|Topic:||Unwiring the Internet for regional development|
|Title:||Vice President, Products and Strategy|
Sriram Bala is Vice President, Products and Strategy at Jataayu Software, Bangalore. Mr Bala has been in the software industry for 12 years, and was until recently the Chief Architect for Enterprise and Pervasive Computing at eJiva Inc. Before that, Mr Bala served as Managing Director and Chief Technology Officer at iGate Corporation. Apart from his experience in wireless, pervasive computing, personalisation and distributed computing technologies, Mr Bala worked with venture capital as an active member of iGate Capital’s Venture Fund. At Jataayu Software, Mr Bala focuses on emerging trends in the wireless industry and works actively in helping define the technology and product roadmap along with the engineering and marketing team.
To spur regional development in India’s rural regions, the challenge is to build the infrastructure, provide access and develop relevant and local language applications. There, a robust cost-effective broadband wireless infrastructure can play a pivotal role in bridging social and economic divides. Simplified Internet appliances and wireless video and audio communications can help communities work together for their mutual benefit. A new class of entrepreneurs is targeting regional communities as the customer base for technologies especially suited to India’s demographics.
Regional development is not easy to define in a single, crisp, sentence. Broadly speaking, regional development refers to the overall process and approach by which the physical, geographical, economic, social, cultural, environmental and natural resources of a region are harnessed for the betterment of a region’s people. In most cases, the very resources that define a region and its people are often the competitive drivers for the betterment of the region. Regional development is not just a fad, not just a concern of developing nations. Developed countries too have geographic areas that come under regional development schemes. Apart from preserving, encouraging and refining the social, cultural and economic practices of a region, it is sometimes vital to ensure the propagation of relevant technologies to these areas. In India, technology has an important role in regional development, especially in rural regions. Areas that fall under regional development schemes are often vast, and present unique challenges when it comes to the establishment of technology infrastructure. What is often taken for granted in cities and suburban communities cannot be easily established in rural regional communities. A prime example is the availability of telecommunications infrastructure. While cities and urban communities are well wired, regional development communities often lack the infrastructure. This could be due to any number of reasons. The area could be inhospitable towards the establishment of communications infrastructure, or perhaps the population density simply does not justify an enormous expense in establishing telecommunications infrastructure. However, geographic and economic conditions are no excuse for ignoring rural regions. Communities in these regions also have an equal right to participate and partake in the communications revolution that is changing the cities. The advent of the Internet has opened the gates of commerce, collaboration, information and trade. Boundaries and distances are conquered everyday. The seemingly indestructible middleman, who played a pivotal, albeit dubious, role in bridging the rural folk with the buying community, is fast becoming an extinct species, thanks to the use of auction technologies and electronic co-operatives. It is in communities like these that the Internet will fulfil its true potential. In trying to conquer the challenges that the regions pose, three key factors have to be taken into consideration: the infrastructure, the medium to access the infrastructure, as well as relevant and compelling information and applications. In this case, the infrastructure requirement is simple. Their needs to be a way to provide reliable network bandwidth to areas that are critical to regional development. Cities and communities with sufficient spending power and population density are not the regions of focus. These regions are well wired, and have more than one means of accessing network capabilities. Rural regional development areas are the ones that need the most help. It is in these areas that a robust, cost-effective broadband wireless infrastructure can play a vital role in bridging social and economic divides. Being it the extension of cellular wireless infrastructure in the form of new base stations, or the establishment of access points and repeaters that can provide broadband wireless capability, there is no doubt that wireless networking can be the panacea for connecting regional development areas to the information superhighway. While infrastructure plays a major part in the unwiring process, it is also important to consider the access medium. Unlike developed regions that have the luxury of the latest PC equipment, continuous power and always-on telecommunications infrastructure, rural areas have neither the infrastructure nor the spending power to afford some of these capabilities. One has to rethink the access mechanisms that rural communities have to use to access Internet technologies. Some of the key features required in these areas are: √ Devices with low power consumption; √ Devices that support multi-lingual capabilities; √ Devices that are easy to use; √ Devices that do not require extensive configuration or maintenance; √ Most importantly, devices that are economically