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  • 1. Indian Journal of Radio & Space Physics Vol. 36, June 2007, pp. 188-191 Rural connectivity in India: The n-Logue example Sangamitra Ramachander TeNet Group, Indian Institute of Technology, Chennai 600 036, India Received 27 September 2006; accepted 27 February 2007 This paper mainly aims to explain about the telecom boom in India and throws light on the technologies of today and tomorrow. It briefly discusses about, how technologies are now starting to be available to connect every village and also it details challenges faced by the technologies in rural areas. With these in mind a total innovative business model was required to deliver Internet services to rural areas. In order to meet this need a company called n-Logue was incubated to significantly enhance the quality of life of every rural Indian by setting up a network of wirelessly connected internet kiosks in villages throughout India. The challenges from technology point of view are many. The systems that provide connectivity need to be relatively inexpensive if they are to be commercially deployed, given the lower incomes in rural areas compared to urban areas. This paper concludes by saying that with the help of drastic developments in technology sector, providing connectivity in rural areas is entirely possible today. Keywords: Rural connectivity, Teledensity, ICT, n-Logue communication PACS No.: 1 Introduction Every communication revolution has significantly changed our operating paradigm, socially and economically; engendering possibilities in our lives that we could not have earlier imagined. The printing press, radio, telephony, television, and more recently the internet, have each allowed us to communicate with distant geographies at increasingly faster speeds. As a result, they have dramatically altered our perceptions of distance, time and our own place in the world. The most recent revolution is the internet, which has assumed a nearly indispensable place in the lives of many in urban and developed parts of the world today. The use of modern communications – especially telephony and the internet – in remote and rural areas, however, lags far behind in most parts of the world. This is more especially so in developing countries. In India, the teledensity is just over 9%, but rural teledensity is less than 1.5% against an urban teledensity of 20.7% as of 2004. Less than 2% of the population has access to the internet and access in rural areas is virtually absent. The poor rural scenario for telephone and internet access is especially alarming in the Indian context, given that over 70% of the country’s population lives in these areas. Paradoxically, the benefits that telephony and the Internet can bring to these areas are arguably far greater than in urban areas, given the extent of deprivation that exists in these regions in both social and economic spheres. 2 Benefits to rural areas The utility of access to telephones and the internet in rural areas cannot be over-emphasized. By bridging distances, telephony and the internet, which fall under a broader category known as Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs), allow people living in remote areas unprecedented access to resources and opportunities. Online services in the areas of health, education and e-Government significantly impact the quality of life in rural areas. In the health arena, remote diagnostics can prove extremely useful where medical facilities are poor or absent. In the field of education, distance learning can be used to supplement the locally available school and college education, or to provide certification from well-known academic institutions located in cities. These can enhance the skills and employability of the rural population. E-Government services can provide an opportunity for the rural populations to interface easily with government officials and access important government documents without having to physically travel to distant locations. Agriculture and veterinary services can also be provided through online consultation with experts in the cities. In agriculture, the provision of online price information can be very useful in helping farmers decide where to sell their produce. Several future services are also possible such as in the area of Options and Futures, which would benefit farmers by
  • 2. RAMACHANDER: RURAL CONNECTIVITY IN INDIA mitigating price and market risks. The internet can also act as a medium to outsource work and provide training, thereby improving the workforce in rural areas and curbing the trend of rural-urban migration. E-commerce is also an important avenue through which a wider range of goods and services can reach the rural population. In a larger sense, governments across the world and international organizations such as the United Nations are also beginning to recognize the potent role that ICTs can play in bringing about equitable socioeconomic development and “bridging the digital divide”. By giving people of all strata of society the ability to choose their own course of action based on direct access to information regarding resources and opportunities, ICTs create empowerment. It is only the wealthier urban class in developing countries that enjoys this today, and the asymmetry of information access results in a form of intellectual imperialism, which creates a deeply dualistic society. Empowerment of rural communities therefore, through providing access to information, is the essence of democratic development, and providing telephony and internet services is the first step. 3 The challenges in rural areas While the potential benefits that ICT can bring to rural areas are many, there are certain unique challenges in providing connectivity to these regions in a manner that is financially sustainable. 3.1 Technologies for rural connectivity The challenges from a technology point of view are many. The systems that provide connectivity need to be relatively inexpensive if they are to be commercially deployed, given the lower incomes in rural areas compared to urban areas. Most households have incomes below Rs. 3000 per month (Rs. 600 per capita per month). As a result the spread of telephones in rural areas is barely 3 telephones per km2, despite a higher population density compared to other parts of the world. Another challenge is that the systems must be sufficiently robust in order to withstand the harsher physical environments that often characterize rural areas. They must also be capable of functioning without certain basic supporting infrastructure such as regular power supply, for example. Fortunately, India has certain technology advantages with regard to providing rural connectivity. Over the past 15 years, the Department of Telecommunications, the Government of India and 189 Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL), the stateowned incumbent, have made significant contributions toward connecting rural India, by laying fibres to almost all taluka (county) headquarters and towns. Today, many of the private Telecom Operators (Reliance, Tata, Bharati) and organisations such as Railtel have also laid fibres to connect these towns. Nearly 85% of Indian villages are situated