In just one month, specifically during the Covid-19 related lockdown, rural India saw an almost 100% jump in data consumption on the network of Citizens Services Center (CSC) SPV. According to CSC, which also provides Wi-Fi hotspots in around 25,000 gram panchayats under its Wi-Fi Choupal service, besides the surge of data consumption in rural areas, there has been a high demand for fiber-to-home (FTH).
In March 2020 alone, more than 3 lakh subscribers registered across 50,000 gram panchayats for FTH. There has also been a preferential shift from the usage of fixed wire-line technologies to mobile technologies.
The point here is that these numbers reflect a huge surge in appetite for internet data in rural areas.
As per the World Bank collection of development indicators, rural land area (square kilometers) in India was reported at 2980489 sq. The 2011 census of India states that 68.84% of Indians (around 833.1 million people) live in 640,867 different villages.
Rural India contributes to almost half the nation’s GDP.
Given this vastness, density of population and contribution to the GDP, rural India should already, ideally, have an infrastructure that can support development. This however is not so in many parts of the hinterland. Rural India is craving for massive improvement in accessibility, basic amenities, healthcare, education, financial services and housing.
Rural internet connectivity is yet another mission-critical necessity.
While the government of India is implementing several initiatives to improve the rural landscape, it clearly isn’t enough. In addition, the recent exodus of migrant workers from the metros back to the villages is sure to strain the already fragile infrastructure.
Fast forward to a post Covid-19 landscape
With the recent exodus of the above mentioned migrant population, it stands to reason that many of them might choose to stay on and find innovative ways to make a living. These migrant workers will undoubtedly carry home their city learnings back to their villages. Mobile internet connectivity and the world of opportunities that open up with it will undoubtedly be one of the urban takeaways which will find resonance in rural India.
This could very well trigger a new phase in India’s growth. Rural India could very well be the ground zero of a new, resurgent, post Covid-19.
Should this be so, India urgently needs to pay attention to rural internet connectivity, as this will be the primary gamechanger.
A recent media article citing CSC e-Governance Services India CEO Dinesh Tyagi states that in the future, the demand for data and information via the internet could play a pivotal role in bridging the yawning gap in broadband penetration between urban and rural areas. If nurtured with regular organic feed of educational and informational content, connectivity is a feature that could digitally empower and transform rural India.
Digital gap in rural India
In situations like the one we are currently facing due to the Covid-19 lockdown, many people in rural areas do not have access to good quality healthcare facilities. This could probably have been solved if they had better internet connectivity.
The lockdown has forced schools and colleges to shut down indefinitely. There is an urgent need to conduct distance classes. This requires very good connectivity to schools and homes in rural areas.
Reliable and fast rural internet connectivity might also provide migrant workers with additional incentives to stay back in their respective villages and find new ways to make a living. These include new services such as IoT (internet of things) for agriculture and livestock management, which in turn could increase agricultural productivity. Farmers could be given direct market access through the new generation online farm-to-fork entrepreneurs. These help farmers to bypass all middle men and sell their produce directly to end users.
Rural connectivity options
At present, rural broadband services use fibre optic cables, cellular services and unlicensed Wi-Fi based solutions. For varying reasons, some of these are not feasible. Deployment of optical fibres in all the rural topographies is extremely costly and very hard to maintain. Service providers are put off by diminishing average revenue per user, high licensing fees and infrastructure costs. As a result, they do not provide adequate coverage to all the rural areas in India.
With regard to unlicensed Wi-Fi solutions, they offer poor physical layer propagation, resulting in a low-coverage area.
In addition to all of this, there is a lack of a robust, cost-effective backhaul. Rural areas have sparse populations dispersed all around a gram panchayat. Typically a village in about five kilometers from the nearest GP.
But, a solution is at hand.
India can make use of some of the unused UHF, an already existing, unused spectrum which can offer middle-mile or last-mile network coverage within a radius of 1 to 15 kilometres. UHF spectrum, not only provides excellent propagation characteristics to reach these distances. In addition, it does not require huge investments in infrastructure.
Why UHF is the answer to last mile connectivity
The UHF (ultra high frequency) spectrum has unused spaces in an otherwise lightly-occupied broadcasting spectrum bandwidth. This spectrum is used in many countries including the US, UK, many parts of Africa and Singapore for providing rural broadband connectivity.
In India, unused bandwidth is available in the UHF spectrum. This UHF frequency range in the 470 to 698 MHz band is such that even very low power signals can be transmitted across long distances using small tower heights.
This UHF based fixed wireless solution can tap into the village Gram Panchayat National Optical Fibre Network node and provide connectivity in remote locations, difficult terrains and locations where it is not feasible to deploy fiber optic cables. Zero pollution, usage of solar power, lowest opex and higher reliability are some of the advantages of using this technology. It is ideally suited to build smart villages and internet-of-things in rural locations. Also importantly, the solution is easy to install in case of disasters, and can aid speedy relief action.
Made in India solution
For the last mile, covering the gram panchayat to villages that lie within a radius of 12 kms, an SDR Chipset design and development company has developed the world’s first standard compliant (IEEE802.22 compliant) WiFar equipment. 100% developed and manufactured in India, based on indigenous IPR chipset Pruthvi, Meghdoot Base Station and Dhaval modem enable long range up to 20Km with just 36dbm/ 4W EIRP.
The wireless broadband solutions use UHF Spectrum, which is low cost and easily installable at central gram panchayat headquarter locations that are already connected by fiber optic cables. This technology can supplement existing fiber from Railtel and Power Grid to provide Wi-Fi data access to end devices at the village level.
With the lockdown and the resulting mass reverse migration to rural India -- the largest ever that the world has perhaps seen -- it is time to recognise the fact that an easily deployable, made in India, robust rural connectivity solution is the need of the hour.
Preetham Uthaiah, is EVP, marketing and strategy at Saankhya Labs. The views in this article are his own.