With a population of more than 1.3 billion people, India presents one of the biggest challenges to the endeavor to connect the next billion people to the Internet. Especially given the fact that 67% of all Indians reside in small, often rural, villages, community networking is proving to be a vital tool to assist in raising rural teledensity, which currently rests at around 49%.
Given the challenges of providing Internet connectivity in rural and tribal districts, the Internet Society (ISOC) partnered with New Delhi-based Digital Empowerment Foundation (DEF) in 2010 to launch the Wireless for Communities (W4C) program.
The program focuses on two key areas: expanding access to adequate infrastructure, and capacity and skill building. W4C deploys mesh networks to set up and expand connectivity in rural locations around India using low-cost, Wi-Fi-based equipment and unlicensed spectrum to rural, remote and under-served communities. W4C involves line-of-sight and low-cost Wi-Fi equipment, which utilize the unlicensed spectrum bands — 2.4 GHz and 5.8 GHz — to create community-owned and community-operated wireless networks in rural and remote locations of India to democratize access and make it available to all. It also equips community members through a training of trainers (ToT) project with the skills to design, deploy, operate, and maintain wireless networks and community infrastructure, with the goal of ensuring the project is sustainable in the long-term.
The genesis behind the project was two-fold. First, the costs to deploy traditional cell tower infrastructure in some rural areas of the country remains high due to the local geographic terrain as well as the lack of continuous access to electricity. Mainstream Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are not willing to provide internet connectivity in these regions as they feel their operations would not be commercially viable. Second, low economic spending power, which results in a low return on investment for service providers, and dispersed communities form other key challenges for connectivity in general, but rural connectivity in particular. Even in areas with infrastructure, people often lack the skills to use the Internet to its full potential. The lack of content in local languages as well as inadequate contextual information and communications technology (ICT) training are reasons for less adoption in rural areas as compared to urban areas.
Since its launch, the program has connected rural and remote locations in as many as 38 districts across 18 states of India with more than 200 access points, connecting lakhs of individuals. Further, the program has created rural women entrepreneurs & and wireless engineers who may or may not have had any formal education. Additionally, W4C has been a backbone for several of DEF’s Community Information Resource Centres (CIRCs) across India that require Internet connectivity. CIRCs have helped villagers gain access to digital literacy, digital tools, information available online, including student exam results, and has even enabled people to open bank accounts and get printouts of their individual Aadhaar (Unique Identification Number) cards. The program as a whole, but especially the CIRCs, also has helped promote education as well as communicate the importance of education.
A significant outcome of the W4C project includes the enabling of local governments, community radio stations, and rural weavers to be connected, expanding digital commerce in rural areas, and enabling villages to access government services online and establish online businesses. Furthermore, training for rural entrepreneurs through resource centers as well as at the Barefoot College have provided employment and benefited people who wanted to start online businesses.
Over the years, several projects of DEF have been inspired by W4C’s wireless ecosystems and several other initiatives have emerged out of the umbrella project. One such initiative has been Wireless Women for Entrepreneurship & Empowerment (W2E2). Since the gender-gap is prominent in India, W2E2 empowers women entrepreneurs through specific capacity building efforts by providing them training to establish online businesses.
In its latest phase, Phase VII, the project has connected 3,500 families of the Agariya community (salt farmers) in the Little Rann of Kutch in the Indian state of Gujarat through Zero Connect.* The project has been designed innovatively using variety of wireless technology and devices, which are built-in vehicle (mobile van).
Connectivity in rural areas has transformed information access in numerous ways for these communities. W4C provided ICT training, certification, and diploma courses on computer concepts, along with telemedicine technology courses. Eleven out of the 13 schools in the Chanderi cluster – a highly populated area with marginalized handloom weavers, located in the state of Madhya Pradesh – have Wi-Fi connections and computer centers.
As a result of wireless Internet and broadband through W4C, the weavers of Chanderi are using e-commerce and Facebook to sell their crafts. In Baran**, anther rural community, digitally enabled services include telemedicine, learning, and education through video conferencing, and narrowcasting of community radio programs. Additionally, Barefoot College uses this connectivity to upload water quality data online for the purposes of policy advocacy.
As the W4C project aptly demonstrates, community mesh networks, when coupled with training of barefoot engineers*** for the establishment and maintenance of networks, can provide sustainable, low-cost connectivity and enable information access in rural parts of the country. Additionally, capacity-building initiatives through CIRCs can empower rural entrepreneurs to leverage the Internet for consuming information available online and for e-commerce, while connectivity to the most rural areas can enable access to services such as e-governance and telemedicine.
This has the potential to transform access to healthcare in areas that traditionally are hard to reach, which currently leads to delays and loss of lives. Lastly, the Internet allows content and services produced in rural areas to reach a wide range of consumers outside the community.
*Note on Zero Connect: The vehicle has rooftop solar panels, backup batteries, an expandable and flexible 5-meter tripod-based antenna tower with dish antenna. The dish antenna revolves 360 degree and depending upon where the vehicle is parked, it aligns with the broadband Internet tower at the periphery of the Little Rann of Kutch. The Zero Connect vehicle reaches out to 17 schools and a number of settlements that invariably lies at a distance of 20-50 kilometres from backhaul Internet tower. The antenna on the vehicle catches internet from backhaul tower using unlicensed spectrum with complete security and further allows wifi access to local identified users in a radius of 100 meters.
**Note on Baran: The Baran W4C network is one of the widest coverage networks under the project. The network is spread across 200 kilometres; and about 10 CIRCs, besides facilitating health and educational services among others. Baran network serves Rajasthan’s two tribal communities, Bheel and Sahariya. Even if internet is down from backhaul, but still communities living in two different villages can communicate using intranet infrastructure that exist in the network. This way, they are always connected either its internet or intranet.
***Note on Barefoot Engineers: One of the objectives of W4C is to provide wireless networking training to local community members in an effort to transform them into barefoot wireless engineers for linking rural population to the Internet; and to open up avenues for social enterprises and NGOs as rural internet service providers. Guna in Madhya Pradesh is a backward and tribal dominated region where a training centre for this purpose has been established. It has created more than 30 barefoot wireless engineers so far.