INTERNET FOR ALL: INDIAN VILLAGERS TO GET ACCESS AT PRICES THEY CAN AFFORD

By Frederick Noronha
fred@bytesforall.org

India's hundreds of millions of rural dwellers are given a cold-shoulder
by businessmen, and lack the access to goods, services and information
they so badly require. From Chennai in Southern India comes a unique
technological solution -- a Internet kiosk that will sell for just Rs
40,000 (around US$830) and could link up hundreds of thousands of
villages.

What's best is that no subsidies or handouts are involved in this
ambitious project. It will be run on business lines, and early
field-implementations are already showing this to be both scaleable and
practical for implementation across rural India.

To every man (and woman) a Net connection. And a phoneline to everyone
wanting it. These goals are what electrical engineering prof Dr Ashok
Jhunjhunwala dreams about consistently. They're not just dreams; he's
also getting there, as recent experience shows.

Could this professor and head of the Indian Institute of Technology's
electrical engineering department in Chennai, do to the Internet what
Satyen 'Sam' Pitroda did to Indian telephones in the 1980s? Vastly open
up access, to make it a tool for the commonman?

US-based Indian expat Pitroda was a keen observer of the
telecommunication problems in the Third World. Telecom technology came
from the West, and didn't suit the dusty, humid and unreliable
electrical connections in Asia, Africa and Latin America. He was
convinced that India must develop an indigenous telecommunications
industry. In 1981, he launched plans to set up India's Centre for the
Development of Telematics (C-DoT). Not only did this design indigenous
telecom switching systems, to make rural exchanges that could work under
tougher conditions, but equipped ordinary telephones with small meters.
This equipment was sold to local entrepreneurs, who set up manned public
call offices (PCOs) on makeshift tables in bazaars, at streetcorners, or
in shops. They did work! By the year 2000, some 650,000 of these PCOs
were set up across India, instantly making a world of a difference to
the potential of the average Indian to access a telephone. (See 'India's
Communication Revolution - From Bullock Carts to Cyber Marts', Singhal
and Rogers, 2001, p194-198).

But India, with its 1000+ million population, still badly needs some 200
million more Internet and telephone connections. This is essential if
the commonman is to get access to the wonders of new information and
communication technologies, and if his productive potential is to be
developed better, instead of getting wasted.

But at current costs of the technology, India simply can't reach
anywhere near that figure. So, how does one go about making the Internet
and telephones simply a little more affordable? Ask Prof
Jhunjhunwala....

His arguments are simple. "We've learnt important lessons from the whole
experiment of expanding STD (subscriber trunk-dialling) access within
India. What has made a world of a difference was the policy of sharing
revenue with the small operator. Instead of one per cent of the Indian
population today getting access to STD phones, now nearly 30% of the
population has it," he adds.

Sitting in his unostentatious and spartan office, Prof Jhunjhunwala says
India also has lessons to learn from the growth of cable-TV in the
country. Today, millions of Indians across the country get low-cost
access to cable-TV, provided through local networks run mostly by the
unorganised sector. At a very affordable rate of about Rs 100 per month,
a family gets connected to three dozen or more cable channels.

This affordable package evolved simply because the informal sector and
the small-entrepreneur has been involved in giving out this service.
"So, there is a tremendous amount of accountability. Even a difficult
technology can be handled. Its costs can be lowered, by involvement of
the informal sector, and the benefits thus passed on to the consumer,"
says Dr Jhunjhunwala.

So what do we learn from this, if we are to spread telecom at affordable
rates to the hundreds of millions of India? Costs must be pushed down;
and local microbusinessmen must be involved in the mammoth task of
expanding the service.

"It currently costs (an investment of) Rs 30,000 to install a single
telephone line. To cover this investment, you need a revenue of at least
Rs 1000 per phone line per month. These rates are affordable to just
2-3% of the Indian population. But if you bring down the investment
needed for a phone line to Rs 10,000, then affordability of telephones
could immediately go up to 30 per cent or more of our population,"
points out Dr Jhunjhunwala.

For much of the 'nineties, Dr Jhunjhunwala has been working with
missionary zeal towards this goal. His focus has been to 'incubate'
companies of his former students and entrepreneurs -- often those
inspired by his infectious optimism -- to work to lowering the cost of a
telephone connection in India.

"We've not yet reached the figure of Rs 10,000 per phone line. But we've
brought down costs currently to Rs 18,000 per line," he says proudly.

