Gram Marg Solution for sustainable rural connectivity in India

About Solution

Internet connectivity is still a distant dream for almost sixty percent of rural India which is unconnected. It is challenging to connect rural India due to a variety of reasons such as unavailability of cost-effective technology solutions, robust deployments, arduous terrain conditions, unavailability of backhaul/tower infrastructure and sustainable business models. Hence there is a need for not only technology innovation but also a need to develop innovative solutions for end to end sustainable rural connectivity.

Gram Marg (www.grammarg.in), a rural broadband initiative in the Department of Electrical Engineering located at IIT Bombay, has been working in the area of enabling broadband connectivity to the remote, unserved rural areas in India since 2012. Gram marg works both of technology innovation to connect the unconnected but also studies how connectivity is being used and utilized by the people whom we connect. Gram Marg's vision is to enable rural India digitally. Gram Marg literally means the 'village road map - a road map to rural connectivity'.

our work in the domain of rural connectivity began with the quantitative assessment of TV White Spaces (TVWS) in India which has shown that almost 100 MHz of the TV spectrum is underutilized.  Since TVWS has excellent Non-Line of Sight propagation characteristics and is highly underutilized in India, this spectrum can be harnessed for rural connectivity. Therefore, we have tested the feasibility of connecting 7 villages using TVWS. As the TVWS devices are expensive and not readily available, we developed a TVWS device from an off-the-shelf IEEE 802.11 board along with a TV UHF band RF card. Experiments related to signal strength, coverage, throughput, and latency have been successfully conducted. An important finding from this testbed has been that in order to make rural broadband connectivity cost-effective, wireless backhaul network i.e middle mile plays a key role. In the last mile, we have connected the rural users through inexpensive WiFi. We have also conducted impact assessment studies in the testbed which suggested that connectivity was beneficial to the users and they were keen to pay for the bandwidth utilized. We have also implemented the first TV White Space database for India using the Protocol to Access TVWS (PAWS) protocol and released it under the GNU General Public License (GPL) v2.0. Our team has made several contributions to ITU regarding the usage of TVWS. 

Even though TVWS is a promising solution to connect rural areas, it has regulatory challenges for its use and utilization in India. Thus there is a need to study alternative technology options to connect the unconnected. This has been the motivation to test the feasibility of using 5.8 GHz frequency band in the middle mile network connectivity. We have evaluated IEEE 802.11 (5.8 GHz) devices as they are cost-effective and readily available. It is important to note that deploying IEEE 802.11 devices is a challenging task as it requires a strict line of sight (LoS) connectivity. Hence in order to deploy the 802.11 links successfully, there is a reliance on tower height both at the transmitter and the receiver end. In this scenario, we can reuse the already available infrastructure like short heighted towers, government buildings etc, as well as share infrastructure such as solar panels for electricity backup, can make the deployment cost-effective. Thus exploring various technology options allow us to effectively utilize and manage spectrum.

IIT Bombay has collaborated with the Government of India (GOI) to address the issue of Internet connectivity challenges facing rural India. BharatNet is a GOI initiative that aims to deploy fiber optic cable connecting local government offices in the village called Gram Panchayats across all states of India by the year 2019. With no adequate planning tool that can plan large scale fiber and wireless links, there was a felt need to develop such a tool. The task of developing software based planning tool for pan-India has been entrusted to Gram Marg at IIT Bombay. The tool facilitates online and revised planning at any level of aggregation of geographic and administrative boundaries. The tool has also been extended to explore an optimal mix of technologies i.e. to generate fiber route along with wireless and satellite links. As part of the wireless and fiber planning, the outputs generated by the tool are state and district wise wireless links and fiber route length. The output generated by the BharatNet planning tool has been validated on 10 links in random terrain conditions. The web-based graphical user interface (GUI) for the tool is available at Gram marg website (www.grammarg.in).

Gram marg has also delved deep into how effective deployments can be done by setting up 25 village middle mile testbed based solely on 5.8 GHz WiFi technology. In this project, we have collaborated with Tata Trusts and CSC (Common Service Center) E-Governance India Pvt Ltd to ensure that connectivity is being used by schools and government offices. In this testbed, we have adopted various network topologies to enable the middle mile connectivity in these villages. Depending on the infrastructure and bandwidth availability, distances to be covered for the village connectivity, we have experimented with network topologies like point to point and point to multi-point. Various other challenges like intermittent power supply, device security, and maintenance, sustainability of the connectivity have been addressed in this testbed. To overcome these challenges, we have employed solutions like the use of solar power and battery backup, seeding the growth of community networks and developing a sustainable business model respectively.

Gram Marg at IIT Bombay has also been committed to addressing the issue of sustainability of rural connectivity infrastructure. In this regard, Gram marg has developed a sustainable business model (4-P model) based on a multi-stakeholder partnership, i.e a partnership between the Public, Private and Panchayat (village council). This partnership model will enable the middle mile connectivity in rural areas. The model follows a bottom-up approach of financing and revenue generation with village council being at the crux of the partnership. To enable the last mile connectivity in rural areas, community involvement and participation is important. There is a need to entrust the network to the community by seeding the growth of community networks. Gram Marg has initiated community networks in 10 among the 25 villages by involving local community participation.

Gram Marg is also working on developing innovative network architecture based on rural requirements as a way ahead for rural connectivity. Such a network will be referred to as the Frugal 5G network. We have submitted a project request to IEEE which has been accepted and a working group, 'Frugal 5G Networks' has been initiated by IEEE. A standards development project P2061, under this working group, aims at designing a low mobility energy efficient network for affordable broadband access to rural areas.

Gram Marg is committed to enabling Internet connectivity to the unconnected, un-served and remote rural areas of India. We look forward to scaling up to many more villages and bridge India's digital divide.


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