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Surf white! Rural broadband is set for a makeover

Published Oct 26, 2015, 5:28 pm IST
Updated Mar 27, 2019, 8:42 am IST
TV White Space frequencies allocated to a TV broadcaster between radio bands

India is poised to embark on a unique combo of cutting edge technology and jugaad (frugal innovation) that may finally bring the garam hava of Internet connectivity to some 5 lakh rural reaches.


And an international summit on Digital India that opens in Delhi today (October 26) may allay the doubts that many telecom companies still have, about this technology, even as the new state of Andhra Pradesh, shrugs them off to bring low-cost broadband to one trial district -- Srikakulam.

The name of the game is TV White Spaces --- frequencies allocated to a TV broadcaster between radio bands, usually to prevent interference. The changeover from analogue to digital TV in India which is to be completed by December this year, will free up a lot of such spaces in the spectrum. These unused airways can be used for existing technologies like Wi-Fi to ride piggy back and provide much needed connectivity, to vast areas that are presently without Internet And here's the bonus: while the Wi-Fi we know, is good only for tens of metres, White Space Wi-Fi can travel tens of kms. What's more, it is not affected by hillocks and other features, while mobile technologies like 3G, need a clear line of sight. We don't pay anyone for setting up a WiFi hotspot in our home. Likewise TV White Space which world-wide, is a free-to-use, unlicensed band.

The WhiteSpace Alliance a global industry body which evangelizes sharing such unutilized spectrum (and is steering the Delhi summit), joined the CMAI Association and IIT Bombay, earlier this year, to draw up a roadmap to bring the benefits of a 'Digital India' to rural areas.

Andhra leads:

Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu, who in an earlier tenure, was instrumental in bringing Microsoft to Hyderabad, was quick to invite the same company to help him empower all the rural areas of the new state with White Space-enabled Net. The pilot is already off the ground, linking four educational institutions in Srikalulam district: Singupuram, Fareedapeta, Sativada with the base station located in the Zilla Parishad High School at Voppangi.

After the US visit of Prime Minister Modi, Microsoft offered to harness TV White Spaces among other technologies to connect 500,000 villages in India. This has irked some Indian cellular operators who fear that giving away vast swathes of unlicensed spectrum will affect their licensed business. Not so, say global agencies and governments like India who have limited spectrum and unlimited bandwidth requirements.

"Throw competition at the problem", suggests H. Nwana, Executive Director of the Dynamic Spectrum Alliance, a global organization that works for more efficient spectrum utilization to address the global hunger for connectivity, "Commercial cellular telecom networks like 3G and 4G cannot by themselves satisfy the world's need. Outside the metros, they need to compete with Wi-Fi and WRAN -- Wireless Regional Area Networks -- which use TV White spaces." Dr Nwana, a former spectrum regulator of UK, spoke to me shortly before be left to join the Delhi Summit. He left me with a mantra: "Wi-Fi should be the right of every citizen -- not 3G!"

All chip shape! A made-in-India solution for rural Internet:

Having decided to harness unlicensed TV white spaces for rural connectivity, India need not look afar for the tools to make it happen. Bangalore-based Saankhya Labs, a leader in software radio solutions, has just rolled out the world's first TV Whitespace single chip radio module .

Called Pruthvi, the stamp-sized chip will bring internet to rural houses that can receive a TV signal, but are otherwise outside mobile phone or telecom coverage. "At the heart of Pruthvi are a bunch of Digital Signal Processors, a specialized class of CPUs conceived, designed and implemented in India", informs Sankhya labs' co-founder-CEO Parag Naik.

While the chip goes into the users' modems, it also fuels the base stations that send out the Internet signals. The Saankhya solution calledMeghdoot is being field-tested by IIIT Hyderabad and the IITs in Delhi and Bombay. It will likely form part of the rollout in Srikalulam.

Global Scene:

The harnessing of TV White Spaces for offering unlicensed and essentially free Wi-Fi signals, was first tried in the US, followed by UK, Canada and Singapore. Over the last 2 years, experimental Internet connectivity over white spaces has come to many African countries including Ghana, Botswana, Namibia, Tanzania, South Africa and Kenya, with Microsoft steering many of the pilots before handing them over to local providers. Unlike India, TV itself is not very thick on the ground, which places less white space at the disposal of secondary users like White Space Wi-Fi. Experts say the potential in India is much higher due to the ubiquity of TV.

Indian face of WhiteSpace:

The WhiteSpace Alliance (WSA) which globally evangelizes using underused TV spectrum for Internet, is steered by its Chairman for a decade now, Dr Apurva N. Modi who also heads the IEEE working group which drew up the relevant standard (802.22WG). A PhD in Electrical Engineering from Georgia Institute of Technology (US), he was granted no less than 5 patents for his doctoral work in this area.

“Providing Internet access to underserved populations is critical for growth in the New Millennium. India is committed to bringing those economic benefits to its 1.3 billion citizens,” says Dr Mody, “WSA is collaborating enthusiastically with the Government to demonstrate how whitespace solutions can deliver broadband services reliably and cost-efficiently to realize the 'Digital India' vision.”

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