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Last Updated: Tuesday, 6 February 2007, 08:24 GMT
India's vision for a digital billion
Jonathan Fildes
Science and technology reporter, BBC News

A man walks through a rubber tree plantation in India
Rural India is being left behind in the digital age
As 2006 drew to a close the President of India outlined his vision for a connected India.

He challenged the country's technical elite to provide free bandwidth "for anyone, anywhere, anytime".

In the speech, Dr Abdul Kalam said that communication channels were a "demolisher of imbalances" and likened the government's responsibility to it to "laying the roads".

This one action, he said, would not only boost the economy of India but would also address the imbalance between the haves and the have-nots of the digital world.

It would allow for services such as e-governance, remote diagnosis of disease through telemedicine and distance learning.

"I am convinced we will soon be living in a world of unlimited bandwidth," he told the gathered crowd in the IT hub of Salt Lake, just outside Calcutta.

But Dr Kalam, and the India government's vision of inclusive growth is not as simple as it may seem.

Business muscle

Although in urban areas there is a fibre optic infrastructure and a comprehensive mobile phone network, it only serves a fraction of the population.

More than 700 million Indians live in rural areas, much of which is untouched by modern communications. Around 30% of rural homes do not have electricity.

The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) estimates that in 2005 - the latest year for which complete figures are available - there were around 60 million internet users in India, about 5% of the population. Only a fraction of these have internet access in their home.

Rolling out copper to rural villages is close to impossible
Lil Mohan, Intel

In addition, less than 10% of people have a phone subscription, mobile or otherwise and nearly one fifth of villages do not even have a single public telephone.

But efforts to span the digital divide are gathering pace. Once the territory of grass roots movements and non-governmental organisations, big business is now throwing its considerable muscle behind initiatives to connect India.

Microsoft, for example, revealed plans to set up a network of 50,000 internet kiosks across India over the next three years.

The Saksham project will use existing phone lines or use VSAT satellite link-ups and will be run by local entrepreneurs.

VSAT is a commercial service typically used to provide internet access to remote locations. It can be expensive but offers speeds up to 2 megabits per second (Mbps).

The project builds on other initiatives by groups such as n-logue who have run pilot kiosk projects for over five years.

Final mile

Other big players are also looking at rolling out bandwidth to rural areas. Chip-maker Intel and network firm Nortel have been running Wimax trails in several sites across India.

Wimax (Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access) is a technology designed to give people high speed access to the net over relatively long distances.

Man talks on his mobile phone in India
Mobile phone use has exploded across India

A typical Wimax system could theoretically give users in an area three to 10 kilometres wide a 40 Mbps connection to the net.

This technology, already deployed in some urban centres like Chennai (Madras) and Mumbai (Bombay), would overcome the need to lay expensive cables or fibre optics to villages.

"Rolling out copper to rural villages is close to impossible," said Lil Mohan, head of Wimax technologies for emerging markets at Intel.

At the moment there is a wired backbone throughout India but many villages are 30 to 40km away from the nearest connection.

"Wimax services can overcome that. One or two Wimax base stations are enough to connect three or four villages," said Mr Mohan.

The government telecoms operator BSNL is also in the process of rolling out some Wimax services.

But it is still expensive and at the moment is aimed squarely at large businesses that need a quick-fix solution to broadband access.

Mobile hope

The technology may be trumped by the burgeoning mobile market in India. Between 2000 and 2005 mobile phone subscribers grew about 3.5 million people to 90 million, according to the ITU.

It is estimated that there are now more than 130 million users and there could be 200 million by the end of 2007.

If you don't have meaningful content, 'why provide the bandwidth at all?'
Balaji Parthasarathy, IIITB

Four million handsets are sold every month and India is now the third largest mobile population in the world. Although most phones are primarily used for voice calls, data services are on the increase.

WAP (wireless application protocol), a standard protocol that allows basic internet access is on the increase across the continent and more advanced technologies are also snapping at its heels.

"3G technology is starting to be put in place," said Mr R N Palai of BSNL. "Everywhere there is a waiting list."

Combined with some of the lowest call charges anywhere in the world, mobile technologies are looked on as a great hope for India.

"In my lifetime, the growth of telephony is among the big success stories," said Frederick Noronha of IT advocacy group Bytes For All.

And innovative schemes are putting mobiles within reach of everyone. For example, Indian firm Bharti Telesoft has launched a prepay scheme called PreTUPS, that allows low income mobile users to buy credits in increments of one taka, less than one pence.

The scheme is currently only operating in Bangladesh but could offer a low cost solution to provide bandwidth for all within India.

Future vision

But people like Professor Balaji Parthasarathy, from the International Institute of Information Technology (IIITB), Bangalore, believes providing bandwidth is only one half of the story.

Man installs electricity pylons
Nearly one-third of people in India do not have electricty

"Once you have the bandwidth, 'what are you going to do with it?'," he asked.

"If you don't have meaningful content, 'why provide the bandwidth at all?'."

For text-based services, this problem is compounded in India by high illiteracy rates and the multitude of different languages.

But both governments and business see the provision of bandwidth as something that allows more than just access to the web.

Both have trialled distance learning, remote diagnosis of disease and e-governance. Several projects also provide real time crop prices to farmers.

But history has shown many of these are difficult to scale-up or fund in the long term, said Professor Parthasarathy.

So, what does he think of the President's ambition to provide broadband for all?

"A vision is a vision. As an Indian I hope that it comes true, but as an academic I remain sceptical," he said.

A week of special programming about India can be heard on the BBC World Service from 3 to 11 February


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