Ashok Jhunjhunwala, professor, Indian Institute of Technology, Chennai, is the man behind the wireless local loop technology cor dect and the TeNeT (Telecommunications and Computer Networks) group. Prabhanjan Verma attempts to find out why Jhunjhunwalais convinced that rural India won't look the same four or five years from today
The tenet group has set up n-Logue, specifically to provide telecom and Internet services to the small towns and villages. Do you think this makes business sense?
Oh yes, it does! Our company 'n-Logue Communications Pvt Ltd' already has a million orders in hand. We are hoping for a public call offices (pcos) kind of revolution, which I think, is the biggest business revolution as far as opportunity to local people is concerned. In place of a pco, there will be kiosks, which provide three kinds of services: basic telephone service, Internet and basic computer service. The kiosk consists of a cor dect wallset with its accessories, a telephone and a telephone metre, a multimedia computer, power backup and Indian languages software. The local service provider (lsp) takes the whole set from us for Rs 50,000. And we find the lsp is able to break even very soon. Several people are already making profits from their kiosks. And I am talking about rural areas where prices for services are very low.
But are landline telephone network companies interested in the technology?
Yes, they are. Right now, they can only concentrate on urban centres, at the most in 150 top cities. This technology provides them a market in the rural sector, where not only can they recover their cost but also earn profits. It was not possible with the conventional technologies. Many operators have approached us. Some of them have started using it.
How exactly will n-Logue go about setting up these services?
n-Logue divides the country into service areas with a radius of about 25 kms. About 85 per cent of the taluk headquarters in India have optical fibre today, which can provide the backbone for telecom and Internet connectivity. n-Logue will set up access centres, which will consist of a cor dect exchange or base stations, to provide wireless connections in a 25 km radius. Learning from the cable tv revolution, the n-Logue business model arranges partnering with a local business for each of the access centres. n-Logue plans to install one million connections, covering 85 per cent of India's rural areas in the next four to five years.
But how will this technology connect hilly regions and villages far from taluk headquarters, and still remain cost-effective?
This problem exists only in 15 per cent of the country's area, which can be connected through satellites. This is the only possible solution as of now. Of course, that works out a little costlier. Even then it compares well with landline connectivity.
What is the spread till now?
More than 500 villages have been using this system. Right now, Nelaikuppam and Madurai in Tamil Nadu, Baramati in Maharashtra, Dhar district in Madhya Pradesh and Shahpura in Rajasthan are the target areas. Even countries like Brazil are using this technology. It is spreading fast.
What other applications do you envisage for this technology, apart from the basic services, that is?
Well, with a personal computer inside a village, there are no limits to the number of applications: from finding out market rates of agricultural products to high-tech medical care or even using the computer to learn typewriting, people are using it in all possible ways. Recently, n-Logue tied-up with a leading eye hospital in Madurai to provide eye care in rural areas. People just need to go to a kiosk near them, and discuss their problems with experts in the hospital. The service cost them as little as Rs 20. The services could also be customised as per the locale. This is where the role of the lsp is important.
There is talk that this technology can be used to store land records, one of the biggest challenges in rural areas. But can the lsp be asked to store land records?
That is a governance problem. With the concept of e-governance becoming popular, I am sure it can be sorted out. I say, the technology is in place. Just use it effectively now. The Karnataka government has asked for electronic filing of all land and lease records.
How do you visualise the future?
More localised operation, optimised cost and friendlier technology for the rural sector -- all this will also go a long way in generating more employment in the rural sector. It would be an ideal culmination of the it revolution.