There is no question that the internet has transformed India in ways that were unimaginable a decade ago, from logistics to consumption, to the access of entertainment. The primary vehicle for this change is the wired smartphone, not the computer, as the commoditized industry has allowed for the purchase of a dirt-cheap $100 phone that is, by and large, as good as one that was available just three or four years ago.
Yet, large parts of rural India remain backward, with extremely poor health, educational facilities, and terrible roads, where people still live under servitude to middlemen and corrupt village politicians. The ability to earn a living, therefore, is as fragile as it was decades ago. A little chip, not bigger than a postage stamp, made by Bangalore "Fabless" company Saankhya aims to change all of that.
Imagine the transformation that could take place if every household had access to the internet. A farmer could check the prices for his crops online, and garner the best rate instead of relying on rapacious middlemen. He could keep tabs on local weather patterns. He and his wife could load a telemedicine portal and consult with a doctor about her pregnancy. He could even double check the title deeds for his farmland, or the amount of money apportioned to him by a government scheme by logging into the database of the local village headquarters (gram panchayat). And much, much more.
The theory goes that India's 190 million internet users in 2014 will grow to over 550 million by 2018, of which rural folk will make up 210 million.
But there's a problem with that hypothesis. Earlier, the government had introduced a proposal to install three broadband internet connections and one Wi-Fi connection in each of India's 250,000 village gram panchayat offices under the Bharat Broadband scheme. This effort, while laudable in theory, is seriously delayed.
Even if it does go through, a fundamental problem remains: How is a rural family going to access services at the village headquarters, which is not usually right next door? Cellular network coverage in rural areas is still extremely poor, and spectrum costs billions of dollars to extend beyond central hubs.
Unsure of how a 4G or even 3G network will be monetized in rural areas that may not exhibit the kind of robust data traffic that urban India is experiencing, telcos will just drag their heels to connect vast swathes of the rural poor until it matches their ROEs.
Saankhya has latched on to a brilliant, low-cost solution: Almost every rural family possesses or lives near a television. Saankhya's chipset uses television "white space" -- in other words, gaps left between channels for safety reasons that are part of the unlicensed radio frequency spectrum reserved for analogue TV channels -- to carry internet traffic.
These white spaces (in the 470MHz to 790MHz spectrum band) are at a lower frequency than cell phone signals, and a potential miracle solution. While your normal home routers have a 10-metre to 20-metre range, the range of these frequencies are 10 to 15 kilometres, and they are able to easily penetrate buildings, foliage, and terrible weather. The solution altogether presents a much lower capex cost due to base stations covering a much larger area.
There is a caveat with this technology: A single unused channel apparently has 22Mbps of bandwidth, and can serve up to 512 devices. So, crowded semi-urban area residents may not be able to surf YouTube, but they will be able to easily access banking and messaging. Besides, it's not as though 3G speeds in urban areas function according to their advertised speeds, so that limitation is basically an irrelevant concern for now.
Saankhya, in collaboration with IIT-Bombay, IIT-Delhi, and IIT-Hyderabad, is apparently conducting field trials of this technology as we speak. It is also in a conversation with Microsoft to see how the two can work together to effect a white space revolution more speedily.
Microsoft is an old hand at white space, having launched projects in several parts of Africa over the past years, including pilots in in Kenya and Africa under the 4Afrika initiative.
"We believe that low-cost broadband connectivity coupled with the scale of cloud computing intelligence that can be harnessed from data can help drive creativity, efficiency, and productivity across governments and businesses of all sizes," Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said during a news conference.
But it is yet to do anything on a large scale.
Google, too, is interested in white space, although it achieved more eyeballs for announcing a spectacular (if it works) feat of connecting 22 million mobile phones being used in Sri Lanka to the internet -- today, only 2.8 million of them are wired -- using a massive fleet of helium-filled balloons that fly twice as high as airliners in the stratosphere. Appropriately, the endeavour is named Project Loon.
In India, Microsoft is already hard at work trying out the technology in Srikakulam district in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh.
Normally, you would have to import a chipset made by Mediatek for a white space dynamic spectrum chipset solution in India, but Saankhya's efforts have proven that India has a treasure trove of low-cost, indigenous solutions for local problems sitting right under its nose.