Friday, March 14, 2008

Rural Wireless

I've just spent a week in Bangalore talking and hearing about connectivity for emerging countries. Living in the United States, one takes many things for granted - water, power, transportation and most importantly connectivity which has become an essential utility. Most emerging countries lack the capability or the will to deliver water, power and transportation to their citizens. However, a large number of organizations are coming up with innovative low-cost solutions to provide connectivity in the hope that this digital inclusion will mitigate the effects of lacking the other three utilities.

There have been a number of stories in the local press about Tata Communications launching the world's largest WiMAX network (another company in the group recently launched the world's cheapest car). Inspite of the hype, the state of connectivity is abysmal - there are only 2.9 million broadband connections: a penetration rate of almost 0.25 %

However, hidden behind all this brouhaha, there have been a number of organizations working on developing low-cost long-range wireless connectivity for rural communities. One of the most interesting ones is Airjaldi, headquartered at Dharmashala in Himachal Pradesh, India which has a portfolio of wireless products and solutions to enable digital inclusion. They use or develop low-cost hardware, tweak open source software and have created a wireless networking solution that has been deployed in a number of places.

As has been proven again and again, most spectacularly in the dot-com crash of 2001, technology without a business model is ineffective. Wireless Networking in the Developing World is a free book about designing, implementing, and maintaining low-cost wireless networks. It discusses the basics of the technologies, the economics of the business models and has some excellent case studies.

The challenge with many low-cost technologies is their ability to scale up for larger deployments: the organizations developing these solutions either do not have the capabilities of scaling or do not have an effective go-to-market model. When they do, like Linux did, they become a disruptive force and unleash great changes.

More in the next post on some of the organizations operating in rural areas that have the business models but not the connectivity.

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