Thursday, October 27, 2005

Vanu Bose on SDR as an answer to rural communication

Software Defined Radio is clearly good for wireless service providers because they don't have to buy a new base station each time the standard changes, or each time they want to support a new technology. So, it's cheaper for the infrastructure providers to use an SDR base station. But does this directly affect rural communication? Well, it sort of does by encouraging providers to enter into the rural market because SDR base stations are cheaper to buy, but a more direct benefit would be if Vanu can even do stuff on making cheap cellphone towers and doing some sort of a wireless mesh network to even reduce the cost of laying a fibre backbone to the cellular towers. If they do it, then that's what I would call a complete solution.

More on rural communication (Except from email by Arun Mehta)

A country renowned as an IT superpower imports almost all of its telecom. The one significant exception has been Professor Ashok Jhunjhunwala, and the team around him. Those who are familiar with the subject know, however, how many years he lost, trying to convince the government to allow him to deploy the technology nationwide. In fact, even after the earthquake in Bhuj, when the destruction of telecom facilities seriously compounded the disaster, they weren't allowing him to deploy CorDECT phones, and it needed string-pulling at a political level to get them to stop dragging their feet.

Telecom was once an industry sector, in which the rate of technological development was determined by how slowly lawyers at the ITU could hammer out international agreements. Lately, however, the pace has picked up considerably, and soon, we will see in telecom the furious pace of change we see in the computer world. The reason why this is critical to Mission 2007, is that some of these technologies could dramatically cut our budget for providing access. Instead of only reaching 100,000 villages, we could reach all 600,000, for the same amount of money, or we could divert some funds to our efforts in providing services, training, etc.

As an illustration, let me briefly describe two exciting technologies I saw at whatthehack last month, which was an international hacker conference in Holland that takes place every four years.

One of these is GNU Radio,
The mobile phones we use are actually computers, but the companies that make them keep tight control over what you can do with them. For instance, they essentially prevent phones from talking directly to each other, even when they are within range. Instead, they must communicate via a central exchange, which may be a long distance away. GNU Radio is, essentially a completely open radio, with two transmitters and two receivers that can operate at any frequency upto 2+ GHz that can operate simultaneously. In addition, much of the complex techie stuff has been encapsulated in software modules various people have written, so even those without sophisticated telecom knowhow can develop telecom solutions.

There are myriad uses to which this device can be put, a few of which are listed in the document cited above, but from a rural perspective, here is what I imagine: you go to a village with your CDMA phone, the GNU radio detects that and automatically downloads from a PC the software needed to talk to it: You can now start to make Internet telephony calls through your CDMA phone! The same, of course, applies to a GSM phone irrespective of the frequency band it works in. Simultaneously, the same GNU radio could do WiFi for long-distance connectivity.

This device isn't expensive: I almost bought one for 400 Euros, of course in larger quantities the price would come down significantly. Now that smart programmers have such hardware in their hands, many amazing applications are expected, for instance a receiver that can simultaneously pick up and record a dozen FM radio channels. describes my second example, a project in Equador, where with inexpensive, off the shelf harware, they have been able to communicate good quality voice at distances of a thousand km, even with moving vehicles! The antennas are only a few meters above ground, so the huge expense we would otherwise incur in setting up masts would be saved (not to mention increased robustness during disasters) This technology is excellent for broadcasting. A radio station to cover such distances would cost tens of crores of rupees. Since a GNU radio could also take care of this application, you would only need to add, in each village, a low power FM transmitter costing a few hundred rupees, and you would have the same reach! This solution would, in addition, allow the village, as necessary, to delink the local transmitter from the big one, and discuss its own affairs, so we would be, for far less money than it costs Prasar Bharati to set up a single FM transmitter, be setting up one large station, and thousands of small ones. If anyone wants further information on this, I have a 5 MB pdf that I would be happy to mail you.

Talking of low power FM, please do take a look at . An AM/FM radio is the only telecommunications device the poor can afford. While in the city, you and I routinely use cordless microphones, which are FM transmitters, the government goes to great lengths to prevent people in villages from using transmitters of equal power. For two and a half years, we have been trying to talk to the ministry of IT, in particular the WPC, to find out why they take this bizarre stand, and except for a couple of two-line responses, they haven't even replied to our letters.

