Internet connectivity to rural India has always been an issue considering the vast geographical diversity of the country. Reaching to the rural most area of the country through laying fiber optics would take enormous amount of efforts and time. Innovative ideas like Google’s Project Loon, Facebook’s Internet.org and Microsoft’s White Spaces are looking to solve this issue on a global scale.
Here are some statistics:
According to an IAMAI report released in November of 2013, the number of internet users in India had reached 205 million in October 2013 of which 68 Million were rural Internet users. The report also mentions that rural India saw a 58% YOY growth in internet usage. 70% of the active rural internet users access internet using mobile phones, while 32% use internet only through mobile. The Community Service Centers and Cyber Cafes are the main point of access for 40% of them.
How India is looking to solve this issue
As of July 2014, Indian government has allocated Rs 500 Crore for its Digital India campaign that aims to set up broadband services in rural India. Earlier in November 2013, previous to the national elections, the government had also announced that it had cleared a proposal to provide three internet connections and one Wi-Fi hotspot in each of the 2.5 lakh gram panchayats spread across the country, under the Bharat Broadband scheme. The idea, raised by the Department of Telecom, planned to connect gram panchayats with National Optical Fiber Networks. This initiative did not meet its deadlines and only 40 development blocks covering 800 panchayats were laid with fiber optics.
BSNL is currently one among the preferred internet service provider in rural India as internet connections are provided through a fixed landline telephone connection and hence has larger coverage compared to other services currently available in India.
AirJaldi.net is a commercial network operator that aims at providing last mile connectivity in rural India at reduced and affordable costs. AirJaldi purchases huge bandwidth from ISPs like AirTel and distributes it to its clients, offering speeds ranging from 256 kbps to 6 mbps, though it is capable of offering speeds as high as 60-70 mbps. Also AirJaldi uses solar powered wireless relays that are mounted on small poles to create a connection network that has less down time. AirJaldi is currently available only in certain areas in rural India and is looking to expand its reach further.
Satellite Internet in India, termed as VSAT (Very Small Aperture Terminal) includes wireless connectivity through satellites positioned in geosynchronous orbit. VSAT technology offers connectivity without geographical or location constraints and hence is an ideal option for rural areas in the country. VSAT services would not be as beneficial to the common man as they are to SMBs as they require indoor and outdoor units to be set up. The list of satellite based internet providers in India can be found here.
Innovative Global Ideas
Project Loon was named so by Google mainly due to enormity of the project and the seemingly outlandish mission goals. Project Loon developed by Google uses high altitude balloons floating in the stratosphere at approximately 20 kilometers about the surface to create an aerial wireless network that provides 3G like data transmission speeds.
Project Loon uses software algorithms to determine where its balloons need to go, then moves each one into a layer of wind blowing in the right direction. Wind layer, wind speed and directions are identified using data from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
Each balloon can provide internet connectivity to a ground area of about forty square kilometers in diameter using LTE. To use LTE, Project Loon partners with telecommunications companies to share cellular spectrum so that people will be able to access the Internet everywhere directly from their phones and other LTE-enabled devices. Balloons relay wireless traffic from cell phones and other devices back to the global Internet using high-speed links operating in the ISM 5.8 GHz band.
The balloons are made out of polythene and are durable enough to last about 100 days in the stratosphere.
The Loon Project was pilot tested in New Zealand with a small group of pilot testers. The service provided connectivity to a small area in New Zealand and has since evolved to include more geographies under its coverage. The Loon Project is considered to be very helpful when it comes to providing services in calamity struck areas.
Internet.org is an initiative by Facebook that aims at providing internet access to the two thirds of the world population who do not currently have any access to it. This venture is in partnership with six major mobile phone companies like Samsung, Ericsson, MediaTek, Nokia, Opera Software, and Qualcomm.
Internet.org aims at being the 911 for internet users, who are without a data connection, providing a social networking service like Facebook, a messaging service, maybe search and other things like weather, free of charge to act as a gateway for people to understand the importance of internet based services and to adopt internet and pay for further services in the near future.
Facebook was also using solar powered drones as one of its mediums to beam internet from the skies for providing internet services to rural areas, much like balloons in the Project loon by Google.
At the first ever Internet.org summit held at New Delhi, Zuckerberg had initiated the need to develop web services for people in languages other than English. He had also met with the Indian Prime Minister to talk about Facebook collaborating with the Indian government to improve services on Internet.org.
Microsoft White Spaces
White spaces are radio frequencies allocated to broadcasting services that usually go unused locally. With the Dynamic Spectrum Access technology developed by Microsoft, the unused spectrums are identified and used to transmit broadband access to wider areas as compared to Wi-Fi services. These services have excellent obstacle penetration capabilities and are hence termed as ‘Super Wi-Fi’.
Microsoft in collaboration with Kenyan telecom provider Indigo Telecom and the Kenyan Government have deployed Microsoft white Spaces to provide broadband connectivity up to 16Mbps to three rural communities in Kenya.
In collaboration with the Indian government, Microsoft is planning to provide White Spaces based free internet services through Doordarshan’s spectrum bands in two rural districts in India, on a pilot basis. The system has been developed by Microsoft engineers to adapt to the geographies of India.