"The Internet is the paper, pencil and book of tomorrow - and rural India must be a part of it"
Madanmohan Rao interviews Ashok Jhunjhunwalla, professor, Indian Institute of Technology (Chennai)
A pioneer in wireless local-loop technologies for Internet access (especially in rural India), Professor Ashok Jhunjhunwala is the head of the electrical engineering department at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) in Chennai. Low-cost Internet access technology called CorDECT, developed at the IIT's Telecommunication and Networks Group (www.tenet.res.in), has been used in France, Brazil and China, and in Indian districts like Kuppam (in Andhra Pradesh) and Madurai (in Tamil Nadu); other trials have been launched in Hyderabad, Patiala and Delhi (Connaught Place).
Q: What's your assessment of India's Internet access market and its supporting policy environment?
The Internet is power, and we have to have 200 million Internet connections in
India. This we should achieve in 10 years. Today, the key challenge is cost:
can I get onto the Internet at my home at a total cost (including telephone) of Rs 10
per hour? Can I get access at kiosks at Rs 5 per hour? The key challenge is access.
In terms of wireless diffusion, fixed wireless will be used at homes, specially in small towns and rural areas. Mobile wireless Internet will be used for small information and transaction purposes.
But the government needs to open up both sectors much more: telephony and the Internet.
The Internet is creating a new digital divide, and rural India is in imminent danger of being caught on the wrong side of it. However, this can be avoided, if a conscious and determined effort is made to connect rural India to the Net by means of an economically vigorous model capable of self-sustained growth.
Q: What is your vision of what the Net can offer a country like India?
The Internet is going to change our lifestyle; in fact, it is already changing. It is the
paper, pencil and book of tomorrow. It changes the education, information and
Q: What was the founding vision behind TENET? How can its research and offerings in the Internet area be scaled up across rural India via appropriate business models?
Established about a decade ago, TENET is team of dedicated researchers working in the front line areas of telecommunications and computer networking, drawn from the faculty at the departments of electrical engineering and computer science. Our areas of focus include wireless local loop, digital subscriber loop, and telecom switches.
We have licensed our technology to a number of companies, including some which we incubated. The list today includes Midas Communications, Banyan Networks, Nilgiri Networks, and AdventNet.
Our corDECT WiLL (Wireless in Local Loop) solution for voice and Internet access is manufactured in India under license by telecom corporates Crompton Greaves, Electronics Corporation of India Ltd (ECIL), HFCL and Shyam Telecom. It has been inducted by a number of private and public sector telecom service providers as well as ISPs.
Developed by IIT Madras and Midas Communications, our technology provides seamless integration of both voice and Internet services (at 35/70 kbps). n-Logue Communications, incubated by the TeNeT Group, has developed a business model for local entrepreneurs based on the franchise model. Its offerings: a public kiosk, telephone instrument. 100 MHz Pentium PC (with color monitor, local language word processor, browsing and e-mail software), 16 hour power back-up for telephone, 4 hour back-up for PC, and an STD PCO meter.
Backbone Internet connectivity is taken from Satyam Infoway. Such kiosks are being provided to village entrepreneurs at a cost of about Rs 35,000, making it economically viable right from the beginning. Connections are also being provided to schools and individuals and Government offices.
We are growing rapidly inspite of hurdles, and are looking at 1.5 million connection by early
Q: What are the most notable success stories you have come across of affordable Internet access mechanisms using your wireless services?
We have at least three good case studies.
Gyandoot is a community-owned self-sustainable rural Intranet project, which has the active involvement of the Madhya Pradesh government. They have established Soochanalayas -- Information Kiosks - for commercial Internet and voice connectivity in the villages of Dhar district, along with-government services. The Dhar Internet project became the largest rural Internet project in India, and was awarded Stockholm Challenge Award.
The Gyandoot project has taken up e-governance in a big way and has made it possible for the villagers to register for applications online, online public grievance redressal, and rural e-mail facilities. They can also access land record information, mandi prices and participate in village auctions. The provision of sustainable and economically viable telephone and Internet communications will enable all-round development of the area.
