June 2007

Telecom infrastructure for the new age

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Lately, the telecommunications infrastructure in India has grown by leaps and bounds.  Teledensity has risen dramatically, as has its reputation as an IT super-power. Yet, there are many worrying gaps: the digital divide is widening.

Widening gaps

The North-South gap in telecommunications is still growing in India. While all are delighted to finally have 'broadband' DSL providing a megabit connection at a reasonable price,  still many are laying copper cables in the ground, when the developed world is well on its way to providing gigabit connections on optic fibre. The gender gap is growing too: typically, only when the family can afford more than one mobile phone,does the woman get one. Rural areas are, of course, far worse served than urban.

The disabled often struggle to find access to computing and the range of functions a modern telephone provides as well. Given the spectacular growth of telecom in recent years, it is tempting to assume that the phone companies will come around to addressing these problems soon. On personal opinion, that would be a grievous error, for two reasons: not only are they intrinsically handicapped in dealing with these problems, we no longer need giant telecommunications multinationals to solve them.

The phone company spends an inordinate amount of effort in keeping account of one's call, from where to where, at what time, for how  long, on which plan. Using this information, they courier  a complicated bill, then need to deploy plenty of staff to dispute small sums with one  for months. When bandwidth indeed was very expensive, it may have made sense to treat it like such a precious resource. Bandwidth costs have, of course, plummeted, with the growing capacity of optic fiber. Of each rupee you pay to the phone company, the cost of the call is only a few paise. The rest is for the movie stars that seduce you into buying the phone, and, of course, for the complex billing.

Alternate means

It is possible to provide far cheaper connectivity, as indeed the same companies do, when they give you an Internet connection, where sending a megabyte only costs about a rupee. A typical SMS costs roughly the same, which means that per byte, assuming a message of 20 characters, its cost is 50,000 times higher! The Internet is a very difficult phenomenon for the telecom industry  to deal with. On the one hand, it is good business: bandwidth consumption has been growing at something like 500 percent per annum. But the Internet has hardly been deferential to its host.

The technological direction of the telecom industry was decided by the ITU, where all the governments and major telecom companies are represented. Technology grew at the rate at which lawyers negotiated there. This gave the industry plenty of time to recoup development costs. For instance, a GSM phone is basically a 9600 bit per second modem. Even in the early nineties, that would have been considered slow, on the Internet. Today it is hopelessly out
of date.

The Internet did not wait for the ITU to make standards. Its TCP-IP, the standard that allows a global network of computers to talk to each other, was functioning extremely reliably, when the ITU chose to ignore it and mandated X.25. e-Mail was working fine on the Internet too at the time, but the ITU preferred to make its own X.400 standard.

Even with the backing of all the governments of the world, these quickly sank without a trace. In India, for instance, the government introduced services based on these ITU standards, and even mandated them for the private sector, when the area was opened up. All such services quickly sank. Why didn't the telecom industry simply adopt Internet technology, instead of trying to reinvent the wheel? Because the Internet is de-central, while the industry wanted to route all communication through central exchanges, so that each bit could be accounted and billed. That insistence may well prove to be a fatal flaw.

Dotcom boom

During the dotcom boom, the telecom industry invested vast sums in dubious Internet startups, and got almost nothing in return. Then, via the World Summit for the Information Society (WSIS), the ITU attempted to take charge of Internet governance, as futile an attempt. The future, which belongs to rural communications, does not look any different for the telecom industry.

The WiFi standard was established by the computer industry to get rid of cables for computer networking over short distances. It was not designed to be a telecommunications facility. However, hackers had other ideas. Replacing the poor inbuilt antennas of off-the-shelf WiFi equipment with better ones, they found they could reliably communicate megabits a second over tens of kilometres. Since WiFi gear talked TCP-IP, all the existing Internet software could be used on these networks.

For communities around the world that were not willing to wait for the phone company to bring broadband to them, WiFi taking you  to the nearest optic fibre was a faster, cheaper alternative.The telecom industry is trying to bring in WiMax as a means of providing wireless broadband connectivity over large distances. But it still retains the centralised model.

In any case, it will take a few years before equipment from different vendors will be able to reliably talk to each other, as was the case with WiFi as well. The quantities in which WiMax equipment will be manufactured are orders of magnitude  smaller than those of WiFi, reflecting in price.


A new threat looms for the telecom industry. The one area in which it has made a lot of money recently, is mobile handsets. These have become ever smarter, more versatile and compact. Old timers are  reminded of the early days of personal computers, but there is one crucial difference this time: the telecom companies rigidly control the design of these phones, and even what software is allowed to run on them. However, this bastion may soon be stormed as well.

GNU Radio takes advantage of progress in integrated circuit design,for instance the field -programmable gate array (FPGA). In this device, one can, in effect, change the internal wiring of the circuit. The big advantage of this technology is its versatility, in that it allows one to rapidly change what the device does, and to improve designs.

Bugs are far less costly. The same device, with different software, could communicate via WiFi or Bluetooth. It could even morph into a GPS receiver to help one navigate, or an RFID reader to help  manage inventory. The GNU Radio software, as the name suggests, is shared as free and open source, unlike that developed by the likes of Nokia and Motorola, where such effort is expensively duplicated.

Synopsis and solutions

The PC revolution came out of the garages of geeks, made possible when computers became affordable. GNU Radio similarly opens up the world of wireless communications technology to ordinary people. The implications for rural areas in developing countries are immense. Imagine a device in the village, which recognises one's GSM or CDMA phone, or even one's Bluetooth headset, downloads appropriate software into the FPGA, ands lets to make the calls, free of cost, through the Internet.

That same device could be the community radio or TV transmitter, ham radio, and myriad other products rolled into one



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