Digital Empowerment: Connecting the last miles

For us city dwellers, connectivity that makes our lives rather simple, is a given. Be it looking for information, getting our work done, social networking, shopping to even online activism to voicing our dissent. But a vast majority of population of our country is deprived of this convenience. And just how serious is it? India ranked 39th in the Digital Inclusion Index released in 2011 by UK based risk analysis firm MapleCroft, which studied level of digital inclusion across 186 countries. While amongst the five countries with emerging economies that form BIRCs nations, India was the only one to be categorized at extreme risk owing to the severe lack of digital inclusion.

In a country like India that is already grappling with economic disparities, digital divide will further widen the gap between the haves and the have-nots. While the economic disparities need complex solution, the same is not the case with digital disparities, as is shown by initiatives like the Wireless for Communities. It’s all about making better use of  the existing technology and applying it in ways that empower the people. It’s an initiative started about two and half years ago by the Delhi based non-profit organisation Digital Empowerment Foundation (DEF) along with the Internet Society (ISOC). Flagged off in 2010 from Chanderi, a small town in Madhya Pradesh, which is renowned world over for its exquisite Chanderi weaves, the initiative is slowly but surely making rapid progress in connecting the last miles.
The man spearheading the initiative and the founder of DEF, Osama Manzar, is passionate about empowering the people with the help of technology. His own journey began after having dropped out of engineering only to pursue journalism. Lack of technical knowledge didn’t stop him from working for an IT magazine or later heading Interactive Media division of a leading media company. In fact, he later went on to start his own IT solutions company that created portals for leading media companies. During this time, he authored a book, the Internet Economy of India, which was a turning point as he became aware of the huge digital divide in our country.

DEF has been connecting the last miles with the help of wireless technology

DEF has been connecting the last miles with the help of wireless technology


But instead of seeing it as a divide, he saw it as an opportunity, as he believed that the existing technology was enough to bridge that divide. With that thought he established the Digital Empowerment Foundation in 2003. Emphasising the importance of digital inclusion, Osama says, “If you are not connected than you are totally in a situation of exploitation, as you can’t access media, you can’t access information, so on and so forth. We also realize the fact that the whole problem of poverty and economic deprivation is also related to information poverty. As the more disconnected you are, the less informed you are.”  Wireless for Communities is one it’s many initiatives, the others include Digital Panchayat, eNGO, Digital Knowledge Centre, GyanPedia and many more.

Over the years, it has been successfully creating in-roads and has made Internet available in areas that are not only remote, but some also have a particularly challenging terrain. What started with Chanderi has today reached to Sonapur in Assam, Tura in Meghalaya, Baran in Rajasthan, Tehri in Uttarakhand and Tilonia in Rajasthan. This they achieved by using the wireless technology, Osama says, “We realized that there is a possibility of utilizing wireless technology in the last mile connectivity by using the unlicensed or license-free spectrum that the government provides to be utilized for community network connectivity. Not many people are aware of its existence, 5.8 GHz and 2.4 GHz are the bands that are made free by the Department of Telecom and Ministry of IT. We are making use of this free spectrum and incorporating it into wireless technology to spread the network in the remote areas. We do not run it as a commercial entity, nor are we distributor or internet service providers. We use it more as a community based network, where we have taken one connection and share it among the multiple users on a contribution basis.”


They train the locals the nitty-gritty of wireless networking and its maintenance


While using wireless technology made perfect sense, what they also had to consider was the cost of setting up and affordability for the people. DEF’s strategy was to use low-cost products without compromising on the effectiveness. “What we do is once we identity the location where we have to create a network, we go ahead and explore the low-cost equipment to do the networking. We currently make use of equipment from TP Link. Our average cost of connecting per node is around 25 to 30 thousand rupees. Whereas if you talk to any telco or any player who is into wireless connectivity as a commercial service then it will cost three to four times more than what it cost us. Besides being low cost, it also provides us the possibility to do point-to-point networking and point to multi-point networking, which is known as the mesh network. And this mesh network is a very effective for connecting the communities especially in the hilly areas. Because if there is a valley that is surrounded by hills then you can put the tower on the hill and the entire line of sight is connected.” The only hindrance they face in terms of infrastructure is the unreliable and irregular power supply, the common feature of almost all of these rural areas. To tackle this, they make use of batteries, but are looking forward to make use of solar panels as the source of electricity.      

However, these hindrances pale in comparison to the ways in which this project is actually transforming the lives of the people. For instance, in Chanderi from where it all began, today it’s not only the people in the town who have benefitted, but it also never ceases to surprise to the tourists who pour into the town in quest for the handlooms. The community of weavers is now making effective use of software and online tools to create designs and also canvas their weaves across the globe. Chanderi takes a place of pride in W4C program and they hope to replicate the success in other areas as well. Osama says, “In Chanderi, under what we refer to as a ‘Community Wireless Network’ we have given connectivity to 25 nodes. It’s not only being used by the weavers, but there are around eleven schools who have taken the connection. Many of them had computers, but lacked Internet connection, that limited the utilization. Besides this is our service is used by cybercafé, community radio station, government health centre and even some government. And since it is a community network, we ask for donation from the people who use the connectivity. As of today, donation is a fixed rate of Rs. 500 per month. There is a huge demand and we are now looking at taking a dedicated leased line.”


DEF also undertakes regular computer literacy program


Apart from providing connectivity, DEF also undertakes training programs where they teach the local youth the nitty-gritty of wireless networking and its maintenance. Osama says, “The whole idea of community wireless network is to make sure that the community itself understands what wireless technology is, so that they participate not only in its deployment but also help manage it.
Most of it is on-job training, but we are not very happy with the outcome. However, we are happy with the participation and the interest shown. In Chanderi the community members who are part of the project, manage the network themselves, right from giving new connections to even troubleshooting. In fact we plan to organize a proper six month training program for all our aspiring community level network engineers so that they become an absolutely robust technology hand. Apart from this we have also been running regular computer literacy program for all the members of the community.”

Riding on the success of their pilot project, they have set their goals for the next couple of years. The Digital Empowerment Foundation has a huge network of its own rural centres that help them identify a location in need of connectivity, and they also have people approaching them to replicate the network in their areas. They then do their research on the ground to find out the base line and the need, before deployment. “Our plan is that in the next three to four years each and every center of Digital Empowerment Foundation should be working with wireless technology and serving the community around its centers in different states. The next big wireless networking we are doing is in Baran district in Rajasthan. Here we are also enabling video-conferencing from one point to other, because owing to low literacy in the rural areas people appreciate video-conferencing. This year we are going to establish networks in at least five tribal areas and those include Guna, Balaghat and Shivpuri districts in Madhya Pradesh, Giridih district in Jharkhand, and Kohima district in Nagaland. The very purpose of selecting these locations is because they are remote, not well connected and are mostly populated by the tribal’s or the subjugated population.”