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The need beyond speed: making broadband relevant for rural India

The need beyond speed: making broadband relevant for rural India
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First Published: Tue, Dec 21 2010. 11 30 PM IST
Updated: Tue, Dec 21 2010. 11 31 PM IST
Every day, the need for a vibrant broadband network in India increases, and particularly in rural areas, which suffers from the twin deficits of basic infrastructure as well as information infrastructure.
A broadband survey, conducted among a group of youngsters in both rural and small-town localities in the Sivasagar district of Assam, identified a third deficit: sheer ignorance of the potential of broadband.
The survey pointed to a tremendous lack of broadband and Internet-related services for youths, and a lack of regional-language content that prevents knowledge from filtering down to the bottom of the pyramid.
More services relevant to rural India should be made available online, and information should be available in regional languages to ensure maximum benefit.
Students should be able to incorporate online services into their studies.
The recent thrust in broadband deployment is a timely one. One argument goes: If India wants to train and impart skills to its 550 million young people, then broadband has to play its due role.
Skill deployment and delivery has already become a national priority through various specialized programmes.
For instance, the mandate of the National Skill Development Corporation (NSDC) is to impart skills and train 150 million youths in next 10 years. This is a challenge, and broadband can contribute towards achieving it.
The current thrust in broadband calls for vigorous implementation and operation plans. India has 10 million broadband subscribers, compared with China’s 112.59 million and 87 million in the US.
This comparison should be enough to recognize the knowledge and information deficit in India, as well as the shortfall of public information infrastructure.
The pace has been slow so far; 10 million subscribers is 50% of the target set out by the department of telecommunications in its 2004 broadband policy. That broadband penetration is less than 1% should raise an alarm.
Another persisting grievance is that even if the number of subscribers is low, the dodgy bandwidth support from operators is just as disturbing.
Nevertheless, there are some feel-good factors. We have the restructured National Knowledge Commission (NKC) and a broadband mission led by Sam Pitroda, adviser to the Prime Minister; this is directed towards deploying a robust broadband backbone. Two important sets of institutions to be connected are universities and the 250,000-odd panchayats. From this, one can visualize knowledge-based skills being generated at two different levels of development platforms, both of which are critical for inclusive growth in India.
One of the biggest challenges in Mission Broadband is the laying of the fibre-optic backbone.
The hardest task of the NKC is to install the National Knowledge Network (NKN), connecting 1,500 nodes, with the ultimate aim of providing 40GB (gigabyte) bandwidth to all Indian universities, research and development institutions, and colleges. The NKN can then be the backbone of other networks.
Of course, at each consumer’s end, we will need speeds faster than the now-common 256 kbps (kilobits per second)) or 512 kbps; equally pertinent, we will need more than just entertainment packages streamed over these connections. It is possible to cross the 2mbps (megabits per second) line to reach 10mbps and then, beyond that, 100 mbps.
But mere speed will not fill India’s need for information and knowledge; applications on these networks will have to deliver much-needed goods and services.
The ambition to build a national broadband network to connect 550 million people below the age of 25 is certainly achievable. What ought to be considered then is how we can then feed this base with appropriate applications and services. But the key challenge seems to be connecting the knowledge bases of colleges and universities to our 250,000 panchayats, so that each can benefit from the other.
Osama Manzar is founder and director of Digital Empowerment Foundation and chairman of the Manthan awards. Mint is a partner of the Manthan awards.
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First Published: Tue, Dec 21 2010. 11 30 PM IST