The World Health Organisation (WHO) declared COVID-19 as a global pandemic on March 11, 2020, with growing cases getting detected in over 100 countries globally. Subsequently, WHO pushed to take ‘aggressive’ on 17th March 2020 action fearing that some countries may be moving towards community transmission.
To date, 30th March 2020, there are more than 700,00 COVID-19 cases and more than 35000 deaths are reported. The director-general of WHO, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus in conference stressed the vulnerabilities to be faced by ill-prepared ‘weak’ countries that have poor public health systems. South Asia has seen a total of 2000 cases as of 30th March 2020 and over 1100 cases are registered in India.
The steady rise of COVID-19 cases is a huge concern for South Asian countries due to a lack of public health infrastructure and the limited availability of professionals. It can strike a crisis of very high magnitude. In response, governments, corporates, and academic institutions have not only cancelled the public events and gatherings but also closed public spaces including museums, restaurants to avoid the highly contagious pneumonia-like disease to spread from one person to another.
On March 25, the government of India announced nationwide 21 days lockdown till 14 April 2020 closing schools, offices and public transportation. In the scenario of isolation, internet connectivity has never been so important. It is critical to receive up-to-date health information and students must continue their education and working professionals to continue work from their home.
Following the footsteps of Harvard and MIT, Indian academic institutions, including IITs and IIITs also started holding virtual classrooms due to suspension of face-to-face classes. However, slow-speed and irregular connectivity are emerging issues for educational institutes before they even start online classes. For instance, Delhi University professors who are trying to conduct online classes faced the issue of connecting their students. V. Sridhar, Professor at the Centre for IT and Public Policy at the International Institute of Information Technology Bangalore (IIITB), India states even though he has two fixed-line broadband services and 4G enabled mobile connectivity, yet he feels annoyed due to miserable internet connectivity available in the country. The poor status of network infrastructure in the country is amplified due to the exponential demand for connectivity at the household level. This is a scenario of metro cities like Delhi and Bangalore, where institutions like IITs and IIITs are facing the connectivity issue.
India stands at 128 out of 140 listed countries in mobile broadband, according to Ookla Speed Test report. It is even behind some of the South Asian countries, including Pakistan and Sri Lanka and African countries such as Ethiopia and Senegal. Whereas in fixed broadband, the country stands at 69 out of 176 listed countries giving average speed 39.65. India has 19 million fixed-line broadband users which include enterprises and offices and 17 million home fixed-line broadband users.
If we take a closer look at the public infrastructure that is required to be connected with internet connectivity in India. There are 15 lakh schools in the country, out of which over 8.5 lakh schools are located in rural regions. There are over 1.5 health sub-centers, 25000 community health centres and 5000 public health centres in India. Around 20% of rural regions of the country are connected through the internet and most of them are connected through mobile connectivity.
In the time of isolation when we are avoiding cash-payment systems, the lack of proper digital infrastructure including mobile connectivity and broadband communications to a large proportion of the populace makes it more difficult to address authentication challenges, card security infrastructure and last-mile connectivity of Point of Sale (POS) terminals.
Moreover, in this pandemic when thousands of migrant workers are going back home in rural regions of the country, the questions arise whether they will be able to educate their children if schools are closed and not connected through the Internet and able to get basic health facilities or medicines.
The telecom networks that support voice, telephony and broadband data services are critical infrastructures for the country like India much like electricity, water, sewage and road networks. Most of this critical telecom infrastructure is built by private firms using their capital. Though, telecom providers such as Vodafone, Airtel, BSNL, Reliance Jio to activate intra-circle roaming (ICR) and also offering increased bandwidth or data plans to maintain seamless connectivity. It is not only the major telecom providers who are seeing the data traffic spikes in their network but small operators including cable operators’ network are seeing a significant spike in data traffic and demand in new connections. However, as the data traffic will increase it will not be sufficient to cater to the demand.
