India Unplugged

Published Date
01 - Jun - 2007
| Last Updated
01 - Jun - 2007
 
India Unplugged
Some of us don't read the newspapers, and for such folks, here's breaking news: our telecom and IT minister Dayanidhi Maran recently said free broadband in India could happen in just two years' time. This year (2007) happens to have been declared the year of broadband (when and by whom we don't know), so this is an apt time for the announcement.

So who's going to fund this? Well, there happens to be something called the Universal Service Obligation Fund (USOF), to which all telecom operators contribute 5 per cent of their revenues every year. The government plans to use what's unused in that bank of money. In addition, traffic within the country will be routed within the country, courtesy the National Internet eXchange of India (www.nixi.in).

Then came the news about a week later of license fees for ISPs going up, and Internet Service Providers Association of India President, Rajesh Chharia has said that the licence fees will affect the end-user, that the cost of broadband services will increase by 6 to 24 per cent.

That, then, is the future of broadband in India: announcement will follow announcement, and soon, we'll see novel ways and means of getting around the problem. Want broadband penetration to increase? Call 56 Kbps broadband. So, soon, we'll all have broadband connections.

In lands where announcements aren't taken very seriously, and things just get done without all the fun fanfare and partying, the future lies in FTTH (Fibre To The Home), as underlined by Hartwig Tauber, president of the FTTH Council Europe. All fibre deployments will migrate towards and eventually arrive at FTTH. "It is the end-game reference technology for broadband, owing to its near unlimited capacity and non-degrading reliability…" FTTH? Believe it! Recall that when talking about VDSL (Very high-bandwidth DSL) in a past issue of Digit, we interviewed Jagbir Singh, then group CTO, Infotel, Bharti Tele-Ventures Ltd. He said Fibre To The Home (FTTH) holds the most potential as the technology for broadband services. Which means we'll probably jump straight to it, bypassing ADSL2, ADSL2 , and all those other, slow technologies. (FTTH means no copper anywhere, and fibre all the way.) A fully-fibre-connected India by, oh, 2012? It's only the minor matter of an announcement.

Non-Scandinavian Europe wants Sweden-type connections. Now, in these countries, we see a strange convention: broadband definitions, instead of starting with a "K", start with "M" and "G". Something has been lost in translation: in music, the Germans use "H" for "B", for example. All those foreign-language speakers are a confused lot.

Why do we need more bandwidth than we already have? HD streaming, for one. All it needs is some reshuffling of definitions: "HD" can stand for "Hard to Define." So soon, we'll have HD content streamed over our 28.8 Kbps pipes-it'll be grainy, so you won't be able to define it.

"Economic development" is often cited as the reason for the need for broadband, like Mr Maran did regarding free broadband in India. Now, since India is a developing country, just add 2 and 2, and you'll realise what he means: that we're developing broadband. Soon, we'll see 14.4 Kbps connections fuelling our economic growth.

Continuing on the everything-on-the-Internet theme of another section in this issue, an interesting insight comes from Tauber: "Future bandwidth demand will be driven by more specialised, personalised content. Multi-channel TV has offered a glimpse of this… This specialisation also drives users' aspirations to interact with, or even create, content. The natural evolution of TV-type services in the ultrahigh-speed broadband world will eventually see subscribers managing and developing their own content, with all users able to distribute high-quality video."

It's easy to see how misguided Mr Tauber is: what will happen is that home-made pornography will proliferate! Immoral Westerners corrupting our culture! No Internet scandals please, we're Indian! Keep your M and G away-we're content with our 2.2 Kbps connections!

If you think we're kidding about broadband definitions, allow us to inform you that this writer once had a conversation with customer service-when the Net connection seemed a bit iffy-at a leading Indian ISP, which calls Family Packs "up to 256 Kbps" broadband: "My download speeds are low. It doesn't cross 130 Kbps. Is that broadband, for God's sake?" "Yes." "But sometimes it comes to 50 Kbps! Is that broadband?" "Yes." "Are you saying anything is broadband?" "Sir, I wish to inform you that…" Slam.