within a 15-20 km radius of taluka towns and therefore a wireless system with a radius of coverage of about 20 km deployed at these towns would be able to connect a majority of the villages in the country. A wireless-in-local-loop system, corDECT, is one of the most cost-effective solutions in this regard, developed by the TeNeT Group at IIT-Madras in India, in collaboration with a Chennai-based company, Midas Communication Technologies Private Ltd. Its features are also ideally suited for rural use. With a radio exchange and base station located at a taluka town, corDECT enables simultaneous telephone and internet connectivity in villages within a 25 km radius using a fixed wireless LOS (line of sight) system and relay base stations. While the original corDECT provided connectivity at 35/70 kbps, the enhanced broadband corDECT provides connectivity at 256 kbps. A 1000-line radio exchange and base station functions at an ambient temperature of even 55 ºC without air conditioning, and has a total power requirement of only about 1 kW, which can easily be provided by a small diesel or petrol generator. CorDECT also comes with range extenders that extend the range of its base stations. The total deployed cost including that of the subscriber unit is under Rs. 10,000 per line and the start-up cost for the system, at which the first subscriber can be connected, is Rs. 1 million. In India, infrastructure for over 2.5 million corDECT lines has been deployed by all major telecommunication service operators. India’s major Telco, BSNL, has reached nearly half-a-million homes with corDECT. The product has also been deployed successfully in ten other countries such as Sri-Lanka, Bangladesh, Brazil, Tunisia, Iran, Togo, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Deployments are being planned in many CIS countries and other nations of Eastern Europe. With the available fiber network and significant strides in technological innovation, providing rural connectivity is a reality today. However, in order for it to be provided on a large scale, such technology must be deployed using an appropriate business model.
  • 3. 190 INDIAN J RADIO & SPACE PHYS, JUNE 2007 3.2 Business models for rural connectivity An innovative business model is required to deliver internet services to rural areas. Commercial delivery is essential in the long run, since funded models drain financial resources and are neither scalable nor sustainable. However, since the urban market is now well understood and profits can be made within a reasonable period of time, there is little incentive for businesses to focus efforts in the rural market. The latter has not been explored and therefore poses greater effort and risk. Therefore an organization dedicated to providing rural connectivity alone is needed, which would be willing to invest in understanding the market thoroughly. A private company, n-Logue Communications Pvt. Ltd. was formed in order to meet this need. The company was incubated by the Telecommunications and Computer Networks (TeNeT) Group at the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras with a mission “to significantly enhance the quality of life of every rural Indian” by setting up a network of wirelessly connected internet kiosks in villages throughout India. The n-Logue uses a for-profit business model and the corDECT technology forms the backbone of its network. The n-Logue’s three-tier franchise business model consists of the company at the top, Local Services Providers (LSPs) in the middle and the Kiosk Owners (KOs) in the lowest tier. Inspired by the STD-PCO and Cable TV examples, the model involves creating local entrepreneurs who will own the kiosks and drive the business at the village-level. The role of the LSP in this model is to set-up the technology infrastructure in a particular region jointly with n-Logue, in order to provide last-mile connectivity and also to provide support to the kiosk operators within the area. The company helps the KO set-up a kiosk by providing her or him with the necessary hardware, which consists of a Multimedia PC, a UPS with battery, a digital camera, printer, and the corDECT wallset with related accessories. The total cost of this equipment and a marketing kit, local language software, training and an internet connection for the first six months of operation is approximately Rs. 50,000. However, to start the business, the KO need only come up with Rs.10,000 as n-Logue helps the KO secure loans through banks for the remaining amount. Once the kiosk is in operation, the KO can access a host of services developed by n-Logue. These include computer education, adult literacy programs, agriculture-related services, health services and e-Government services. Many of these services make use of iSee, a low bandwidth videoconferencing software that allows villagers to communicate with various experts remotely. Other online services include entertainment (games, music and movies) and astrology. In addition, the KO may offer any number of services that he or she develops independently, or with other partners, at the kiosk. 3.3 Appropriate and affordable ICT-based services The value of ICT infrastructure is derived from its ability to deliver services that are valuable to the local population. If priced appropriately, such ICT-based services can find a large rural market. Significant potential exists in several domains – agriculture, health, e-Government, education, outsourcing of work, and financial services – but services in each of these areas have met with a varying degree of success. In this section each service has been ranked on a scale of 1 to 5 on the basis of its success within the n-Logue kiosk network. The ranks have been accorded on the basis of the demonstrated earnings to the kiosk operator so far and feedback from customers. In the area of education, a good amount has been understood regarding the computer education services for the rural market, and these have been refined over time and provide a steady revenue stream to the kiosk. Other educational services include an ‘Online Tutorial’ that focuses on helping students of high-school pass their 10th and 12th grade examinations. Wherever this service has been launched, the impact on students’ performance has been extremely impressive, with high pass percentages and absolute scores on examinations. Spoken English is another service that is popular among women in particular. Newer services that have been developed are in the areas of Computer Graphics, Typing, etc. and also show promising results. Overall services in the area of education are assigned a ranking of 3+ on a scale of 5 and these are believed to have a very large potential in rural areas. In the health arena, the tele-medicine kit – which allows patients to transmit vital parameters such as blood pressure, pulse rate, temperature and ECG online to doctors located elsewhere – has been piloted in a few areas but has shown only limited results, despite the fact that many villages do not have access to a well-qualified doctor or hospital facilities. People do not have confidence in a system of remote consultation and diagnosis. Moreover, physical access to pharmacies post-diagnosis remains a problem.