Is it any wonder then, that we continue to import telecom technology, even when the most expensive part, the software inside, was written in India. Once, we fought the British, because they exported our cotton, processed it, and sold it back to us. What a pity, that our bureaucrats force us to do the same in a sector that is even more important for poor people today.

Conference on broadband wireless access fo rural and remote areas for the Asia Pacific region

Fill this in...

Pedal power to run VoIP on WiFi (from Michael Rosenblum's email on Tier)

Pauline Tweedie pointed me to this story:,1282,68796,00.html?tw=rss.TOP

"A small group of determined geeks is using solar- and pedal-powered voice-over-internet-protocol phones and Wi-Fi to bring local, national and international dialing to remote areas of the world, beginning with a few villages in western Uganda where nothing resembling a telephone system has ever existed...

The organization has already installed its Linux-based VOIP stations at four isolated villages in Bukuuku subcounty, serving a total of nearly 3,200 villagers.

Each village in the Bukuuku program has a custom-built computer with a 2-GB microdrive, to eliminate moving parts, along with 256 MB of RAM and a 533-MHz processor. The computer is wired to a regular analog telephone set and a directional Wi-Fi antenna, which transmits the internet signal to a central hub at one of the villages.

Complete with 70-watt solar panels and a bicycle generator -- which can provide power in the event of no sunlight -- each installation costs only $1,800, including the outdoor Wi-Fi 802.11b antenna...

Rural telephone in India (from Rabin Patra's email on Tier)

The Telecom Regulatory Authority in India has released its recommendations for rural telephony in India:

This recognises the importance of shared backbone infrastructure, Some of the most relevant recommendations are:
- No prior SACFA clearance for deployment of towers upto 40 m. in rural areas.
- No spectrum fees for usage of CorDECT and similar technologies in rural areas as well as for usage of 450 MHz
- No right of way charges for networks in rural areas

In brief: There is large differential between rural (1.94%)
and urban tele-density (31.1%) in India.

The Indian rural market is very differnt:
- cable TV in India has more penetration than telephones.
- substantial purchasing power if the price of produce is right,

This approach proposes to offer financial incentives to service providers in the form of coverage of partial cost of shared infrastructure and license fee and spectrum charge reduction based on the number of rural base station locations.

Change from a universal obligation (USO) model to one where incentives
are given for rural networks.

Other recommendations:
- Sharing of infrastructure to receive support from USO
- Discount in Annual License Fee and Spectrum Charges
linked with Rural Coverage.
- Supporting backbone infrastructure through USO fund

Proposal is to provide a subsidy of Rs 6,500 crore (~$1.5 billion)
for installing 15,000 base stations in rural areas
such that they are shared by at least three service providers.

The full recommendations are here:

New story:

Cellphone use changes life in Africa

From banking to information for farming, market prices, and wildlife monitoring... There is no doubt at all that communication can revolutionize development.

Here is another article that talks about plugging Africa's poor into mobile banking. Africans have started using cellphones for bank transfers, but the so-to-be-called-developed-nations are still stuck on credit and debit cards! Kind of ironical... Africa is going straight to wireless, instead of taking the traditional route of going to wired, and then augmenting with wireless.

Microsoft on rural development

The Suggestions section in the Challenges of Sustainability presentation is really good!

The key idea that just like PCOs revolutionized telecom access, Internet kiosks in villages that can do VoIP and data can revolutionize the development in rural areas of developing countries. These kiosks should have a sustainable business model based not just on Internet access, but they should serve as community centers where villagers can gather for medical aid, e-governance applications, communication facilities with other villages, educational information about healthcare and literacy, meetings and chaupals and panchayats, and just about any group activity.

There is tremendous talent and workforce already available to run these Internet kiosks. The communication and IT infrastructure is already available too. Then what are we waiting for?

Microsoft just announced an initiative to set up 50,000 rural IT kiosks in India, in partnership with Dhristee, n-Logue, and Jaikisan. A follow up article on the same initiative is available too.