S.V. Raghavan

Fibre optic cables may hold the key to a rural revolution. They can create a multi-purpose infrastructure for the villages of India.

WHAT CAN advanced technology do for rural India? Can rural folk be provided the same technology that works in urban areas? Can they afford it and learn to use it? These are common questions. Now let us see whether we can find credible answers and pragmatic solutions that make economic sense.

Two important properties make Information and Communication Technology (ICT) interesting for human welfare and development. These are "annihilation of distance" and "death of time." With ICT one can instantaneously be everywhere. For a village it means the entire world will be at its doorstep. ICT bestows upon humanity the ability to defy distance and time. How can it be used for human development?

Human development is quantified in the annual World Human Development Report of the United Nations as progress in health and education. A healthy nation means more productive labour and an educated nation means more creative labour.

ICT has many facets. The most visible part is the bandwidth used for communication. Modern technology delivers gigabits through a fibre optic medium and several megabits through the wireless medium. A combination of the two technologies along with specialised devices often called routers and switches (equivalent to post offices and beat constables) can enable flow of gigabits of information from one village to another. What does it mean to villages? The villagers can have access to high quality medical help, quality education, and relevant information pertaining to crops, fertilizers, entertainment, and access to the Internet as is enjoyed by their urban counterparts.

Cooperative effort

How can we make this happen? This is where Gandhi and his economic thought play a crucial role. The entire exercise has to be seen as a cooperative effort of the people, by the people, and for the people. The Indian administrative system divides the nation into States, districts, blocks, and villages. A typical district has 20 blocks and about 400 villages with a population of 40 lakh. The physical size of a village can be set at about 10 km in diameter. There are four-five hamlets in each village with an average population of 2000 spread across 500 families. The average fibre optic cable length required per village will be about 15 km. Each village will require a few modern telephones, videophone equipment along with active networking components such as routers and switches. Each village will require a standard wireless technology that can transfer at 54 megabits per second in order to reach each hamlet in a concentrated manner.

All these are available commercially off-the-shelf from across the world. No development time is required. The cost would work out to Rs.500 crore a district - which translates to Rs.1,250 per capita investment.

The technology is such that fibre is useful for 20 years. The rest of the technology is useful for five years based on a very conservative estimate. The ratio of investment between 20-year use and five-year use is about 3:2; that is Rs.300 crore for fibre and Rs.200 crore for equipment, including end-user equipment. One can therefore amortise the Rs.300 crore over a 20-year period and Rs.200 crore over a five-year period. The per capita per annum turns out to be Rs.137.50 or a mere 37 paise per person a day. This is an amount that can be handled as a hundi collection using micro transactions in the modern e-commerce world by a progressive bank. It is feasible and makes economic sense. At the end, every Indian village gets a gigabit delivered on fibre.

Fibre technology has something very interesting for economists. The concept of marginal cost deals with increased production with incremental investment, once the basic system is in place. In fibre technology, a mere two per cent incremental investment creates more than 100 per cent production capacity. This is mainly because when the fibre is laid, it has 6/12/24/48 cores inside and only one pair is put to use. The rest can be lit as and when necessary to increase bandwidth or carrying capacity. That is the incremental cost. India has fantastic facilities to produce fibre optic cables in bundles up to 96 cores and beyond.

Besides, they can be packaged for use indoors, outdoors, overhead, underground, under water, under sea, and to operate under very hostile conditions. What we discussed so far creates a fantastic multi-purpose infrastructure for the villages of India.

The natural question that arises is: if it is so simple, why has it not been done so far? The answer is simple. Fibre optic technology research and development requires such a sophisticated and expensive environment, the simplicity of use in the field is easily missed. Perhaps, the fear of "large scale obsolescence of earlier models of infrastructure creation" prevents one from venturing into this extremely powerful yet simple infrastructure. To practise what is said here requires a paradigm shift in thinking - in terms of technology, economics, investment, and welfare measures.

(The writer is Professor of Computer Sciences, IIT-Madras.)