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IDEAS APLENTY ON HOW SOFTWARE CAN HELP THE MILLIONS
by Frederick Noronha
CHENNAI (South India): Ramesh is a daredevil rickshaw in this bustling South Indian city, but the computer boom that India is going ga-ga about means nothing to him. Bangalore may well be India's Silicon Valley, yet booming software stocks and the millionaries that it has created leave dwellers in slushy city slums cold.
Taking this worrying trend into account, researchers from across India and elsewhere are trying to change the situation and "touch the lives of millions", by making crucial telecom and Internet technologies affordable to larger numbers in the developing world.
"Otherwise, we will end up having just 2-3% of our people with access to these technologies," warns Prof Ashok Jhunjhunwala of the Indian Institute of Technology (Madras), which has just hosted a global meet on providing affordable telecome and IT solutions for developing countries.
Access to telecom networks and the Internet is fast becoming a major factor determining the competitiveness of an individual, group or society, researchers point out.
To translate this into something meaningful in the commonman's life, technologists and academists have brought in amazing stories of how modern technologies can, and are, changing lives.
Called Commsphere 2000, this meet brought in reports of how Delhi slum-children were acquiring basic computing skills without any instructions or knowing any English; and how remote villages in Bangladesh are to get phone links without even being connected by copper wire.
Engineers in Chennai's IIT have designed phone networks that slash the costs of installing phones to less than half of the US$1000 (one thousand US dollars) in infrastructure it normally costs, by resorting to 'wireless in local loop' (WILL) technologies.
A South Asian initiative, run by volunteers from India and Bangladesh, is called bytesforall.org and looks at experiments being conducted across SAARC to making computing and the Internet "relevant to the needs of the millions".
"It is now possible to give 4.5 billion people the ability to leapfrog onto the Web, wherever there is electricity supply, even without a traditional phone line connection and without a personal computer," says University of Bradford media communications doctoral candidate Peter D. O'Neill.
His proposal is to deliver multimedia services via powerline communications (powercoms) along the electricity line to the "most humble dwelling", even if it has a just a single light bulb dangling from the ceiling. Authorities in Bangladesh are toying with similar plans.
"There is a case for seriously examining this technology for local loop applications in countries like India, where over 70% of households have power line connections already. Even a fraction of this conductor-capacity made usable for additional communication purposes would (make a huge difference)," agreed electronics professors C.N.Krishnan and P.V.Ramakrishna of the Anna University's MIT in Chennai.
>From Hyderabad, the Indian Institute of Information Technology (IIIT) stresses the "absolutely basic" need for computing to be done in Indian language scripts.
"Alpha-versions of machine-translation from one Indian language to another already exists in five Indian-language pairs," reported Vineet Chaitanya and Rajeev Sangal of the IIIT-Hyderabad's Language Technology Research Centre.
Work is going on in Hyderabad on a large-scale system and, if successful, will allow e-texts including web-pages to be accessed by Hindi readers on demand.
New Delhi-based Shyam Telecom Limited is using IIT-Madras technology for corDECT (rpt corDECT) phones -- that connect telephones to the exchange wireless, thus reducing costs -- and which have found export markets in rural Madagascar, remote Fiji, hilly Yemen and suburban Kenya. Encouraging results are already being reported.
Such technology is also being deployed in Bhopal and New Delhi. corDECT was developed by IIT-Madras, M/s Midas Technologies and got support from even the Analogue Devices of the US.
Engineers from the IIT-Bombay are meanwhile planning a communication system for health care needs which "will be very relevant to India".
Bangalore-based Indian Institute of Science (IISc) Professor Kumar N Sivaraman has, on the other hand, developed, an Instruction-On-Demand (IOD) software tool, which simulates on a user's PC screen a typical seminar environment where a speaker lectures using overhead transparencies to students across distant, remote locations.
Railway engineers from India's South-Central Railway, headquartered in Secunderabad, say that by using the copper and optical fibre of the Indian Railway network, Internet and telecom services can be provided to about 4000 towns and 100,000 Internet connections in about two years, at barely Rs 15,000 (US$350) per connection.
India has a teledensity (phones per hundred) of barely two, as against 50 in the Western world. This strongly affects the competitiveness of society.
But the major problem is that current costs of around US$1000 (rpt US$1000) to build infrastructure for a single line is simply too unaffordable here.
Once finance costs, operations, maintenance and obsolence is taken into account, revenue of US$300 per year is required from each phoneline simply to break even. This is a price most in India cannot afford.
"In most developing countries, US$300 per year for a telephone is accessible to less than five per cent of the population. How then can one hope for the development of telecom infrastructure and look for even some semblance of universal Internet access?" asks Dr Jhunjhunwala, whose pioneering role in making telecom low-cost is widely recognised here.
Samudra Haque, a Minnesota-trained computer scientist who runs an ISP (internet service provider) in Bangladesh, has one unique solution for which he has just had a patent claim registered in Dhaka.
"We're combining the best elements of radio engineering, telecommunications and computer science to offer a high-speed communication network in remote rural villages (in Bangladesh) spread over large areas. And we are doing this will relatively small budgets too," Haque told this correspondent.
Using this method, 3 MBPS high-speed links are possible to villages, using wireless routers. He said 20-30 telephone channels and 20 video phone sets could be offered for a capital cost of US$150,000 to villages which otherwise had no hope of being connected. "We aim to provide mega-bits, not just kilo-bits," said Haque, who says he was Bangladesh's first computer scientist in the 'nineties.
Said Prof. MGK Menon, India's former minister of state for Science and Technology: "Software share prices are zooming. This sector has the highest market capitalisation, and has created millionaires. But the country's policy makers can't be misled by that. Software and telecom must represent and improvement in the life of the people of the country. We can't be misled by the glitter we see in newspaper headlines."
CONTACTS TO ABOVE QUOTED SOURCES:
Prof A Jhunjhunwala firstname.lastname@example.org
Commsphere 2000 email@example.com
Slum-children project Sugatam@niit.com
Peter D. O'Neill firstname.lastname@example.org
Rajeev Sangal, IIIT email@example.com
Shyam Telecom firstname.lastname@example.org
Kumar Sivaraman, IISc email@example.com
Samudra Haque firstname.lastname@example.org
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