viable. Given these needs, one gets the feeling that the era of the Internet appliance, spoken of for years, may finally see the light of day. Such simplified appliances are perfect for rural communities. They are easy to configure and maintain, have only one or two key capabilities and cost much less than a personal computer. Some appliances even use the ever-present television set as the display unit. Appliances can also be considered to be precursors of what is commonly referred to as thin-client architecture. They only serve as minimalist interfaces to the network, delegating the processing–the heavy lifting–to the back-end infrastructure that constitutes the other end of the network. While the importance of data cannot be ignored, voice can also play an equally important role. The goal of connecting far-flung communities is to facilitate communication, and sound is an integral part of human communication. The ability of a person to communicate in the local dialect with others across geographical boundaries is a powerful medium. Many of the transactions of commerce and trade are still conducted by voice today. A classic example of this practice is the livestock auction. Far-flung communities can be brought together with the help of video and audio communications using a wireless infrastructure. A livestock herder who had to travel miles for an auction can now participate in the same auction in the comfort of his home. While communications infrastructure and the access medium play important roles in regional development, it is also important to briefly explore the nature of the applications that are relevant in these communities. Often, applications that are popular with cities and urban populations may not find favour in these regional communities. This could be due to any number of reasons: √ Insufficient bandwidth availability; √ Access devices with limited computing capability; √ Lack of content in regional languages and dialects. While the television remains the primary means of information and dissemination of news, applications that are customised, adapted to the needs of the relevant communities, can play a huge role in the adoption of technology. There are a number of likely scenarios: √ In a predominantly agricultural community, applications that provide data and information relevant to the community are favoured. Examples of such applications include: 1. Weather data for the region; 2. Soil studies; 3. Seed technologies; 4. Livestock maintenance; 5. Harvesting technology; 6. Fertiliser information; 7. Crop rotation and other techniques to preserve soil fertility; 8. Pricing trends. These are just some of the ways in which applications could be developed and customised for the agricultural communities. √ A key technology trend that has taken the Internet world by storm is the rapid deployment and penetration of social networks and blogs. If the same technologies were to be implemented from a regional development perspective, one could see a dramatic improvement in the use of technology in rural and agricultural areas. It is not difficult to envision the role of electronic communities and co-operatives in regional development. One could argue that these technologies could perhaps realise their full potential in these scenarios. A farmer who participates in a dairy co-operative online not only pools together resources with other members of the community to offer competitive products, but also ensures that fair pricing policies are followed due to open and fair pricing policies. √ Another key use of technology in regional development is education. While television does play an important role in rural education, it is by and large a unidirectional medium. With the advent of wireless Internet infrastructure and e-learning applications, schools in remote areas can network and participate in electronic classrooms that redefine the very nature of the learning experience. Rural areas need not lament about the lack of information availability. Libraries can be accessed online, and teachers can communicate with students across geographic boundaries. Learning facilities such as these open new vistas and opportunities for communities that previously lost their younger generations to cities due to lack of educational facilities. None of the scenarios mentioned earlier can see the light of day unless the communications infrastructure is in place. Rural communities present unique geographical and economic challenges when building a communications infrastructure. These challenges can be alleviated to a large extent by aggressively embracing wireless broadband technologies. India is gaining some traction in this sector. WLL (Wireless Local Loop) technology is making inroads into rural communities. Partnerships between academia and private industry are resulting in new ventures that are bridging innovative technology with viable economic models. New classes of entrepreneurs are targeting regional development communities as their customer base for innovative technologies that are especially suited for those demographics. Everything considered, there are three key ingredients that have to come together if wireless technology is to make inroads and play an active role in regional development: √ Wireless network infrastructure; √ Access mediums, that is devices suited to rural communities; √ Compelling data and applications that are suited to the community and the end-user. The infrastructure has to be established first. Only then can the other two follow. If this becomes a reality, regional communities can leapfrog into the future and become vibrant eco-systems that use technology for the betterment of people society and the economy.