In Theni, a small district in Tamil Nadu, hospitals are hard to come by and doctors even rarer. And, if a resident in any of the villages in the district needs specialist treatment, he or she would have once had to undertake a journey of several miles.

Andrew Chien, vice-president (corporate technology group) and director, Intel Research.

At the core of the 18-month-old project involving Aravind Eye Hospital, a specialist eye hospital that has gained fame for low-cost surgeries and treatment, is an initiative that has Intel partnering the University of California, Berkeley.

Billed Technologies and Infrastructure for the Emerging Regions, the initiative’s aim was to develop low-cost, long- distance wireless solutions piggybacking popular technologies such as Wi-Fi.

The Wi-Fi solution uses point-to-point radio connectivity to provide 10-20km links to connect remote vision centres to the main hospital through video conferencing. To put this in perspective, the range of a Wi-Fi station usually does not go beyond 100m.

Intel, which has 11 research labs, including one in Bangalore with 3,000 people, made two changes: it used ‘stirrable’ dish antennas to direct radio signals better instead of the conventional stick antennas used for transmitting and receiving signals. Two, it combined with this the decades-old technique of ‘time division multiple access’ or TDMA to transfer data from one link to another. TDMA allows several users to share the same frequency, and transmit in sequence, each in a different timeslot. This allows sharing of bandwidth and reduces costs.

Result: more efficiency and better quality of connectivity.

“It is inexpensive because it only entails a one-time electronics cost including routers, cabling and antennae on both ends, which will cost $1,500 (about Rs60,000)," said Ajay Bakre, research scientist at Intel India.

Given that the antennas have to be within ‘line of sight’, Intel placed them on top of the tallest buildings available in the villages together with electronics that would boost signal strength to compensate for attenuation over long distances. The total cost of each vision centre is around $4,000 including video-conferencing equipment, software, examination equipment and a generator for power backup.

Every month, around 2,500 patients come to these clinics; the well-established clinics make around Rs18,000 a month with a payback time of two to three years. Intel now plans to scale up this project to cover 50 centres in India over the next few years.

Analysts say that most of these applications such as telemedicine, education and e-governance require only 5-12 kbps of bandwidth. “The cost of deploying most last mile technology including Wi-Fi, does not matter as long as it has the reach. Besides, applications like telemedicine do not require huge bandwidth," said T.R. Madan Mohan, director of the tech practice at consulting firm Frost & Sullivan.

However, firms such as Intel face challenges of deploying technology-based solutions in different parts of the world—it gains acceptance in some parts and not in others, what works in urban settings need not necessarily do so in villages.

“The biggest challenge is that when you make technologies more personal and usable, a lot depends on cultural, personal and fashion differences in that region, and whether people have an affinity for technology at all," said Andrew Chien, vice-president (corporate technology group) and director, Intel Research.

In order to meet some of these challenges, Intel started a research project around five years ago to develop technologies suitable for rural environments in emerging regions such as India, China and Africa. The firm is running experiments such as the Aravind Eye Hospital project in Ghana.