Frederick Noronha on Fri, 3 Mar 2000 22:16:09 +0100 (CET)

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[Nettime-bold] NEWS-FEATURE: Ideas aplenty on how software can help themillions

by Frederick Noronha 

CHENNAI (South India): Ramesh is a daredevil rickshaw in
this bustling South Indian city, but the computer boom
that India is going ga-ga about means nothing to him.
Bangalore may well be India's Silicon Valley, yet
booming software stocks and the millionaries that it
has created leave dwellers in slushy city slums cold.

Taking this worrying trend into account, researchers
from across India and elsewhere are trying to change
the situation and "touch the lives of millions", by
making crucial telecom and Internet technologies
affordable to larger numbers in the developing world.

"Otherwise, we will end up having just 2-3% of our
people with access to these technologies," warns Prof
Ashok Jhunjhunwala of the Indian Institute of
Technology (Madras), which has just hosted a
global meet on providing affordable telecome and IT
solutions for developing countries.

Access to telecom networks and the Internet is fast
becoming a major factor determining the
competitiveness of an individual, group or society,
researchers point out.

To translate this into something meaningful in the
commonman's life, technologists and academists have
brought in amazing stories of how modern technologies
can, and are, changing lives.

Called Commsphere 2000, this meet brought in reports
of how Delhi slum-children were acquiring basic
computing skills without any instructions or knowing
any English; and how remote villages in Bangladesh are
to get phone links without even being connected by
copper wire.

Engineers in Chennai's IIT have designed phone
networks that slash the costs of installing phones to
less than half of the US$1000 (one thousand US
dollars) in infrastructure it normally costs, by
resorting to 'wireless in local loop' (WILL)

A South Asian initiative, run by volunteers from India
and Bangladesh, is called and looks at
experiments being conducted across SAARC to making
computing and the Internet "relevant to the needs of
the millions".

"It is now possible to give 4.5 billion people the
ability to leapfrog onto the Web, whereever there is
electricity supply, even without a traditional phone
line connection and without a personal computer," says
Univeristy of Bradford media communications doctoral
candidate Peter D. O'Neill.

His proposal is to deliver multimedia services via
powerline communications (powercoms) along the
electricity line to the "most humble dwelling", even
if it has a just a single light bulb dangling from the
ceiling. Authorities in Bangladesh are toying with
similar plans.

"There is a case for seriously examining this
technology for local loop aplications in countries
like India, where over 70% of households have power
line connections already. Even a fraction of this
conductor-capacity made usable for additional
communication purposes would (make a huge
difference)," agreed electronics professors
C.N.Krishnan and P.V.Ramakrishna of the Anna
University's MIT in Chennai.

>From Hyderabad, the Indian Institute of Information
Technology (IIIT) stresses the "absolutely basic" need
for computing to be done in Indian language scripts.

"Alpha-versions of machine-translation from one Indian
language to another already exists in five
Indian-language pairs," reported Vineet Chaitanya and
Rajeev Sangal of the IIIT-Hyderabad's Language
Technology Research Centre.

Work is going on in Hyderabad on a large-scale system
and, if successful, will allow e-texts including
web-pages to be accessed by Hindi readers on demand.

New Delhi-based Shyam Telecom Limited is using
IIT-Madras technology for corDECT (rpt corDECT) phones
-- that connect telephones to the exchange wireless,
thus reducing costs -- and which have found export
markets in rural Madagascar, remote Fiji, hilly Yemen
and suburban Kenya. Encouraging results are already
being reported.

Such technology is also beying deployed in Bhopal and
New Delhi. corDECT was developed by IIT-Madras, M/s
Midas Technologies and got support from even the
Analogue Devices of the US.

Engineers from the IIT-Bombay are meanwhile planning a
communication system for health care neds which "will
be very relevant to India".

Bangalore-based Indian Institute of Science (IISc)
Professor Kumar N Sivaraman has, on the other hand,
developed, an Instruction-On-Demand (IOD) software
tool, which simulates on a user's PC screen a typical
seminar environment where a speaker lectures using
overhead transparencies to students across distant,
remote locations.

Railway engineers from India's South-Central Railway,
headquartered in Secunderabad, say that by using the
copper and optical fibre of the Indian Railway
network, Internet and telecom services can be provided
to about 4000  towns and 100,000  
Internet connections in about two years, at barely Rs
15,000 (US$350) per connection.

India has a teledensity (phones per hundred) of barely
two, as against 50 in the Western world. This strongly
affects the competitiveness of society.

But the major problem is that current costs of around
US$1000 (rpt US$1000) to build infrastructure  for a
single line is simply too unaffordable here.

Once finance costs, operations, maintaenance and
obsolence is taken into account, revenue of US$300
per year is required from each phoneline
simply to break even. This is a price most in India
cannot afford.

"In most developing countries, US$300 per year for a
telephone is accessible to less than five per cent of
the population. How then can one hope for the
development of telecom infrastructure and look for
even some semblance of universal Internet access?"
asks Dr Jhunjhunwala, whose pioneering role in making
telecom low-cost is widely recognised here.

Samudra Haque, a Minnesota-trained computer scientist
who runs an ISP (internet service provider) in
Bangladesh, has one unique solution for which he has
just had a patent claim registered in Dhaka.

"We're combining the best elements of radio
engineering, telecommunications and computer science
to offer a high-speed communication network in remote
rural villages (in Bangladesh) spead over large areas.
And we are doing this will relatively small budgets
too," Haque told this correspondent.

Using this method, 3 MBPS high-speed links are
possible to villages, using wireless routers. He said
20-30 telephone channels and 20 video phone sets could
be offered for a capital cost of US$150,000 to
villages which otherwise had no hope of being
connected. "We aim to provide mega-bits, not just
kilo-bits," said Haque, who says he was Bangladesh's
first computer scientist in the 'nineties.

Said Prof. MGK Menon, India's former minister of state
for Science and Technology: "Software share prices are
zooming. This sector has the highest market
capitalisation, and has created millionaires. But the
country's policy makers can't be misled by that.
Software and telecom must represent and improvement in
the life of the people of the country. We can't be
misled by the glitter we see in newspaper headlines."

Prof A Jhunjhunwala
Commsphere 2000
Slum-children project
Peter D. O'Neill
Rajeev Sangal, IIIT
Shyam Telecom
Kumar Sivaraman, IISc
Samudra Haque

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