  • 4. RAMACHANDER: RURAL CONNECTIVITY IN INDIA Video-conferencing has been successful in the area of eye-care to some extent, where patients are subsequently referred to a city hospital for a detailed check-up if required. Overall this service has been accorded a rank of 2+. In agriculture, n-Logue partners with experts at the Tamil Nadu Agricultural College and Research Institute to provide advice on farming methods and solutions to crop and animal diseases, via videoconferencing. Through the kiosk, farmers can also access various agricultural portals to find weather information, crop prices, and improved farming techniques. Other agricultural services offered through the kiosks are the sales of tractors and spare parts, in partnership with farm equipment manufacturing companies. In areas where livestock rearing is common, kiosks provide online veterinary advice. Potential future agricultural services planned by the company include facilities for soil testing at the kiosk, online farming “schools”, an early warning system for disease outbreaks, and long-term predictions on crop prices, demand, and rainfall. Given the size of the agricultural sector in the country, the level of outreach in these services has been extremely limited and much more remains to be done. Therefore as per the current status it has been given a rank of 2–. In the area of e-Government, kiosks provide access to government portals that contain online forms and applications for birth and death certificates, etc. In the southern state of Karnataka, the kiosk network has partnered with the government’s Bhoomi database, allowing access to land records. The n-Logue has also organized videoconferencing sessions between village kiosks and local government officials. By providing a means to bypass government bureaucracy, such services have a huge demand but have not seen commensurate results. Proper implementation together with the government is the key to making this a success. This service is ranked 1+. Considerable efforts are being made to outsource work to rural areas in the IT-enabled services field and early results are promising. This service is ranked 2+ today. Similarly, the use of ICT to train rural women in the area of crafts and outsource work from urban areas has a tremendous potential and based on current achievements this service is ranked 2+. 191 Overall, the most popular services in the kiosks today are internet browsing and email, computer games and education. Students also come to the kiosk to check exam results and this is a big revenue earner at many kiosks, although seasonal. Desk-Top Publishing and Photography are also among the popular services. E-government, astrology and matrimonial services are much less used and in the areas of online trading and financial services (banking and credit) very little have been done so far. The low cost rural ATM shows considerable promise but is yet to be deployed and used on a large-scale. While the problems of the past pertained to technology and devising an appropriate business model, today much has been learnt in both of these areas. The main challenge today is to develop services that are successful and that will generate healthy revenues for the kiosk owner, thereby making the business sustainable. In terms of the ranking used in this section, the aim is for all of the services to reach 4+. 4 Conclusions With technological innovation, providing connectivity in rural areas is entirely possible today. The efforts of organizations such as n-Logue Communications have also ensured that ICT infrastructure exists in several villages across the country. There is considerable scope to utilize this infrastructure, in order to provide internet-based solutions in several fields, which were unthinkable in the earlier paradigm, given the remoteness of these areas. By using the internet as means to transcend barriers of distance, the hope is to provide services that will help to catapult the pace of socio-economic development in these regions of the world. References 1 Jhunjhunwala Ashok & Ramachander Sangamitra, n-Logue: A Business Model for Rural Connectivity, in edited book Empowering Rural India through ICTs, Vol. 4 in the IIIT-A book series on e-Governance, March 2006. 2 Jhunjhunwala Ashok & Ramachander Sangamitra, Commentary: The Role of Wireless Technologies in Connecting Rural India, Indian J Radio & Space Phys, 34 (2005) 363. 3 Jhunjhunwala Ashok & Ramachander Sangamitra, Rural Connectivity in India, CSI Communications, August 2005. 4 5