by December 4, 2007 0 comments



With 100 million telephones being added each year, telecom market in India
has grown at a stupendous rate. India is now the largest telecom market. With
just 10 million telephone lines growing at a rate of less than a million lines
per year, nobody could have even imagined this 15 years back. This major
breakthrough is a result of both: liberalization and technology.

Wireless was envisioned to pave a way for telecom and replace the usual
copper with electronics by several tech experts. Though wireless technology was
very expensive then, but there were speculations that going forward the Moore’s
law and the reuse of software will significantly bring down the cost of
wireless. In the year 1994, when the TeNeT group at IIT Madras offered to design
and develop ‘Wireless in Local Loop System’ within a budget of just 10k, there
were very few takers. But some in the telecom department decided to entertain
this group and provided the initial support. Leveraging the support, the system
was built, commercialized and the belief in wireless increased manifold.

But that’s an old story. Now, with telecom being one of the most profitable
businesses in India, and corporates vying to get additional licenses and
spectrum, certain tasks are still unfinished in this arena. But, what are the
unfinished tasks?

Ashok Jhunjhunwala
Professor, IIT Madras,
ashok@tenet.res.in

The mobile telecom growth in India has been so far largely confined to urban
areas. With urban markets progressing towards saturation, more and more telecom
operators are innovating to break even at Average Revenue per User (ARPU) of Rs
150 per month and deploying base stations to cover rural areas. Most of the
villages of India would see mobiles within the next three years. The real
challenge is broadband. Despite of all its attempts to rapidly increase the
number of broadband connections, the number still stands at a mere 3 million.
The problem is three fold: connectivity, access devices and content (application
/ services). These three areas drive research activities in telecom industry.

Broadband
DSL on copper is proved to be the most cost-effective way of providing broadband
to homes. Unfortunately only incumbent state-owned operators (BSNL and MTNL)
have copper lines for this. The private operators did try to lay copper, but
owing to high cost of deployment and maintenance they failed. The coaxial cable
wires carrying television signals reaches 100 million homes, but is not suitable
for two-way Internet. The only hope for competition is wireless. It has made the
mobile telephony happen in India. But there are a few questions. Can Wireless
similarly drive the broadband? Is wireless technology capable of providing the
bit-rate required for broadband?

Recently, a study carried out by the Centre for Excellence in Wireless
Technology (CeWiT)1 along with Indian operators, showed that India requires
wireless technology to serve at least 700 broadband customers in each cell site
to be profitably deployed. It also calculated (figure on the next page) that to
provide a sustained data rate of 500 Kbps to a user, it would need 30 Mbps and
for 2 Mbps per user, it would need over 110 Mbps in each cell. As operators in a
multi-operator environment, which exists in India are unlikely to get a spectrum
over 10 MHz, the technology required would have to deliver 3 bits/Hz/cell to
over 10 bits/Hz /cell. Today’s latest wireless systems (WiMax, EVDO and HSPA)
struggle to provide 2 bits/cell/Hz. They would not compete even with low end
DSL.

TeNeT group is working on wireless technologies to drive this upwards. The
key is to use spatial multiplexing so that multiple conversations are possible
at the same time using same spectrum without spreading. The work combines
multiple-input multiple-output (MIMO) systems, interference mitigation
techniques in multi-cellular systems and robust low bit-rate feedback schemes
for wireless systems to increase capacity. One of the early benefits of the work
would be towards the broadband wireless deployment in India over the next few
years.

Access devices
The second challenge comes from the access devices in Indian homes. Currently, a
personal computer is the sole device that is used. Studies conducted in middle
and lower middle class of the country reveals the fact that though PCs appeal to
these classes, but having a PC in their homes is a daunting task. Cost is one of
the major considerations and the complexity of maintaining is the other. Each
time anything goes wrong, a significant percent of monthly income of these
classes is spent on repairing. Even a simple virus could be a serious problem.
Moreover, they have to get and manage Internet connections too. They need
something simpler.

There can be several solutions to this problem-the one that TeNeT Group has
ideated is a multimedia Network PC, coupled with a managed service. The home
device has no storage and therefore an on/off device. All the storage is
maintained at the server end and is managed by technically sound staff. This
concept is being now commercialized by Novatium, a company incubated by the
group itself.

One may ask how it is different from thin client that has existed for years.
First, the partitioning of the task between the front-end (home device) and the
back-end server is the key. One would like to do as much as possible at the
front-end, thereby considerably reducing the load at the back-end (as the
back-end is shared). Secondly, for the concept to truly scale, the front-end
would not be any special hardware. A simple set-top box or a cellphone with some
special interfaces or downloadable software will be adequate. As these devices
are usually made of a general purpose Digital Signal Processors, all the
multimedia and graphics would be handled by the front-end. For a normal home
user these tasks consume most of the CPU resources. Bringing them to the
front-end makes the servers handle more number of users. Making this
partitioning totally independent of the user program development so that any
software at the server automatically partitions itself is another big challenge.

Content: Rural focus and services
The broadband connectivity discussed above can enable broadband connection in
6,37,000 Indian villages, where 700 million Indians live. The network PCs would
enable multiple terminals at Rural Business centers. However, the key remains to
use IT services to benefit villagers, and the priorities are education, health
care & livelihood.

Today in rural India, there are few good teachers. Educating a large number
of children living in rural areas in such a situation is a challenge. It is
possible to use IT to partially compensate for this shortcoming and supplement
the education for the children.

IT and Communications are powerful tools that society can use to transform
itself. However, they are merely tools and not an end. Research in IT needs to
recognize this and should continue to use Telecom and IT to strengthen Indian
society.

1 CeWiT is a public-private organization driven by the TeNeT Group and
currently located at IIT Madras.

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