Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Rural Connectivity... Bridging Urban-Rural Divide

India started the first decade of 21st century with a magical (at least for Indians) utterance of “Information Technology”, a term which has largely been seen in its totality and has not been operated and analyzed with respect to the Indian realities. To analyze the situation emerging at the end of the first decade, in a more detailed manner, I divide the term into two – Information and Technology. 
It is quite often said that information will be the single most powerful tool to force through the social transformation in India but what is more important than information is access to the information as well as innovative use of the information. There is no doubt that Information will play a pivotal role in making India a knowledge powerhouse by the end of this decade (as expected by the Government) but the same will not happen until the information is accessed by the people at large that too in an equal manner across the country. So the availability of information and access to information, both are important issues to be addressed. 

The information revolution was started much before the mobile telephony introduced to rural areas. It was actually cable networks in early 1990’s that brought the entire world to look into the rural households in India and gave the rural economy a push. The PCO revolution added to this and today, most of the PCOs in rural India are run by cable operators as their side business. 
When it comes to governance, it’s all about governing a country consists of its people and governing over a billion people (with diverse culture, castes, languages, education and other contradictions) that too with treating them in an equal manner becomes a tough nut to crack for any government. And that’s where the need arises for e-governance or the infusion of technology into the governance. 
The use of technology while making the information available to the public provides just the right blend to empower the last man of the society who might be residing far away and can be reached only with the help of technology. Telecom revolution has been an example much talked about and needs to be replicated in other sectors. The figures tell the success story. According to the latest data released by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), the regulator for the sector, the overall tele-density in India has now reached 49.50 percent which means that every second Indian is now connected through telephone. The country added 19.6 million telephone subscribers during January 2010 to take the total number of subscribers in the country to 581.81 million. The wireless subscriber base increased from 535.15 million in December 2009 to 545.05 million at the end of January this year for a monthly growth rate of 3.79 per cent. The wireless density in the country now stands at 46.37. 
However, there is a massive gap between rural and urban India when it comes to telecom. While the urban teledensity has crossed the 100 percent mark, rural teledensity is still hovering at around 20 percent. Reason being a conception that there is no market opportunity in rural India. It was rightly said by former TRAI chairman Pradip Baijal, “In the telecom sector, we have treated this market as an “Obligation”. Unless we convert USO (Universal Services Obligation) into a “Universal Service Opportunity”, we will not harness the full potential of the majority of our population.” Though the conception is fast changing with the rural population increasing their consumption and consumer durables companies, automobile manufacturers and others are realizing the potential of 700 million strong consumer class emerging in the rural heartland of India. Telecom, though is yet to realize the potential of rural India, although the market is almost on consolidation in urban India. 

The Existing Resources 
The communication system is already in place in India and the need is now to put the necessary infrastructure in place along with some form of standardization throughout the country. Standardization and integration has the potential to optimize delivery of services of the processes which impact citizens the most such as birth certificates, death certificates, land records, pension, ration cards, drivers license, taxes etc and also for expediting delivery of justice, and creating an all new interface for the citizen in e-governance. 
The need of the hour is to utilize all the existing resources including telcos’ fiber, cable networks, WiMax to connect the rural population in the most cost-effective and speedy manner. Wireless technologies are quick-to-establish but are costly at the consumer’s end. We should focus on extending fiber as close to the consumer as possible in order to build a futuristic information highwy. Wireless technologies do not permit speed more than a few megabites (MBPS) whereas the requirement for the next generation applications today, is a speed of gigabites (GBPS). 
There is a massive infrastructure support already built-up by private operators as well as Government owned enterprises. There are more than 30,000 telephone exchanges of state-owned telco BSNL connected by optical fiber cable (OFC) network which means almost 5 telephone exchanges in each block and an average of one exchange for 20 villages. This is besides several private players’ OFC network, hence providing a plenty of bandwidth to a group of 20 villages that come under one telephone exchange. But the resources are lying in the dark. 
India has aggressive wireless technologies, which can connect fibre ends to all the 600,000 villages across the country. The opportunity has been identified by few corporates and NGOs including ITC, MS Swaminathan Centre (Pondicherry), Akshaya (Kerala), Gyaandoot (Madhya Pradesh). These pioneers have connected over 5,000 villages to broadband/internet. 