Just because this technology is inexpensive, it's not poor quality.

"Look at this connection; it has been working continuously for 13 hours
at a stretch, and has transferred 1 gigabite of data", says a confident
Dr Jhunjhunwala, just before he snaps the link to the Internet. Besides,
this technology has gained acceptance in countries as remote and
distinct at Madagascar, Brazil, Fiji, Nigeria, Iran and elsewhere.

Says the professor: "These technologies have been developed by companies
that have been incubated by us. Like Midas Communication, Banyan
Networks, etc."

                         n-LOGUE EXPERIMENT
                         ------------------

One of the interesting companies that this Chennai (formerly
Madras)-based professor helped recently spawn is called n-Logue. It is
currently engrossed in providing Internet and telephone services
primarily to India's small towns and rural areas.

"Existing operators are really not focussed on rural areas. They believe
rural areas can't generate money, and see rural areas as a burden," says
Dr Jhunjhunwala.

To this end, Prof Jhunjhunwala and n-Logue came out recently with an
innovative solution: a complete Internet kiosk for just Rs 40,000. It
uses the wireless-in-local-loop technology. At under the equivalet of
US$800, n-Logue is offering wireless equipment, with its antennaes and
cables and mast; the telephone instrument; an STD-PCO meter; a good
personal computer Pentium 700Mhz, with multimedia and a colour monitor
and a batter backup for at least four hours of PC usage; with
Indian-language software to make computing relevant to the millions
here.

"We're providing all this at Rs 40,000. This was the most difficult
thing. And this was one of the key work we have done over the last
several years," says Dr Jhunjhunwala.

"(Since we're talking about low investments) we can create an army of
rural entrepreneurs. They could avail of small loans, to set up their
own rural STD phone-cum-Internet centres," says Prof Jhunjhunwala.

He explains their plan of tying up with LSPs, or local service
providers. These small rural-businessmen will be 50% partners, and since
they would be from the local areas where they operate, they would have
far better contact with those whom they work with.

In a 25-km radius, they expect to find buyers for 500 to 700
connections. These could be individuals, government offices, schools --
and most importantly -- Internet kiosks that make access open to
everyone. This level of operation should make a LSP viable, feels Prof
Jhunjhunwala. Even if the numbers don't come in immediately, they would
in a year's time when people start realising how new communication
technologies empower them.

Work towards this end is already underway at Cuddalore district, in
India's southernmost province of Tamil Nadu. In Madurai (also in Tamil
Nadu) and Dhar of the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, this
technology is also being successfully implemented. Likewise, in Bagru of
Rajasthan and Sangrur in North India, the project is starting up.

"We could have a million subscribers in a three to four year time-frame.
It's possible. We are focussed only on small towns and rural areas. We
will not do large cities (as there are others who are currently rolling
out Internet and phone services there)," says Prof Jhunjhunwala.

Simultaneously, Prof Jhunjhunwala is inspiring youngsters to work on
rural Internet applications. For instance, one young team has worked on
a Tamil-Hindi-English spreadsheet. It currently works on the Windows
operating system, and will soon be ported to Linux.

Also on offer is word-processing in the local Tamil language, a
mail-client in Tamil, and also IRC (Internet relay chat) or voice-mail
in the local language. An agricultural-portal in the regional language
is also in the making. All this would help make the Internet something
potentially very useful in the lives of the average villager.

"We're adopting two key elements. Affordability, since everything is
very low cost, and involving a local person in providing the solutions,"
says Prof Jhunjhunwala, explaining his model.

                         DREAMING, DELIVERING
                         --------------------

Over the past five to six months, the concept has been given shape. Says
Prof Jhunjhunwala, as n-Logue CEO P.G.Ponnapa looks on: "The challenge
is to make it happen to scale. That's his (Ponnapa's) job. Our job is to
dream; his job is to deliver."

But this is no mere dream. Prof Jhunjhunwala has proven the robustness
of his technology in the past. Today, the Cordect wireless-in-local-loop
(WiLL) technology he earlier worked on, has been accepted by mainstream
companies like the government giant BNSL, MTNL, Shyam Telelink and
others.

Says Ponnapa: "Other than the sheer numbers (what is exciting) is the
ability to make a different in a guy's life. He should believe this
kiosk is a lifeline to a better life." He explains that rural dwellers
suffer from a low-access to goods and services, low credit and the lack
of communication facilities. "Our solution can solve a significant part
of the second and third problems," says he.