In Tamil Nadu's Madurai district, our technology is being used by the Sustainable Access in Rural India (SARI) project, jointly undertaken by Media Labs, MIT, TeNeT Group of IIT Madras, Harvard Center for International Development and I-Gyan Foundation, Boston for deployment of telephones and Internet in villages. It seeks to show that a viable market exists for information and communication services in rural areas by inventing and deploying innovative technologies, carrying out continuous assessments and developing new business models. The ultimate goal is to link these activities to sustainable human development objectives.
SARI is tying up with a number of content developers and application providers, encouraging creation of a variety of Internet contents useful to rural areas. It has tied up with Dhan Foundation, a NGO in the area. Agricultural information systems and transactions related to agriculture will be enabled at an early date. The SARI team is working with state government to enable use of Internet for accessing government information systems and various application forms. Educational software is being prepared, including a web-based package, which would help one to learn spoken and written English.
Information and communication play big role in the lives of the sugarcane farmers in Tami Nadu's Cuddalore district, for co-ordination of farming activities, timely delivery of farm inputs, cane delivery to the mill-gate, and immediate credit for it. Till recently, the farmers depended solely on an army of agricultural officers on their motorcycles to co-ordinate their activities, and for all their inputs.
Today, they use the Net via a kiosk system in Nellikuppam, the town where the Parry sugar factory is located. 40 Internet connections have already been given in the villages of the command area, and all 150 villages in a radius of 25 kms will soon be covered. This represents a first in terms of rural teledensity in India, and a breakthrough in terms of rural Internet penetration. Interest and value from the Internet is sustained only by valuable local content: hence a portal called indiagriline.com has been created, with latest weather updates, fertiliser/pesticide stock positions of dealers in the area, seed/seedling availability with local dealers/nurseries, scheduling of migrant labor, tractor rentals, farm consultancy offered by farmers in the area, and more -- all in the local language Tamil.
For the cane farmer who supplies sugarcane to Parry, his account is updated online by the weighbridge as soon as his cane enters the factory! What took the farmer a bus-ride to the nearest market or Parry office to achieve, is now only a mouse-click away. Information that would earlier trickle in unreliably -- for example, best practices from others who have tried a new technique or seed variety -- is now disseminated rapidly on the Net.
The potential of this new tool for enabling rural India is enormous, and in the hands of the enterprising Cuddalore farmer, this potential is being realised sooner than one would imagine. Yet, only the surface has been scratched with regard to applications: e-governance, education, entertainment, emergency health-care, computer-based services such as word-processing and the like, will soon be added to the menu already available. The lessons learnt here will be spread to all the other districts where similar deployment is already underway or being planned. And the Internet revolution will hopefully be one that rural India will not be condemned to stand by and watch.
Q: How do you view the diffusion of the Internet in India as compared to other areas of similar size like China?
Take a look at India and China. In 1991 both India and China had about 5.5 million telephones. Today, India has about 35 million telephones -- but the number of telephone lines in China has grown to about 200 million; and it is adding about 30 million lines every year!
The Internet access industry in India must grow exponentially, the way the cable TV industry did via local entrepreneurs. Cable TV can now seen as affordable to over 60% of Indian households.
In the West, the cost to a telecom operator for providing a telephone line to a household is around $800, and the cost to residential users is $30 per month: both figures are considered acceptable. We have been using the same technology in India, but this is affordable to only a few percent of our population. The cost needs to be reduced by a factor of three or more for telecom (and the Internet) to be widely affordable in India.
A sound telecom policy is the key to generate confidence in the Indian R&D community in the telecom and datacom sectors. Indian telecom policies have been singularly lacking in this regard.
A goal of providing 150 million to 200 million telephone and Internet connections has important implications for overall development of our small towns and rural areas; it is also a big market opportunity for entrepreneurs and service providers. The expansion of the network requires R&D in appropriate technologies as well as sustainable business models which can accommodate local entrepreneurs.
The writer can be reached at email@example.com
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