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Professor Ashok Jhunjhunwala: To every man (and woman) a Net connection

By Frederick Noronha

That is Professor Ashok Jhunjhunwala's dream. Will he be able to pull off this dream to make the Internet accessible to every Indian? Will he be able to do for the Internet in India what Sam Pitroda did with the telephone?

cgmker_jhunHundreds of millions of rural people in India are given the cold-shoulder by businessmen, and lack the access to goods, services and information they so urgently require. From Chennai in southern India comes a unique technological solution -- an Internet kiosk that will sell for just Rs 40,000 (around US$830) and could link up thousands of villages in the country.

What's best is that no subsidies or handouts are involved in this ambitious project. The project will be run along business lines, and early field implementations are already showing it to be both scaleable and practical for implementation right across rural India.

To every man (and woman) a Net connection. And a phone line to everyone who wants it. These goals are what electrical engineering professor Dr Ashok Jhunjhunwala dreams about constantly. They're not just dreams; he's getting there, as recent experience shows.

Could this professor and head of the Indian Institute of Technology's electrical engineering department in Chennai, do to the Internet what Satyen `Sam' Pitroda did to Indian telephones in the 1980s? Vastly open up access to make it a tool for the common man?

US-based Indian expatriate Pitroda was a keen observer of Third World telecommunications problems. Telecom technology that came in from the West didn't quite suit the dusty, humid, unreliable electrical connections of Asia, Africa and Latin America. Pitroda was convinced that India must develop an indigenous telecommunications industry. In 1981, he launched plans to set up India's Centre for the Development of Telematics (C-DoT). Not only did this design indigenous telecom switching systems, to allow rural exchanges to work under tougher conditions, it also equipped ordinary telephones with small meters. The equipment was sold to local entrepreneurs who set up manned public call offices (PCOs) on makeshift tables in bazaars, on street corners, or in shops. And they worked! By the year 2000, some 650,000 of these PCOs were set up all across India, instantly allowing the average Indian easy access to a telephone.

But India, with its one billion-plus population, still needs some 200 million more Internet and telephone connections. This is essential if the common man is to access the wonders of new information and communication technologies, and if his productive potential is to be better developed.

At current costs of the technology, however, India simply cannot reach anywhere near that figure. So, how does one go about making the Internet and telephones a little more affordable? Ask Professor Jhunjhunwala...

His arguments are simple: "We've learnt important lessons from the whole experiment of expanding STD (subscriber trunk-dialling) access within India. What has made a world of difference was the policy of sharing revenue with the small operator. Instead of one per cent of the Indian population today having access to STD phones, now nearly 30 per cent of the population has it."

Sitting in his Spartan office, Professor Jhunjhunwala says India also has lessons to learn from the growth of cable TV in the country. Today, millions of Indians have low-cost access to cable TV, provided to them through local networks run mostly by the unorganised sector. At a very affordable rate of about Rs 100 per month, a family is connected to three dozen or more cable channels. This affordable package evolved simply because the informal sector and the small entrepreneur was involved in giving out this service.

So, what do we learn from this, if we are to spread telecom at affordable rates to hundreds of millions of people in India? Costs must be pushed down. And local micro businessmen must be involved in the mammoth task of expanding the service.

"It currently costs (an investment of) Rs 30,000 to install a single telephone line. To cover this investment, you need revenue of at least Rs 1,000 per phone line per month. These rates are affordable to just two-three per cent of the Indian population. But, if you bring down the investment needed for a phone line to Rs 10,000, then the affordability of telephones would immediately go up to 30 per cent or more of our population," Dr Jhunjhunwala points out.

For much of the '90s, Jhunjhunwala has been working with missionary zeal towards this goal. His focus has been to `incubate' companies of his former students and entrepreneurs -- often those inspired by his infectious optimism -- to work to lowering the cost of a telephone connection in India. "We've not yet reached the figure of Rs 10,000 per phone line. But we've brought down the cost to Rs 18,000 per line," he says proudly.

Just because the technology is inexpensive, it's not poor quality, however. "Look at this connection; it has been working continuously for 13 hours at a stretch, and has transferred one gigabyte of data," says a confident Dr Jhunjhunwala just before he snaps the link to the Internet. Besides, this technology has gained acceptance in countries as remote and distinct as Madagascar, Brazil, Fiji, Nigeria, Iran and elsewhere.