Perhaps what also needs to be noted is that this attempt tries to make
the technology commercially viable, and affordable even to those
considered 'poor'. In other words, it will not be dependent on huge sums
of government subsidies or foreign aid being poured in, to prop it up.

Prof Jhunjhunwala says that they have received good support from the
government and non-profit development organisations. "All find it a
fantastic route (to solve the long-time problem of offering access to
the commonman at affordable rates)," says he.

"Look at this live video lecture," says a proud Prof Jhunjhunwala,
pointing to a personal computer by his side. To demonstrate its
capabilities, he also points to the fact that one can make a
simultaneous telephone call, even while accessing the Net, using the
wireless-in-local-loop technology.

"If I put that up in any village, the people there can get an STD-PCO
(subscriber trunk dialling-public call office) and at the same time,
access the Internet in graphical mode," says Prof Jhunjunwala.

"It's possible to have a small-size face-and-shoulder lecture, and at
the same time to use the phone," says Prof Jhunjhunwala, pointing to the
two-channels that his Cordect wireless in local loop solution offers.
"This is the kind of thing that's possible with the technology today.
(Internet speeds of) 35kbps can offer a very significant kind of
traffic," he points out.

Says n-Logue's CEO Ponappa: "There are basically three reasons why these
people remain backward. Or why rural areas don't get enough development
as they should. (a) They don't get access to good quality goods (b) They
don't have access to good quality credit and (c) They don't have access
to good quality communication. What we believe is that by implementing
this across rural India, the second and third areas would be
significantly addressed."

So far n-Logue has implemented this solution in four centres. "The first
level feedback has been extremely encouraging. We have kiosks running in
the middle of Madhya Pradesh, where the average revenue a kiosk-man
makes if Rs 4500 per month. Net of expenses, he makes Rs 3000 per month;
which makes him a rich man in that village. This guy is typically
someone 21 to 25 years old," says Ponappa.

                         DEPEND ON OURSELVES
                         -------------------

Dr Jhunjhunwala strongly argues that the Third World has to depend on
itself to locate its own telecom solutions.

Technology solutions from the West won't really help make telecom
affordable here, he argues. "It's not because of any other reason. But
at the current cost of Rs 30,000 ($700-800) you need 40 to 45% return,
which is $300 roughly a year. This is about $30 per month, a figure
which is affordable to almost every family in the West."

So really, 15 years back, in the West they got everyone connected. Now,
lowering the basic cost of telephony is no longer a priority. "Because
their market does not depend on creating new market. Their market is a
replacement market. They essentially have to work to work to provide
more features and services, keeping the costs constant."

Therefore Western technology has been focussing on mobility, on higher
bit-rate services. "They've been working on all those things, rather
than bringing down the cost of telecom. That's the reason that for the
last 15 years, the cost has remained at US$800 to 1000. It has not come
down," says Dr Jhunjhunwala.

"(Firms in the West) don't have any incentive to bring down prices. It
is our problem, and we who have to take that up," says he.

Someone made the mistake of asking Prof Jhunjhunwala who was funding the
'experimental projects' he was currently carrying on. An angry professor
shot back, "We're not doing experimental projects. We are doing
revenue-generating projects. What is there to experiment about? We've
used this technology in 11 countries. The time is over for experiments
now."

As we finishing our discussion, Prof Jhunjhunwala left the spartan
buildings of the IIT, one of India's prestigious technology education
institutions, kick-started his scooter, and rode off with an air of
determination over what he's doing... and what he hopes to achieve.
(ENDS)

Contact details: Dr Ashok Jhunjhunwala, Professor and Head, Department
of Electrical Engineering, Indian Institute of Technology-Madras,
Chennai. Email ashok@tenet.res.in or ashok@nimbus.ee.iitm.ernet.in Tel
(44) 235 2120 (OF) or 235 3202 / 445 9355 (R)

PG Ponnapa, Chief Executive Officer n-Logue Communications Private
Limited, Adyar Chennai. Email ponnapa@n-logue.com Ph 445 5210/12/21/23

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Frederick Noronha | Freelance Journalist | 784 Saligao 403511 Goa India
Ph [0091] 832.409490 or 832.409783 Cell 9822 12.24.36 fred@bytesforall.org
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