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Capturing the Promises of Tele-Consultations

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Vimal Wakhlu
Chairman and Managing Director,
Telecommunications Consultants India Limited

“Telecommunications Consultants India Limited (TCIL) is in a league of its own. The company has created a large e-Network and is currently engaged in supplying world-class technology in the areas of telecom and information technology,”

Give us a brief overview of TCIL’s role in the ongoing Pan African e-Network Project?
TCIL was formed 35 years back and primarily it was supposed to be operating in international markets. The company takes technology and expertise in the field of telecom and IT to other develop- ing nations. Gradually we entered the Indian market, because we have realised that people can give us work abroad only if we have solid credentials in the home country. Till about 6-7 years back, our main focus was on telecom sector. But with the advent of wireless communication, our focus shifted from wire line to wireless communication and e-network. We were one of the first operators to get license in Rajasthan through a joint venture with Bharti Hexacom. At the same time we were lucky to bag the Pan African e-network project by the Minis- try of External Affairs, Government of India. It is considered to be the biggest project of distance education and tele-medicine ever undertaken in Africa and one of the finest examples of the growing partnership between India and Africa. TCIL has been designated as the turnkey implementing agency. It is providing technological and consultancy services to the Ministry of External Affairs for the project.

What is the objective behind the Pan African e-Network Project?
Started in 2009, the main objective of the project is to assist Africa in capacity building by imparting quality education to 10,000 students in Africa over a five-year period in some of the best Indian educational institutions. Also the objective is to provide tele-medicine services through online medical consultation to patients located in remote corners of Africa by medical experts based in India.

What are the funding sources for the e-network project? Also, how did this project came into being.
Being funded by the Government of India, the `542 crore Pan African e-network Project was conceived by Dr A P J Abdul Kalam. In his address during the Pan-African Parliament session, held in Johannesburg in 2004, Dr Kalam proposed a network that would connect all 53 nations of African Union by a satellite and fibre optic network that would provide effective communication for tele-education, tele-medicine, Internet, video conferencing and VoIP services. Besides distance education and tele-medicine, the project is also equipped to support e-Governance, e-commerce, infotainment, resource mapping and meteorological and other services in the African countries, besides providing VVIP connectivity among the Heads of State of the African countries through a highly secure closed satellite network. The project was inaugurated in 2009 and so far 47 out of 53 countries of the African Union have come under its ambit. It is expected to be implemented in Sudan during this financial year. Some of the countries that haven’t participated so far and are not likely to join soon include South Africa, Angola, Tunisia, Morroco, etc.

Tell us about the tele-education services being provided under the project?
TCIL has established the network with a Data Centre in TCIL Bhawan, New Delhi. This place acts as a gateway to the Hub Station in Dakar for connectivity of Indian institutions on the African side. The tele-education services are being provided by the Indian universities to the participating countries in the educational programmes in various disciplines. These universities and educational institutions have been selected by the Africa  Union. So far more than 6,600 students from\ 31 countries in Africa have been enrolled\ in 18 programmes of five top\ universities in India. These include various disciplines such as MBA, MA in Finance Control, PG diploma courses in IT, MSc in IT and BA in Finance & Investment Analysis and so on. That is a big achievement as initially we had planned to include 10,000 students over a period of five years but in three years itself we have achieved a significant part of our target. Also regular tele-education live sessions are con- ducted from India and students have shown great interest in the courses. This is especially beneficial for working professionals who are undertaking some course as this network offers them flexibility and easy access to educational experts at the same time.

What about post-production facilities?
The Data Centre in Delhi has a web portal (www.panafricanenetwork.com). This portal incorporates e-learning, content management and digital library solutions for each university as an integrated package. Teachers are thus able to interact with selected students. The audio, video and data connectivity offered by the link to university studios enables students to have live interactions. The top five universities in India have studios that are managed by the central Hub while the 53 learning centres in Africa act as virtual classrooms.

What has been the progress regarding tele-medicine services in the project?
At present, the tele-medicine consultations are regularly being conducted from 12 super- speciality hospitals from India to the African countries on need basis. The network offers online medical consultations on the basis of one hour per country per day. This shall continue for 5-year period. Besides, off-line medical consultations are also offered. Moreover, regular Continued Medical Education (CME) sessions have been started with effect from 22nd April, 2009 from Indian super-speciality hospitals. This education is imparted to doctors and nursing staff with the objective to enhance their knowledge and skills. So far 1475 CME sessions have been conducted on this network.

What have been some of the advantages of setting up a medical network?
This project has been quite useful for many countries in the African Union, especially those where medical facilities are part of state welfare. In such countries if somebody falls sick, he is totally on government expenditure.
Suppose, if somebody complains of chest pain and local doctor are not able to diagnose it whether it is due to heart or any other issue, he sent abroad for treatment along with one assistant or a family member. The entire cost is born by the government. In almost 70 percent of such cases it is found that there is no heart problem after reaching the destination, and hence it ends up as waste of money. Now with this network that problem has been addressed. Second advantage of medical network has been for medical tourists. Patients come from Africa and even from developed countries like the USA and the UK to India for medical treatment as it is far cheaper. Patients mostly come for surgeries after which there has to be regular follow-ups with the doctor for which they need to keep re-visiting the country, hence adding to their expenses. Now this network is coming handy because all the leading hospitals of India, such as AIIMS and Apollo, are in the network. So they are able to address most issues with foreign patients through the network itself. Imagine the big relief this has brought to the people of Africa. They are getting world class medical services without having to spend their life savings. Thirdly, this network has also helped in setting benchmarks and achievements in the field of medicine.

The project seems to be growing at a good pace and moving in the right direction. How do you foresee its growth?
Our vision is that after the completion of the project, which is expected to be over by 2014, five regional leading universities and five regional super-speciality hospitals in Africa shall be able to provide tele-education and tele- medicine services in their respective regions in Africa. These regions and institutions shall be selected by the African Union. All the 5 selected Indian Universities and 12 super speciality hospitals are connected to the Data Centre, New Delhi, which further connects to Satellite Hub Earth Station, Senegal, through Submarine Cable Landing Stations.

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