The n-Logue experiment
One of the interesting companies the Chennai-based professor has recently helped spawn is called n-Logue. N-Logue provides Internet and telephone services primarily to India's small towns and rural areas.

"Existing operators are really not focussed on rural areas. They believe rural areas can't generate money, and see rural areas as a burden," says Dr Jhunjhunwala. To this end, the professor and n-Logue have come up with an innovative solution: a complete Internet kiosk for just Rs 40,000. The system uses the wireless-in-local-loop technology. At just under the equivalent of US$800,
n-Logue offers wireless equipment, antennae, cables and mast, a telephone instrument, an STD-PCO meter, a good personal computer Pentium 700Mhz, with multimedia, a colour monitor and backup for at least four hours of PC usage, and Indian-language software making computing that much more relevant to millions of Indians.

"(Since we're talking about low investments) we can create an army of rural entrepreneurs. They could avail of small loans to set up their own rural STD phone-cum-Internet centres," says Dr Jhunjhunwala. He explains their plan of tying up with LSPs, or local service providers. These small rural businessmen will be 50 per cent partners, and since they will be from the local areas in which they operate they will have far better contact with those with whom they work.

In a 25km radius, they expect to find buyers for 500 to 700 connections. These may be individuals, government offices, schools and, most importantly, Internet kiosks that allow access to everyone. This level of operation should make a LSP viable, says Dr Jhunjhunwala. Even if the numbers don't come in immediately, they will in a year's time when people start realising how new communication technologies empower them.

Work towards this end is already underway at Cuddalore district, in India's southernmost province of Tamil Nadu. The technology is also being successfully implemented in Madurai (also in Tamil Nadu) and Dhar in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. Likewise, the project is taking hold in Bagru of Rajasthan and Sangrur in north India. "We could have a million subscribers in three to four years. It's possible."

Simultaneously, Jhunjhunwala is inspiring youngsters to work on rural Internet applications. And also on offer is word-processing in the local Tamil language, a mail-client in Tamil, IRC (Internet Relay Chat) or voice-mail in the local language and an agricultural portal in the regional language.

"We're adopting two key elements. Affordability, since everything is very low cost, and involving a local person in providing the solutions," says Professor Jhunjhunwala, explaining his model.

Dreaming, delivering
Over the past five to six months, Professor Jhunjhunwala's concept has been slowly taking shape. With n-Logue's CEO P G Ponnapa looking on, he says: "The challenge is to make it happen to scale. That's his (Ponnapa's) job. Our job is to dream; his job is to deliver."

But it's no mere dream. Professor Jhunjhunwala has proven the robustness of his technology in the past. Today, the Cordect wireless-in-local-loop (WiLL) technology he worked on earlier has been accepted by mainstream companies like the government giant BNSL, MTNL, Shyam Telelink and others.

"It's possible to have a small face-and-shoulder lecture, and also use the phone," says the proud professor pointing to the two channels that his Cordect wireless-in-local-loop solution offers. "This is the kind of thing that's possible with the technology today. (Internet speeds of) 35kbps can offer a very significant kind of traffic," he points out.

Thus far n-Logue has implemented the project in four centres. "The first-level feedback has been extremely encouraging. We have kiosks running in the middle of Madhya Pradesh where the average revenue a kiosk man makes is Rs 4,500 per month. Net of expenses, he makes Rs 3,000 per month, which makes him a rich man in that village," says Ponnapa.

Depend on ourselves
Dr Jhunjhunwala strongly argues that the Third World has to depend on itself to locate its own telecom solutions. Technology solutions from the West won't really help make telecom affordable here, he argues. "(Firms in the West) don't have any incentive for bringing down prices. It is our problem, and it is we who have to take that up," Jhunjhunwala continues.

Someone made the mistake of asking Professor Jhunjhunwala who was funding the `experimental projects' he was currently working on. An angry professor shot back: "We're not doing `experimental projects'. We are doing revenue-generating projects. What is there to experiment about? We've used this technology in 11 countries. The time for experiments is over."

Contact: Dr Ashok Jhunjhunwala
Professor and Head
Department of Electrical Engineering
Indian Institute of Technology, Chennai
Tel:(44) 2352120(O)/2353202/4459355(R)
Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. / This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

P G Ponnapa
Chief Executive Officer
n-Logue Communications Private Limited
Adyar, Chennai
Tel: 4455210/12/21/23
Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.