Challenges Ahead 
Considering the feeble physical infrastructure in rural India, broadband on cable could play a significant role in connecting the rural India to the world in order to bridge the urban- rural divide. Broadband internet could be a powerful enabler of many core segments of social structure of India – commerce, education, health, governance and social connectivity, all can be done through broadband connectivity where India, unfortunately is lagging behind other developed and emerging countries. 
While the telephoney has been seeing the uptrend in a speedy manner, broadband is comparatively slowly inching towards north. The total broadband subscriber base in the country has increased from 7.83 million in December 2009 to 8.03 million in January 2010, showing a growth of just 2.42 per cent. When these figures are put together with the 87 million broadband connections in China and 120 million lines in the US, India appears to be at a huge disadvantage. 

The Way Out 
The Government off late woke-up and laid down a plan to take the rural tele-density from the current level of 20 to 40 percent by 2012. The state-owned telco giant Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL) is laying cable up to 5 Kms. of exchange against the earlier standard of 2.5 kms to meet the growing need of rural and semi-urban India. BSNL has also deployed Wireless in Local Loop (WLL) network in rural areas to meet the demand of scattered and far-flung rural areas where connection of telephone is not techno-commercially feasible on landlines. It now plans to further expand its WLL network (Mobile Switching Centre based) and the additional deployment of WLL network in rural areas will result in availability of telephone connections on demand in most of the places. Remote and far-flung areas, which are not possible to be covered with terrestrial technology, are planned to be covered with Digital Satellite Phone Terminals (DSPTs). 
A scheme has been launched by USO Fund to provide subsidy support for sitting up and managing 7437 number of infrastructure sites (towers) in 500 districts spread over 27 states, for provision of mobile services in the specified rural and remote areas, where there is no existing fixed wireless or mobile coverage in the country. As on October 31, 2009, 6648 towers have been set up under this scheme. The Government also aims to complete a project to connect all 250,000 Gram Panchayats of the country by 2012. Around 18,000 crore Rs have already been allocated in this regard. Broadband Wireless Access (BWA), auctions of which have finally been kicked-off will give further impetus to a flight to the aspirations of Indian people. 
The Cable Advantage Bandwidth prices are now coming down. However, it has to be recognised that this bandwidth is currently available in almost unlimited supply but is not being used and will continue to be not used unless we launch this and similar massive connectivity projects. Hence, the rural projects will not be viable even with these concessional bandwidth prices and for such projects, the bandwidth prices may have to be further subsidised from the USO Fund, at least for a period of 5 years. 
Cable TV networks, today cover 40 million households in rural areas and that is more than double the teledensity in rural areas. All these networks are broadband ready and can carry bandwidth, several times more than any wireless or copper-based network. To upgrade these networks to carry triple-play is not an expensive task. It is cheaper than any other mode of broadband carriage. 
Most of rural cable networks use fiber optic cable for connecting villages so that larger areas can be covered without the use of intermediate power supplies, hence they are more eco-friendly than other networks. 
The best thing about cable networks is that there are commercial establishments and are running profitably for many years, providing a host of information to rural population. They are run by local people who know the demography of respective local area very well and can supply broadband services at their best in order to receive maximum profit out of it. 
These days, several technologies like GEPON, Ethernet-Over-Cable and DOCSIS are available to extend triple play services on HFC networks and there is no upgradation required for a return-path. If telecom companies make these rural cable networks as their last mile, much faster broadband penetration can be achieved. 
Once such networks are designed for these areas, they can also carry IP telephony and internet alongwith cable TV. Today the license condition does not allow unrestricted IP telephony on broadband connection. India has over 100 million Cable TV connections and 45 million fixed line telephones. Our percentage of cable TVs to TV homes is much higher than the rest of the world. We have to recognise this advantage and give entertainment to the villages through this network. This would make the networks even more viable. 

What we require today are rural networks on IP with unlimited bandwidth on demand which can be enabled by the availability of high quality HFC Networks and Wireless broadband. The challenge is to create a network requiring near zero installation at the subscriber end, while providing end to end voice, data and video connectivity from anywhere in the world to the remotest corners of the rural hinterland and yet providing the same quality of connectivity as would be available in the most advanced cities at prices that are affordable to the rural masses.


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