The situation, however, again highlighted not only the need for deep fiberisation across the country to connect towers but also the need for small community-based network solutions to connect the communities living in far-flung areas of the country. It is the requirement of time when we need an integrated model of centralised and decentralised community-led networks, which operates in both intranet and internet methods.
There are very few community-led social enterprises working for designing or deploying wireless networks catering to rural parts of the country. AirJaldi in Dharamshala, Digital Empowerment Foundation (DEF), GeoMesh Informatics in Tamil Nadu, MojoLab in Dehradun, Uttarakhand, Janastu in Tumkur, Karnataka and GramMarg in Pathardi, Maharashtra are organisations which are providing low-cost internet connectivity, enabling access to information for citizens, particularly living in rural and remote areas. These community-led network solutions are using low-cost wireless devices and unlicensed spectrum bands 2.4 GHz and 5.8 GHz to create community-owned and community-operated wireless networks.
These network providers are using different bottom-up approaches such as generating locally-created content, innovative pricing and marketing approaches to content are gaining traction, providing digital services to information services to sustain these networks. These networks are trying to provide affordable, ubiquitous and democratically controlled internet access in rural regions of the country.
For instance, GeoMio Mesh wireless node that connects the unconnected in the rural villages and power healthcare, education and security with modular software and services. Using two 5GHz radios and sector antennas, GeoMesh is an indoor/outdoor weatherproof 3-radios wireless mesh router that automatically forms a mesh network with another Geo Mesh router within range. GeoMio Mesh creates both intranet and internet networks. It automatically creates hot-spot using the 2.4 GHz radio and creates the local (intranet) network. Thereafter users can easily connect to the local network and if any router on the local network connects to other networks such as the Internet, then users on that local network automatically get access to the Internet through the mesh. Each mesh can relate with the others easily, including peering, allowing users of each network to reach the other network and can transit to get to other networks through one of your neighbours.
Whereas DEF’s Wireless for Communities (W4C) uses 2.4 GHz and 5.8 GHz unlicensed spectrum bands and low-cost wireless devices in the hub and spoke model. In the last nine years, the programme has adopted various models of engagement, ranging from the Hub-and-Spoke and Wireless on Wheels to and Internet-in-a-Box set up. These models have established 178 access nodes in 35 districts across 18 Indian states, engaging men and women equally for its installation and management. Thus, ensuring the social sustainability of the wireless community networks.
Similarly, AirJaldi started as a social, non-profit enterprise established in Dharamshala, Himachal Pradesh, to provide affordable and reliable Internet connectivity using unlicensed spectrum and wireless networks in rural communities. Gram Marg, an incubation of the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Mumbai, uses TV white space and now Wi-Fi to provide Internet connectivity in 13 villages of Maharashtra. DEF uses low-cost wireless technology, unlicensed spectrum bands—2.4GHz and 5.8 GHz—and line of sight to support the provision of affordable, low-cost and reliable Internet services in 38 districts of the country.
Connectivity, when combined with the Wi-Fi information hub and spoke model, can help to empower communities and bring holistic development. If people have access to broadband and adequate bandwidth, they could pursue distance education through video conferencing, able to share their local indigenous content with a larger audience. By delaying access to the Internet and not enabling communities with high-speed internet connectivity, we are constantly underutilizing our potentials and, consequently, delaying economic prosperity.
It is high time for the government to take a broader decision on the health of the telecom industry, thereby need to have a new policy for rural ISPs, which can focus on serving underserved communities. Rural ISPs that can become sustainable and commercially viable entities that offer internet connectivity, digital literacy, and other digital services at prices that the bottom of pyramid consumers can afford. The situation of isolation is a polite reminder to have adequate internet connectivity and higher bandwidth that can potentially connect us and also provide economic and business continuity to some extent.
Author: Ms. Ritu Srivastava, representing Jadeite Solutions, has over 14 years of experience in the development sector specifically focusing on the ICT domain, using digital technology towards sustainable development of underprivileged communities / marginalised sections of society and over 8 years of experience in working with community networks.