People in remote villages of Rajasthan’s Alwar district are catching up on the ‘Digital India’ trail as many of them, including women, have started using internet being provided through unique solar-run telecom towers. Karenda, Phalsa and Bahadari, the three villages which lie close to the state’s border with Haryana, lack facilities like proper roads, hospitals, post-office and police station, but people there have been connected with internet and mobile telephony under an initiative of a private company.
While locals said gram panchayats are proposed to be connected with internet according to the Centre’s ‘Digital India’ plan, which may take at least one-and-a-half years more, some of them were already using cheaper WiFi internet to download study material or enjoy video songs on YouTube.
“I use internet to download study material for the exams that I am preparing for,” said Krishna Devi, who is preparing for teacher’s eligibility test (TET). Krishna Devi, who is also the deputy village head of Karenda, said that otherwise she would have to buy the books which are not easily available near the village and are also not updated as frequently as the study material online.
The government school in Karenda, which locals claimed got electricity connection about two months ago, already has a digital classroom with the study material for some of the classes optimised for ‘digital tutorials’ run on the internet provided by VNL Telecom.
“The best part is that there is no dependence of the internet and the entire digital education system on conventional electricity. The entire set-up operates on power generated by solar panels installed on the roof of the school while the internet connection has been taken from the telecom tower which too runs on solar energy,” said Rahul Dubey, a VNL technical official.
Some kilometres off these villages towards the main road that links Bhiwadi to Alwar is Mushtaqpur where Mohar Singh recently set up an e-services shop that helps local people get made their Aadhaar card, passport, birth/death certificates, ration card or other such document and train/bus tickets.
“Prior to using this internet connection, I was using mobile data pack to work. However, it was not very fruitful as it was costly plus the reliability factor was not there. Now I use this internet to provide many online services for which people from several villages come to my shop,” he said, adding otherwise they had to go to Tijaara, about 40 km away, to get these works done.
The advantage of these telecom towers are manifold, VNL officials said, noting the biggest being their ability to run on low power which too is taken from solar energy. This is a first-of-its-kind initiative in the country, the officials said.
As of now these model villages are being provided internet through WiFi free of cost, company officials said. “For individual use, the people just need to contact our man who keeps moving around in the three villages. He issues them a token receipt which has a unique password that authenticates their connection,” a senior VNL official said, adding this was done to check any “unauthorised” use.
“These telecom towers are lightweight and much smaller than the conventional ones. These can be erected within a day. Besides the basic calling facility and WiFi internet, they have features like public address system and remote location camera,” the officials said.
The public address system can be used for making an announcement or during times of calamity or urgency while there is also a 360-degree camera fixed on the tower, they said, adding that both can be used from remote locations.
Notably, VNL officials said in providing WiFi and other mentioned facilities they were only “extending” BSNL services using their own solar-run towers. “We get 10 MB bandwidth from BSNL for free of cost because ours is a public utility company. But to extend that bandwidth we use our own solar-run towers. BSNL support has helped us in keeping low the cost of WiFi services that we provide to the villagers,” a VNL official said.
Meanwhile, people aware of the rural settings said that while the government is pushing for e-governance and taking the internet to the last mile, the idea may not get yield results anytime soon.
“The Digital India campaign could work well in urban settings but there are a lot of issues that come up in rural settings. The government’s programme is based on fiber optics, laying of which is likely to face hindrance on account of land availability,” one of them said.
Also, towers and generators would require a lot of fuel and energy to work, causing more expenditure, they pointed out citing a government report which states that “telecom sector, after the railways, is the second biggest consumer of diesel”.
While the company is developing these as its model villages for internet connectivity on solar-run towers, it claims to have installed thousands of such towers in Left Wing Extremism-hit areas and has been duly recognised and awarded by the Ministry of Telecom for its innovative effort.
BSNL had outsourced the work for installation of such towers and their service in LWE-affected areas under the Centre’s initiative to enhance connectivity in that region. “About 2,500 towers have been installed so far out of which nearly 1,500 have been erected by VNL while the technology for all of them has been provided by VNL,” an official of the service provider claimed.
The home-grown technology also assumed importance in light of a 2011 TRAI recommendation that at least 50 per cent of all rural towers and 33 per cent of the urban towers are to be powered by hybrid power (Renewable Energy Technologies + Grid power) by 2015, while all rural towers and 50 per cent of urban towers are to be hybrid powered by 2020.