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Information is power! However, creating an equitable society is one of the core challenges in India. Indians constitute about 17% of the world’s population, yet about 35% of the world’s poor and 40% of the illiterates in the world. When 70% of India’s population is residing in villages, the agenda of achieving inclusive growth cannot be fulfilled unless access to information, media and communication infrastructure and resources are channelled in proper manner.

On the other hand, there are existing provisions like free spectrum allocations as provided by the government that are not being utilised to provision information and media infrastructure, reaching out to unreached communities. Globally, and in India, frequency bands in 2.4 Ghz, 5.8 Ghz and 3.3 Ghz have been kept aside as free spectrum that can be used by anyone without taking a license or paying a fee to the government.

Unlicensed spectrum offers other advantages compared with licensed air waves. Therefore, it is essential that specific programmes are adopted on both advocacy and ground implementation levels to address the wider issue of network and access infrastructure and media access to deprived communities.

Using the context of unlicensed spectrum, Delhi-based, non-profit-organization Digital Empowerment Foundation, a member of Association for Progressive Communications (APC), implemented Wireless for Communities (W4C) to create community-wide wireless communication networks in rural India. The case study analyses how unlicensed spectrum has been utilized to provide internet connectivity in the remotest regions of the country and empowered community members who have been deprived of accessing information.

Wireless for Communities (W4C) Programme: Connecting remotest communities of India through unlicensed wireless spectrum

In developing countries, the wireless connectivity has been emerged as one of the inexpensive technologies to bridge the connectivity gap in remote areas. These wireless technologies have created much interest on the part of the international-development community.

For example, in India, even with mobile penetration, the teledensity in rural areas is still less than 40 percent, and internet connectivity is a far cry. The reason has mostly been the issues around last mile connectivity. On the other hand, last mile wireless connectivity has the potential to resolve the issue of prohibitive cost of deploying conventional wired infrastructure in remotest areas of the country.

With an objective to address the issues of internet accessibility and connect remote and under-served regions of the country, in late 2010, Digital Empowerment Foundation (DEF) and Internet Society (ISOC) initiated a joint called “Wireless for Communities” (W4C) which utilizes low-cost Wi-Fi based equipment and unlicensed spectrum (free spectrum) to connect and empower rural and under-served communities. The motivation behind ideating for the project is twofold – firstly to democratize the availability of connectivity and enable internet accessibility to information in rural parts of the country, secondly to address the issue of lack of content product and services originating from rural areas which affects the economy from percolating to the bottom of the pyramid.

The project includes two factors – providing Training of Trainer (ToT) programme to community members on wireless technology and wireless mesh technology and deploying wireless mesh network in cluster-based environment to understand and observe the benefits and impact of the project over a period of time.

The first pilot project was launched in late 2011 in Chanderi cluster, highly populated with marginalized handloom weavers, located in Madhya Pradesh experimenting on the following key factors:

  • Addressing the issue of last mile connectivity;

  • Democratizing the availability of connectivity and enable internet accessibility and information decentralization;

  • Addressing the issue of content and services gap that obstructs local economy and pulls back social indicators; to address wireless technology skill gaps;

  • Initiating a dialogue and deliberation between stakeholders including public and private parties on the impact, need, scope, viability and sustainability of wireless deployment for community empowerment and meeting needs of under-served regions;

  • Initiating advocacy with the relevant public and private partners to propagate and adopt wireless technology as an unconventional solution to connect rural remote areas and communities with broadband connectivity and services on it.

Keeping Chanderi Weavers Information Resource Centre (CWIRC) as its base centre, the network, covering in a range of 35 km, connected 13 schools, including one girls’ school, two Madrasas (Islamic education centres) and 40 Panchayats (village councils), 1 PHC (Public health centre), 1 Hotel, 1 Digital Panchayat, 1 cyber café and 1 community radio station.
The project has all key elements in such as network deployment, internet access, developing capacity of local human resource in wireless skills and empowers community with content and service.

The impact of the project motivated partner stakeholders to replicate this model in the second phase of the project in other cluster-based communities of the country. With a mission to built holistic framework for tribal communities, Baran, carved out of Kota city, was identified to implement the programme in the second phase of the project. The district has 1235 villages represented by 214 Village Panchayats (Village Councils).

The reason behind selecting Baran district was twofold – the region is highly populated with Sahariyas tribe and a group highly vulnerable to exploitation and DEF has already established its Community Information Resource Centre (CIRC) four years ago Bhanwargarh, within the campus of Sankalp Samaj Seva Sanstha. With a support from local partner, Sankalp Foundation, DEF firstly implemented the wireless mesh network at CIRC, keeping it as base of the network. Through this wireless network, DEF connected 7 night school-cum-libraries and 8 cluster centres (each cluster centre covers 8-10 villages), covering 202 villages of the district.

In the last one year, DEF has also introduced wireless-based internet connectivity using unlicensed spectrum (free spectrum) for the CIRCs and other activity centers of Sankalp and its allied NGOs and SHG groups. So far, through this programme, Sankalp has connected its 10 CIRC centres. Some of these centers are 30-40 kilometer away from each other, however, now they are linked with wireless based connectivity and broadband enabled community members to use video conferencing tools for education, health, and organizational coordination and training programs.

Through these initiatives and campaigns, Sankalp has marked its presence in 95 villages of the district. The project also enabled Sahariya tribal community members, who were bonded-laborers earlier, are now able to understand the importance of education in their lives. Since its inception, following the footsteps of traditional education system, now Sankalp’s centres are using facilities of e-literacy and virtual library and talking to students of other centres without even stepping out of their village. Using these facilities, Sankalp foundation has mapped the number of dropouts in the village and motivating them to join the schools.

Another benefit within the region is availability of telemedicine service at local public health centre (PHC). The project has provided seamless internet connectivity that has enabled PHC to provide telemedicine services within the centre and also receiving expert advice from doctors through Skype-based calls.

The impact is overwhelming; stakeholders is not only connecting remotest regions such as Tura (Meghalaya), Guna & Shivpuri (Madhya Pradesh); Giridh (Bihar) and other regions of the country but also attracted the attention of stakeholders, including policy advocates, government and private players to adopt the wireless technology as an alternative solution towards connectivity and access.