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Tuesday, 30 May, 2000, 13:24 GMT 14:24 UK
Fast track for Indian internet
Railway tracks
The plan is to use India's vast railway network
By Jill McGivering in Delhi

A team of engineers in India say they have found an innovative way of bringing the internet cheaply and quickly to India's rural population.

They plan to use India's extensive railway network as a conduit for communications cables.

Stations along the route will also be part of the network.

We have a railway station, on average, every 8 km

Project leader Ashok Jhunjhunwala
The team is adding cybercafe kiosks to stations along the track for use by local people without their own computer equipment.


A pilot project has just started which covers 40kms of railway track with 5 stations along it, linking two towns in southern India, Vijayawada and Guntur.

It should be finished by the end of June.

If it proves a success, the team says it could potentially link 4,000 towns and 100,000 households to the internet within the next two years.

Ashok Jhunjhunwala, a professor in electrical engineering and one of the project's leaders, says the pilot is just a first phase to see how well the technology works.

All the stations along this stretch of track will have cybercafe kiosks; one station will also provide wireless internet connection for 10 to 15 participating households within a 10km radius.

"India is in a unique situation," said Professor Jhunjhunwala.

"We have a railway station, on average, every 8 km all over the country. This way, we can bring down the costs significantly," he said.

"I'd say the connection cost would come close to affordability for local people."

Spare cables

The main virtue of the plan is its ability to reuse the existing cable system, avoiding the time and cost of laying a fresh cabling network.

The electrified railway tracks contain communications and control cabling, which almost always has spare capacity.

The villagers don't know very much about it - but they're keen to understand it

Prof Jhunjhunwala
This can now be exploited for sending modern telecommunications services to outlying areas.

The company investing in the scheme is refusing to be named at this stage.

But the team admits there may be more problems ahead, even if the railway network does prove the perfect conduit for internet cabling.

Making it affordable

Professor Jhunjhunwala says many villagers might be able to afford the new, lower connection charges - but not the cost of a personal computer in their homes.

That is one reason why the cybercafe kiosks are important.

Cybercafe in India
Public access for those who lack home PCs
His team is also looking at the development of lower cost internet monitors, which could be a cheaper alternative to PCs in the long term.

India's often erratic electricity supply is also an issue.

"Many of these places don't get power for more than 6 to 8 hours a day," says Professor Jhunjhunwala.

"We need to investigate back up. Perhaps batteries, for example, or solar panels."

Interest, he says, is high.

The much-publicised success of India's computer industry has given many people here fresh confidence about their ability to handle high tech - if they can get the chance.

"A lot of people in rural areas think the internet is only for people in cities," he said.

"The villagers don't know very much about it - but they're keen to understand it. There's a strong belief that if you can even get partly educated, your future career is guaranteed."

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