Watch it Unfold – Deploying Last Mile Connectivity at Adharshila!

More than a billion people do not have access to cellular networks, three billion people live without phones and five billion people do without internet access – TechCrunch

Adharshila school is located in district Sheopur, in the state Madhya Pradesh in India, approximately 180km from Gwalior city. Without internet access people in Adharshila are cut off from anything that does not occur in their village. Additionally weak internet connectivity is a significant barrier to introducing higher quality of education in remote villages in India. Solving the connectivity issue will provide opportunities for asynchronous learning, easy accessibility to information, and higher education quality at an affordable cost.

After a year and half of unsuccessfully chasing Reliance, Sify, Airtel and other major telecoms in India, to provide last mile connectivity to remote villages, a local company, Texes Telecom, came through for us like a knight in shining armor! Texes Telecom is a provider of telecom and infrastructure services in India and a registered vendor of Reliance Communications. They have accomplished in less than a month what other major telecoms have failed to deliver in a year!

Week 1 – A 24 meter RF tower is erected near Adharshila school in the village of Agraa. The tower will receive signal from the Reliance tower at Umri Kalan. 

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Week 2 – Technicians from Reliance have clear line of sight to the tower at Umri Kalan and the signal is strong!

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Week 3 – HOME RUN!! We (almost) have internet connectivity!! Connectivity lasted long enough to test-run a video Skype session between Delhi and Adharshila. We lost connectivity because the batteries running the BTS at Umri were discharged due to a power outage in the area for 2 days. Waiting for Reliance to fix the problem. 

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Week 4 – “Hello World”! Adharshila, an area forgotten by the major telecoms in India and where people used their phones mainly as MP3 players, is now on the cellular grid and ready to change the world!

The hard part begins now … ensuring Reliance provides reliable connectivity, the local infrastructure company provides support in case of equipment failure and finding content in the local language. 

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Deploying Last Mile Connectivity to Remote Villages in India

BACKGROUND

 Weak Internet connectivity is a significant barrier to introducing higher quality of education in remote villages in rural parts of India. Solving the connectivity issue will provide opportunities for asynchronous learning, easy accessibility to information, and higher education quality at an affordable cost. Broadband connectivity will allow students and teachers in schools such as Adharshila, located in district Sheopur in Madya Pradesh, approximately 180km from Gwalior the ability to access email and the internet. Availability of broadband connectivity will also provide the infrastructure to conduct remote teaching through video sessions as well as explore possibilities with remote healthcare.

Streaming video, required for real time interactive remote classroom instruction, requires a reliable, fast internet connection, one that supports on the order of 2Mbps (Megabits per second)– 6Mbps transmission speeds. To provide some context of what this means, a typical “3G” cell phone network offers speeds up to 2.5 Mbps and the more advanced 4G networks provide between 7 and 20 Mbps network speeds, the speeds being greatly affected by the presence of physical structures such as buildings, hills and other physical topographies that act as barriers to the “line-of-sight” required between the cell tower(s) and the user’s mobile phones.

The network speeds in a region are also greatly impacted by the absence or presence of cell towers in that region; the further apart the towers are placed, the weaker the signal between them becomes, resulting in slower network speeds available for use.

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In rural India – and this is especially true in the remote region of the country in which Adharshila is located – cell phone towers are spaced as far apart as they can be to just be able to provide low-bandwidth, voice and SMS communications. This how telecommunications companies have been able to make their costly investments in cell towers economically viable in these low income, low population density rural areas.

Current Status

Over the past year, we have engaged several of the largest cellular telecommunications service providers in India to assess the feasibility of providing us with cellular network based internet connectivity at Adharshila. These companies are household names as cellular service providers in India, including Reliance, Airtel, iDEA, and TATA. We even engaged a service provider – Sify Communications – that specializes in rural area communications. However owing to the extreme rural location of the school, none of these providers were able to provide connectivity with the bandwidth and reliability required for our needs.

Image2Figure 1: Cell Tower Coverage Map For Areas Around Adharshila

To further illustrate the point, the cell tower coverage map above shows that Adharshila, located inside the red circle, has no cell towers in the vicinity hence providing broadband connectivity to Adharshila using ground-based cell towers is not an option.

Despite these initial disappointments, we are pursuing another option to provide internet connectivity to the school. We have begun an evaluation of geo-stationary satellite based internet connectivity, the so-called VSAT network connectivity. VSAT connections are slower than ground-based cellular connections and cost more to use. On their own, they wouldn’t suffice for the streaming video needs of the school. However, we have found a service option that uses advanced video compression techniques that allows relatively high quality video to be run in real time over a relatively low speed network connection. As of this writing, we are working with the two entities that provide these two services, VSAT and video compression, to evaluate the feasibility of putting them together to service Adharshila’s needs. The assessment should be completed by the end of September 2015.