Let's cut to the chase. Call 0.0 Kbps broadband, make an announcement, and one large, happy family we'll be of wireless broadband customers. (Just unplug the wire)

Rags And Riches

Is there, now, a real definition for "Digital Divide"?


So here's the boring, sad part, about the haves and the have-nots, about those in need, those you don't care about… but wait; we can make it more interesting than that. Let's look at what "The Digital Divide" means, leaving ourselves open to fair interpretation.

Here's a definition from an Australian governmental Web site: it is "the lack of access to information and communications technologies by segments of the community. The digital divide is a generic term used to describe this lack of access due to linguistic, economic, educational, social and geographic reasons."

 
Someone else cuts to the point: the Digital Divide is "a common euphemism that describes the haves and have-nots of the information age, usually urban versus rural communities."

The Divide itself knows no barriers. From the Web site of San Diego State University: "You don't have to look far from SDSU, where everything from dorms to dining halls have high-speed Web access, to see the proximity and depth of the Digital Divide. In nearby City Heights, barely two miles from campus, only 20 per cent of residents are connected to the Internet."

So as not to overdo definitions, let's actually ask: does something we can call the Divide exist? We're supposed to be on the good side of it, those creating and reading this magazine. But install certain P2P clients and they'll ask you to select your speed: "Slow (below 1 Mbps) or Fast (above 1 Mbps)." There it hits you in the face: you're not that well off after all.

Apart from the fact that there are tons of organisations trying to bridge the Divide in rural America (yes, there is such a thing), there's also the fact that net-happier in that country weep bitter tears looking at Swedish and Korean Net speeds.

We're pushing at the point of gradation. We're saying there's no strict this-side-and-that-side. It's all around us-like poverty, and all those things like envy and philanthropy that poverty touches at. Some are richer, some are poorer, but there is a sweet spot somewhere, which we can define thus: if Information and Communication Technology has not touched someone's life sufficiently-the way it has touched us and insofar as we are the better for it-that someone is on the other side of the Divide.

Adopting the poverty metaphor, the Divide is like poverty in some ways, and is not in some other ways. How is it like poverty? Well, for one, philanthropists and NGOs are called upon to bridge it. Governments are urged to work in that direction. Also think local agencies and governments, public/private partnerships, and worldwide initiatives (like Microsoft's recent $3 software-for-students). Then, people on the happy side just don't care enough. Fourth, there's the direct connection with poverty: some people still cannot afford a cell phone. And then, money cannot be blindly thrown at the problem-which happens not to be well-defined in the first place-you can't donate Rs 100 to "bridge the Digital Divide in India," at any Web site.

Amongst the departures from the poverty metaphor: there's no vicious cycle, as in poor-beget-poor-who'll-remain-poor. Second, in the spirit of the network itself, connectivity can spread once the push is given. Third, education can come to the rescue actively and quickly: teach them about the benefits of ICT and they'll do the rest themselves.

About a billion are connected to the Net, and the other 5.5 billion aren't. So we head to nextbillion.net, and find this:

"Give a man a fish and feed him for a day. Sell him a cellular phone and give him the ability to sustain long-term income by efficiently marketing his fish at the highest price in the location where they are in greatest demand, simultaneously saving resources by ensuring no fish markets get oversaturated."

This is literal: in a real-world case study, when cell phones came to some Kerala fishermen, they were "able to call associates while at sea to determine which market they should head to, bringing local consumer prices for fish to a lower equilibrium over time… and bringing waste down to virtually zero."

Those fishermen don't need a desktop with a 2 Mbps connection. For them, those cell phones have done it, and they shouldn't be counted amongst the have-nots any more. This is what we're talking about-the need is to ICT-enable each person to the extent that he is sufficiently benefited. Seen this way, the Divide doesn't exist in the manner it's been defined.

Such steps are being taken as you're reading this, in places as diverse as rural America and urban Nigeria. The good thing is, "wiredness" spreads quickly: you wire up one village, and ten others see how nice it is to be wired. That's quite the future: local initiatives like the above, and global ones like the OLPC (one laptop per child) programme, working towards universal connectivity that can only be asymptotically approached.

