Chennai: Veerampattinam, a fishing village near Puducherry on the south-east coast of the Indian peninsula, is like the thousands of other such coastal hamlets in the country.

But the fishermen here will soon have something going for them that none of

Winds of change: Fishermen will be able to get information on fish concentrations through CDMA handsets. Qualcomm is working on global positioning system capabilities for the phones to make rescue work easier.

Fishermen have long been vulnerable to fickle weather and fish shoal movements. And they have had little access to accurate information on these variables.

A ‘knowledge centre’ set up by the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF), a Chennai-based research body that works on issues of access to communication for poor village communities, has been providing weather information in Veerampattinam and the neighbouring village of Nallavadu since 1992 and has saved lives by giving fishermen early warnings of storms and cyclones.

But the system had its flaws: wave height projections (crucial to fisherfolk venturing out into the sea in catamarans) are made just twice a day, announcements on a public address system are made just once a day at 3am, and once the fishermen were out at sea it was not possible to get real time data out to them.

MSSRF, set up by M.S. Swaminathan, one of India’s foremost agricultural scientists, is about to change this by using a simple instrument of the times: the mobile phone. Together with Qualcomm Inc., a US company that designs and develops CDMA chips, MSSRF is looking to solve this problem by providing real time information on mobile phones (CDMA is short for code division multiple access, a digital communications standard used in mobile phone systems).

“The public address system is quite cumbersome," says Parag Kar, senior director of Qualcomm in India and SAARC. “The idea now is to use CDMA-based mobile phones which support basic data capability. This way, the information is gathered in a server, and easily connected to the network," he added. MSSRF teid up with Qualcomm earlier this month.

A software application, developed by Indore-based Astute Systems Technology Pvt. Ltd, allows phone users to access an interactive menu through which information can be extracted as long as the phone is within the range of the network. “First of all, fishermen can find out whether it is the right time to be venturing out into the sea," says Kar.

“Also, a lot of energy is wasted on figuring out where the fish concentration is—we can provide them that information, so they can travel in the right direction, optimizing time and fuel along the way."

Information regarding fish concentration is gathered through satellite pictures, which MSSRF analyses, converts into digital form, and feeds onto a computer server, which, in turn, can be accessed from a CDMA handset. The information comes to the fisherman in the form of latitude and longitude.

The pilot project involving 10 fishermen is running on the Tata Teleservices Ltd , whose coverage extends to a range of 15-20 km off the coast, covers about 80% of the fishermen’s requirement. “It is currently in Phase 0—we hope to move through four phases over a period of one and a half years. By November this year, we would like to perfect the application, and make about 100 phones available across the coast," says Kar.

Qualcomm is working on incorporating global positioning system capability in the phones, so the exact location of the phones can be tracked. This would make rescue operations much easier. The cost of the handset is estimated at less than Rs2,500, and it will be subsidized by Qualcomm and MSSRF.