Wi-fi for Eye Care in Rural Tamil Nadu

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With an estimated 15 million visually challenged people, India is home to the largest blind population in the world. The main causes are cataracts, diabetic retinopathy, and glaucoma. Thanks to the new technology used at Aravind Eye Hospital, Theni – thousands of villagers are now able to receive timely eye care.


Modified Wi-Fi Media Access Control (MAC) protocol + directional antennae + routers= signals+6Mbps speed over distance of 40 miles.

Thus emerged the new WiFi  over long distance (WiLD) or the Wildnet


Real time eye exams are conducted at Vision centres with doctors present in Theni; where the direct connection is 150 times faster than the old dial-up modem; and where the operation cost is practically free (as compared to $200 annually in the old system) after installation cost of $1800.

The Wi-Fi System now provides high bandwidth transferring high quality video imaging over long distances.

Developed under the Technology Infrastructure for Emerging Regions (TIER) project, by a research team at the University of California, Berkeley and Intel Corporation in collaboration with Aravind eye hospitals, this technology is low cost and connects over long distances.

The network at Aravind Eye Hospital, Theni allows its specialists to have a video conference of high quality with patients at 9 clinics in remote areas.

It all began in the year 1976, when driven by compassion, Dr. G. Venkataswamy soon after his retirement at the age of 58 years, formed GOVEL Trust and founded the Aravind Eye Hospital.

Named after Sri Aurobindo, Aravind Hospitals carry forward the 30 year crusade to fight needless blinding in Tamil Nadu. They had a financially sustainable model of providing low cost treatment to large numbers. They gradually spread to a network of 5 Hospitals in Madurai, Theni, Tirunelveli, Coimbatore and Pondicherry.


Large population, lack of infrastructure, low per capita income, diseases and illiteracy.

Despite this progress, it was felt that 70% of vulnerable population was in the villages and out of reach. Hence came the concept of Village Vision Centres to provide basic eye care via online video-conferencing. This idea ran into trouble due to lack of Internet Service Providers; low cost service; and fast dial-up speed.

Looking for options

“The information technology revolution holds tremendous potential for addressing problems in developing countries,” said Professor Eric Brewer, UC Berkeley (Computer Science) and Director of the Intel Research Berkeley lab.

Recce began in August 2004 at AEH Theni. The work was initiated through Berkeley’s Technology and Infrastructure for Emerging Regions (TIER) project. TIER is sponsored by UC Berkeley’s Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society (CITRIS.)

Wimax technology for long distance communication, although a ready option could not be used  due to its high cost.

The other option was Wi-Fi or the 802.11 networking standard, defined by a set of international standards limiting its range to 200 feet.


The Engineers at Berkely tried to adopt Wi-Fi for long distance by adding Antennae. This entailed having a point to point wireless connection, like microwave links, as radio signals need a particular direction.

With collaborative efforts by University of Berkeley, Intel and the Hospital, Wi-Fi over Long Distance (WiLD), was developed. The system was installed in a vision center in the village of Ambasamudram, about seven miles from the Aravind hospital in Theni. It was up and running by 2006. At present the Aravind Eye Hospital at Theni is connected with many outlying clinics in Tamil Nadu. They may be as far as 5 or 15 fifteen kilometers with stations placed in line of sight.

According to Dr Namperumalsamy, Chairman Aravind Eye Care System, more people can be served at an  affordable cost.

Currently the nine Vision Centres linked to Theni serve more than 50,000 people. Each centre is managed by 3 paramedical technicians. Around 2,500 patients interact with doctors via video conference, every month. In cases where a closer exam or surgery is required, the patients are given hospital appointments.

The Hospital is expected to double its remote patient volume in the next 12 months and add 20 more clinics to the network by the middle of 2008. Very soon a million people in the state of Tamil Nadu will have access to low-cost eye care.

The Wi-Fi link up and expansion of network has already started showing effects. A study by the Aravind Eye Care System shows that 85% of the male patients and 58% of female patients got back their jobs after treatment. This may as well be termed ‘A positive impact on the health of the Indian Economy’.

This is may be a cost effective way for communities to get conn-ected the world over, when a high-speed networking is found within 50 miles. Apart from the initial cost, there is little running cost as very little power is required to run the system, which incidentally can even run on solar.

The Research was funded by National Science Foundation.  Marratech AB donated the video-conference application.

Small Wildnets have also been built in Ghana and the Philippines for promoting rural Internet.

Wildnet complements already existing technologies like WiMax, cellular broad-band, satellite, or Wi-Fi.

Resource Acknowledgments

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