,” he said. “The government looks at spectrum as cash cow. But this (broadband services) is something for rural masses. The spectrum allocated to TV should be allowed to be used for transmitting broadband on a licence-free basis in order to drive down cost access,” added a Microsoft official. “Mobile telephony was successful because it was cost effective for consumers. Licensing fee has a cascading impact,” said Rajesh Charia, chairman, ISPAI. A senior official with DoT said the department is open for a pilot project on White-Fi, though a final decision on it would be taken only after it is established that the internet transmission wouldn’t interfere with broadcasting. “As of now it is a theoretical situation.”

Deregulating and opening up the TV band requires harmonisation with international regulations, including that of international telecommunications union (ITU), said Rajan S Mathews, who is the director general of the cellular operators association of India (COAI). He fears giving band for free will distort level playing field between Indian service providers and internet giants like Google and Facebook that don’t pay taxes to the government on their revenues. Experts, however, believe that if all experiments with White-Fi go well and the government allows usage of TV spectrum band for quality last-mile internet could be provided at low prices.

The bugbear of telecos

“One of the prime reasons behind poor rural internet connectivity is that private telecom service providers don’t find villages commercially viable,” said Mathews. While TSPs have welcomed the government’s move of optical fibre connectivity, lack of a business model has kept service providers at a distance. The government is still undecided on technology for the last mile, fibre usage norms for service providers, business models, spectrum deregulation, content policy and low-cost devices. “If government fails to connect rural areas with internet at affordable price the whole digital India programme would flounder,” says a senior industry leader handling government affairs for a US-based IT giant. 

The initiative taken by the government in the past for large-scale connectivity is still a work in progress. A couple of years after the government piloted NOFN at three places: Ajmer (Rajasthan), Vishakhapatnam (Andhra Pradesh) and Tripura, not even one TSP has showed interest.

The plan was to see how high-speed internet could be used to offer telemedicine, tele-education and skill development in villages. TSPs have claimed that the department of telecommunications and BBNL, the nodal agency for NOFN, do not have a business model in place. If that is the case the question arises: are there any takers for this mammoth programme? Industry associations including COAI and ISPAI are quite vocal about their demand for either viability gap funding or reducing their obligation under USOF for which service providers’ give five percent of their revenue.

The issue of content and accessibility

Though English is the predominant lingua franca of the internet, just about 10 percent of Indians speak the language. A study by the internet and mobile association of India (IAMAI) and IMRB found that only 45 million people used internet in local languages in 2012, which works out to less than five percent local or localised content in Indian languages. The study pointed out that rural internet users were more aware of regional language in comparison to the urban users. Around 64 percent of rural users opted for local language in contrast to 25 percent of urban users.

According to Dr Govind, CEO, National Internet Exchange of India (NIXI), Wikipedia has 45 lakh pages in English. “The government has recently initiated some good measures to promote local languages. In mid 2014, the department of electronics and IT (DeitY) launched Devnagari script web address ‘Bharat’. This means web addresses can now be made available in Dongri, Marathi, Nepali, Sindhi, Konkani and Hindi. Similarly Urdu, Punjabi, Telugu, Tamil, and Kashmiri have also been covered. The plan is to cover all 22 languages,” he said.

Last December, NIXI had convened a meeting of major e-commerce players for providing their content in Indian languages. He said IRCTC and Snapdeal have started working towards this goal.  Dr Rajat Moona, DG, centre for development of advanced computing (CDAC), said, “If we don’t localise, we will keep a large section of population out of reach of internet.” CDAC has developed tools to convert – translate and transliterate – content into local languages. It has also developed audio-based web browsing, which converts text into audio, enabling visually impaired to access internet. The keyboards have been made tactile. “As of now these tools support Hindi, English and a few other languages. The organisation is working with learning institutions for the blind to prepare training modules other institutions,” said Dr Moona.

The rate at which the internet users are increasing in India, the country will soon surpass the US. In the long run it would also surpass China, which has over 640 million internet users. This will no doubt give a boost to the Indian economy. A report released by New York-based research firm McKinsey in December said Digital India could boost the country’s GDP to $1trillion by 2025. In fact, India is leading among the major developing countries in internet contribution to the GDP, according to the India@Digital.Bharat report (see graph). Much of Digital India’s success, however, would depend on how seriously the government starts looks at alternative technologies and solutions.



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