No, is that quite it? We'll contradict ourselves just that wee bit: Africans accounted for 1 per cent of the Internet population in 2001. Looking at trends-such as Chinese folks getting online more and more-Africans will probably account for, oh, 3 per cent in 2010. And worse, if in 2010 you're talking about real broadband access, Africans will still account for 1 per cent of world broadband connections. The status quo will be maintained-at least for a good while to come.

In the end, it is indeed like money. Some will have, some will not. Some will boast, some will envy. Some will bask, some will hanker.

Tongue-Tied

How long before all the world communicates like there were just one language?

Man proposed, and God didn't like it: ever since the Tower of Babel, we've been divided by language. Naturally, in the infinitely clichéd "information age," we throw technology at the problem. Computers (notably those of the Google persuasion) have developed machine translation (MT) capabilities, and before you can say a "Hola!", you hear a "Hello." MT has been around much longer than you might think; it's gotten a bit better with time, but note the "bit." Primitive translators would try the word-by-word approach, which didn't go down too well with most people; we now have MT systems that look at grammar and context. Formerly only valued by officious UN officials, the average online person-there's one for five who aren't online-has come to expect Google's "translate this page" link to just work. As you know, it doesn't-at least, not too well.

Who waits any more in these days of instant tech? Online translators' MT engines are expected to do their job on-the-fly, and that they do. (Your mileage will vary.) There's now a WordPress translator plugin you can embed in your Web page to, well, translate. Find out more at http://tinyurl.com/26pf2a. "WordPress Translator Plugin of The Future: Translation in 32 languages," it says. Looks to us like an ambitious project-we'll track it. Already extant are mobile applications such as Mobile Translator (EC Edition)-a Symbian application that translates a set number of phrases, and Pocket PROMT 5.0 for Pocket PC and Windows Mobile 5.0. This one costs just $60, so it can't be too good, we think…

The future as we see it now-with imperfect use of imperfect tools-is of blogs and sites having "language-select" bars embedded; these could become ubiquitous. Take a look at http://tinyurl.com/23afr3. It features Applied Language Solutions' translation solution: a translation bar for your Web site.

 
Translation accuracy depends on the number of words and phrases in the dictionary. Google (yet again!) has a vast quantity of translated information they've collated for analysis, and the dictionary is being added to every day. Again, we'd hedge our bets on Google for coming up with something that'll help us make sense of all those Chinese pages. Think of all the information people on beyond the language divide are missing out on!

Speech-to-speech on-the-fly translation is, naturally, the holy grail. IBM has a project called MASTOR, for bi-directional English to Mandarin speech-to-speech. "The tight coupling of speech recognition and understanding effectively mitigates the effects of speech recognition errors and non-grammatical inputs…", they claim.

Then there's the International Center for Advanced Communication Technologies (interACT). InterACT director Alex Waibel demonstrated in 2006 "domain-independent, speech-to-speech translation in a lecture, which was simultaneously translated from English to Spanish to German." Quoting Waibel: "In the future, such transducers could be implanted, enabling a speaker to produce any language at will." We therefore think it wouldn't be far-fetched to expect such systems on phones-when it's perfected, that is. (Read: "a long time into the future").

Integrated Wave Technologies has developed a handheld device for US Marines in Iraq, into which a soldier can speak in English-and the device translates it into Iraqi speech in addition to 15 other languages. This one, too, is bi-directional.

It's important to note that translation is a difficult proposition. Like we've mentioned in a different space in this issue, we need better neural networks for better AI, and where is better AI to come from? The NLP (Natural Language Processing) problem is hard. It could well be that as applications develop, we might learn to live with their idiosyncrasies. On the Web, people might change their own usage of language-reducing the use of idioms, for example.

We don't see anything like a universal Web language emerging-something like Esperanto. We'll also tell you that, insofar as we're looking into the future, there's not going to be a breakthrough soon. But the language toolbars will be there, for sure, as we see it-and they'll get better and better, slowly, little steps at a time. It's going to be quite a wait, but it'll be worth it.

We Want Wire-free

What will deliver?


