Bridging rural digital divide

It isn’t the launch of the latest all-singing, all-dancing smartphone or turbo-speed connection: it is the launch of the broadband connectivity in rural India which is all together working to change to the group on education, health and working condition of people all around. The broadband connectivity world winds down for another couple of years to transform the lives of millions of people.rn
Bridging rural digital divide

“Look I have made my first online registration”, says Sushant Yadav, an eighteen-year-old aspirant looking colleges for ITI professional course. The online admission might not be a new thing for the students dwelling from metros or sub-metros, but students like Yadav have seen online admission for the first time in their lives.

“It’s a great achievement for people like us who come from far interior villages of Balrampur. I call it a magic. The internet connectivity in our village has changed our lives,” signs Yadav with a smiling face. The vision ‘Digital India’ is thus set to transform the country into a digitally empowered society and knowledge economy. 

To help and seek the change to happen, Bharat Broadband Network (BBNL) would implement National Optical Fibre Network (NOFN), which is expected to open up the gateway to rural development by facilitating implementation of the e-Government projects in the social sectors like education, health, security, employment guarantee, financial and banking services – all fostering inclusive growth for rural India. It is further expected that this would also provide a great fillip to private sector for providing other services in the remote places on a viable business model which is hitherto non-existent. The optical fibre projects have been implemented in phases from the current year till 2018. 

The dream to digital world

A smart home is what the smart country is looking for. Unfortunately, India’s rural population is still unaware about the ground realities the ‘digital world’ is benefiting. The benefits of the broadband connectivity to the rural population are immense with the convergence of voice, data and video.

“We will have the children studying in e-classes with state of the art audio-visual content and able guidance of better quality instructors from centralised locations (district/ state headquarters), assisted by local teachers and guides who will also learn in the process. The required information will be available at the click of a button, where today getting a birth certificate may take days, sometimes weeks. The better G2C (Government to Citizens) and C2B (Citizen to Business) interactions will enable better services and socio-economic opportunities for the rural people,” describes Shagufta Azim, an active social worker working on ‘digitally empowered mission’.

Talking about the importance of broadband connectivity Aruna Sundarajan, Chairman and MD, Bharat Broadband Network, highlights that the broadband is most economical means of communication as it can carry higher bandwidth applications. “Our government is doing its best to make and give the rural India the best of digital technology.We will ensure high-speed broadband connectivity to all the gram panchayats. This is to be achieved by utilising the existing optical fibre network of public sector companies and extending it to village panchayats,” says Sundarajan.

She adds, “It is expected that by December 2015 NOFN will complete 50,000 gram panchayats but further rollout of gram panchayats will depend on high level committee’s report. The committee will look into NOFN project and its utility by all stakeholders be it telcos, ISPs, cable TV operators, Wi-Fi operators, mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs) and others so that voice and data connectivity can reach rural consumers.”

A relief…

Many remote/rural areas have seen transformation and development in the region. Accepting the idea of ‘digital transformation’ in the nation a large number of citizens have acquired Digital Literacy, children in formal education in schools and colleges acquire IT skills, impart it on a large scale, provide entrepreneurial skills through ‘start-up warehouses’ and provide incentives to attract IT industry.
To make digital India sound aloud people have accepted the change. Many states in past few months have been issued Aadhar cards.“This gives digital identity to the people. A huge achievement,” says Ashwin Kumar an IT profession and a member of Digital India project.

Like Kumar many other IT professionals dream of having a software technology parks where more start-ups could come up. “We are working on creating potential opportunities for entrepreneurs at every inch of land in the state,” adds Ashwin.

If she can, we too can….

In education, broadband technology can have a huge impact. Educators face a number of challenges, including teacher shortages, limited access in rural areas and gender disparity. Nearly 500 million women are illiterate, accounting for almost two-thirds of the world’s illiterate adults, according to the UNESCO global education report.

A young 22-year-old made a difference to a very small village near to Rampur town, UP. Tulika Ray, a young entrepreneur, stands out to be a huge inspiration. She started a school in her village which is digitally equipped. Digital classroom, libraries, smart classes and what not.

“My students here don’t run away from studies neither they come for free meal, they come to learn and become a responsible citizen,” says Ray.

In her school nearly 200 students have been enrolled through online admission. “Students from nearby villages got admission through ‘online registration’. It’s a huge achievement for a village like ours,” she adds.

Not only the schools but even the farmers and businessmen of the village find their lives to have become more comfortable and easier. “We can get our farm production issues solutions within the click, the broadband connectivity has given new lives in our village,” says Hemant D, a farmer.

Healthcare is another field where powerful Internet connections can combat physician shortages and close the urban-rural gap. This has been very much proved by a seva kendra in Phulbani district in Orissa. The two-room hospital has turned out to be a tremendous help and support of the acute rural belts. They have started the online telemedicine diagnostic curing and giving accurately medical aid in lesser time.

“There has always been a problem of medical aid in the rural areas especially in our region. The online portability aid actually has resolved many issues related to the administrative condition of the hospitals,” says Dr Debarata Mohapatra, physician in Phulbani district, Odisha.

Last mile connectivity

Rural banking, para-banking, micro financing or Jan Dhan Yojana has laid their hand forward to make the broadband connectivity strong in the rural belts. The time and cost of the project will be primarily dependent on the technology chosen for providing the broadband connectivity. Among the various options, or technology, available to us namely, digital subscriber lines (DSL), cable modem, optical fibre cable (OFC) and wireless – the broadband connectivity is being currently implemented through the optical fibre network, including the last-mile connectivity.

When the decision on the technology was taken five-six years back, optical fibre technology was certainly the best solution.

Yet, many challenges have been outlined which include the physical work thereafter in the digging-to-filling process involves both physical labour as well as heavy machinery work – mobilising these resources requires careful planning and efficient utilisation.

“I strongly suggest boots should be installed in every house or area which might prevent the delay in any stage that has ripple effect on subsequent stages, sometimes derailing the downstream plans considerably, leading to time and cost overruns,” advises Ankit Agarwal, Global Head – Telecom, Sterlite Technologies.

The project has already started to witness the impact with several revisions of costs and time schedules. Starting from the initial cost of around Rs 12,000 crores, the project budget has already been revised to Rs 28,000 crores. The time estimates have also been extended with hardly much progress made on the project since its launch around five years back, and the milestones being shifted perennially with the project with the final delivery timeline (covering 100 percent rural population) extended to 2018.  

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