Frederick Noronha on Fri, 3 Mar 2000 23:27:48 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Ideas aplenty on how software can help the millions

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)  technologies. 

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

"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.

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

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

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

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."  (ENDS) 

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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