NITI Aayog approves trials of disruptive tech to push broadband connectivity under Digital India
Among the many ambitious programs launched by the present NDA government, Digital India seemed to be the laggard of sorts. While the intention of the program and its transformative potential were undoubted ambitious, the implementation was not exactly taking off as expected. One of the primary reasons for this was the sorry state of the broadband infrastructure in the country. While the program provided a road map to transform the broadband infrastructure through special missions focused on expansion of fiber optic connectivity in rural and urban areas, it put the entire burden of this transformation on Government funded efforts and did not look to tap into contribution of the private sector towards attaining the objectives specific to Broadband Highways and Public Internet Access Program.
What this meant was that the growth of broadband in the country would primarily be driven by the Bharat Net Project that was launched in 2003 as the National Open Fiber Network (NOFN). Bharat Net has not being able to catch up with the demand for high speed broadband in the country. It has also seen frequent revisions of its targeted year of completion with the most recent completion target moved to 2017 from 2013, and even this will cover only 1 lakh out of the targeted 2.5 lakh village panchayats. It was becoming more apparent with every passing day that the growth of broadband in the country would need to be fast tracked to ensure any significant measure of success of the Digital India program. It is towards this objective that the NITI Aayog recently approved the trials of three new technologies for taking broadband to the yet un-connected.
First on this list is the “White Spectrum Space” technology that uses the unutilized spectrum between the 200-300 MHz frequencies used by Television channels to provide data transmission wirelessly. This technology has already been tested across Kenya, Tanzania, Philippines, Singapore and UK by Microsoft. Currently this spectrum is held by Doordarshan and the trials will not hamper the transmission abilities of the state broadcaster. Microsoft would be the partner in this project in India as well.
Second is VSAT or Very Small Aperture Terminal technology, in simple terms this is internet delivery via satellites. It involves a network of Medium Earth Orbit (MEO) satellites that will deliver satellite Internet services and mobile backhaul services to urban and rural areas alike. This is usually done by Ka band satellites orbiting at an altitude of 8,000 km. The benefit of this technology is that it can be used in the remotest of locations with minimal investment in on-ground infrastructure.
The third technology in this list is Wi-Fi, while not exactly disruptive and path breaking it has a high potential to engage private sector players. Google is already providing Wi-Fi hotspot at selected Railway stations. These need to be extended to public places and institutions like schools, hospitals etc. more so in rural areas such that the erstwhile Chaupal could become the Wi-Fi hotspot in the village!
Apart from these three, the government has already given approval for trials of Google’s Loon project. Loon is conceptualized as a project that sends out solar powered balloons which in turn provide connectivity to a ground area about 40 km in diameter using a wireless communications technology called LTE (Long-Term Evolution). In order to use this technology, Google partners with telecommunications companies and shares cellular spectrum so that people will be able to access the Internet everywhere directly from their phones and other LTE-enabled devices. At present the movement of the balloons is controlled by Google which it aims to deregulate to stratospheric winds as the project scales up. Trials are underway in New Zealand’s South Islands and 300 such balloons will soon be realized in space over Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay, Australia and now India.
Fifty three years have passed since the Internet evolved from a lab experiment of the US Department of Defense (DOD) under the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET) and today it is the single largest source of information dissemination globally connecting more than 3 billion users across the globe. The rate of growth of the internet however, is showing a steady downward trend from 47.3% in 2000 to 7.5% in 2016. With more than half of the global population still without a connection to the internet, this decline points to the saturation of the present day infrastructure sustaining the internet. Coupled with regulatory hurdles, government sponsored censorship and increasing strain on existing service providers to scale up services, the growth of internet in the coming decades demands a paradigm shift in the fundamental technology that powers the idea of the Internet.
As is the case with freeing up any channel of information dissemination, the hurdles to all the above mentioned technologies were political than technical. Governments are known to hold on dearly to spectrum in the hope of monetizing it rather than giving it away for test projects. Balloons in the stratosphere will usher in a “borderless” internet in true sense, but the thought of such devices in sovereign air space and beyond may not work well with the security establishments on ground. Corporates investing large amounts of money in public internet infrastructure is already frowned upon by some internet activist as they believe this will go against the core principles of open access and net neutrality in future.
Evolution of the Internet in India will depend on the rate at which it reaches the yet unreachable; here choice of technology will merely be the enabler, natural selection should be driven by the end user. The move to experiment disruptive technologies in India will go a long way in making this possible and may even led to broadband leap frogging mobile as the engine of growth of internet in India.
(The author is a policy analyst in the Information and Communication Technology domain. Views expressed are personal)