Sometimes, it just happens that staying behind the technology of the times allows one to skip intermediate technologies and move on to newer ones-at least, that seems to be the case with India. On the cellular communication front, India has not yet moved to 3G from its current 2.5G, and will probably skip it altogether to embrace the emerging 4G. This is seen to be more feasible and 1.5 times more cost-effective, according to Motorola CTO Padmasree Warrior. Though no plans have been announced thus far, we can expect this to happen within the next four years.

The Wireless World Research Forum defines 4G as an Internet technology that combines technologies such as Wi-Fi and WiMAX to enable the lowest-cost wireless network possible. This fourth generation mobile communication protocol aims at delivering wireless broadband access, Multimedia Messaging Service, video chat, mobile TV, high-definition TV content, and DVB (the Digital Video Broadcast standard), in addition to the usual voice services on mobile phones.

Meanwhile, 3G doesn't seem to be as dead as it's been made out to be. Universal Mobile Telecommunications System (UMTS) is a 3G technology that combines 3G and Wi-Fi: it is a high-bandwidth technology that enables CDMA mobile users to experience applications such as videoconferencing, live TV, and Internet connectivity at theoretical speeds of up to 14 Mbps. Practical speeds are found to be up to 3.6 Mbps on compatible handsets, though. Our government is evaluating the process of spectrum allocation for this service, and commercial launch is expected in 2008. This will usher in the era of video phones-read: video chat over your phone. Interesting enough?

 

4G will use a technology called Ultra Mobile Broadband (UMB), which will use larger bandwidth (greater than that offered by 3G) to deliver a host of Internet and high-bandwidth applications in addition to delivering higher-quality voice services. UMB will help eliminate the disadvantages of CDMA: it will support different and mixed cell sizes (thus allowing more flexibility to operators, who will now be able to create cells according to the number of mobile subscribers) and variable bandwidth sizes that will eliminate the limits of the total bandwidth available to handsets.

In the Internet segment, WiMAX (the 802.16 wireless standard) could well be the next big thing on the wireless communications scene. It offers a considerably longer range compared to Wi-Fi, and is suitable for wireless broadband. The advantages over traditional wired connections are clear-no wired infrastructure required, low cost of maintenance, and low downtimes-though the initial investment is steeper than that of wired networks. WiMAX will have a wider reach and is well-suited to cover semi-urban and rural India.

WiMAX has had its problems in this country, because the globally-used band of 2.5 GHz-2.7 GHz for WiMAX has been pre-allocated to satellite-based mobile and broadcast transmissions for when national emergencies and natural disasters happen. The government has therefore allocated the remaining bands of 2.3-2.4 GHz to ISPs, and they have to tune their 2.5 GHz certified equipment to this lower bandwidth. This means loss of efficiency. The government has been reluctant to give the higher bands to the ISPs, as these are in use for military purposes. The current government, however, has acted favourably, and slowly but surely, India's highly-regulated wireless spectrum will be opened up.

Intel has spearheaded the "Unwire Pune" programme, which will utilise WiMAX and Wi-Fi to provide high-speed wireless Internet on laptops and PDAs. The chip giant has taken the responsibility of deploying the infrastructure, project management, and the economic management of the entire project, which is still in the pilot phase. The rest of the country might well follow suit-as it was in the case of cable internet-and WiMAX could well become the de facto broadband protocol in India.

Motorola has put forth the concept of Seamless Mobility. This will help extend your connectivity through a host of standards such as Wi-Fi, WiMAX, wireless broadband, and more. One may be attending a video-teleconference at the local WLAN at office, and then move to the traditional cellular environment while driving home-and switch to the fixed network at his home; this will happen seamlessly without any intervention on one's part and without a break in the connection. A prototype has already been demonstrated, but what's required is co-operation between the different agencies such as ISPs and cellular companies, not to mention clearance from the government.

Motorola has already made corporate commitments worldwide and invests a whopping $3.1 billion annually in this project. No timeframe has been defined for Seamless Mobility, but we're hoping it will happen sooner than later.

So we've told you about what's to come, but you knew it all along-better connectivity, higher speeds, and what-not! What else can possibly happen?




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