The importance of open, accessible, and relevant communications is undeniable for fostering National development, social fulfilment and human dignity. The more communicated and well connected a society , the more opportunities it shall generate. Let us face it. The essence of communication is in the very DNA of each and every person on this earth, viz. , to communicate with each other without going into frivolous parameters decided by the Society.
More than 2.5 Bn. people (about 40 percent of the world’s population) live in the rural and remote areas of developing countries where access to telecommunications is still very limited. Entire world, say, ITU, All Governments, UN give high priority to communications and connectivity for rural and remote areas. Valletta Action Plan (1998), Istanbul Action Plan (2002), WSIS Plan of Action (2003) all have confirmed the need to promote basic telecommunication, broadcasting and the Internet that act as tools for development in these less fortunate areas.
However, the rural communication still evades its success! Let us ponder why and let us attempt to demystify it. We witnessed tremendous growth of teledensity in urban areas. Thanks to mobile technology that has shamefully widened the digital gap between rural and urban areas.
There were several initial ways for inter communicating. In new sprung stages, Telecommunications was taken as an essential need for citizens and considered as a duty that was to be provided by the Govt. Hence, Govt. , as a monopoly, invested heavily and started providing fixed line phones, wirelessly engineered com technology etc to its defense sector, without having any intentions of making profit out of it, but rather considered it as a service for its own people. Getting a phone was always a matter of pride in those days, wordwide! Grin! Somewhere down the line, mobile technology was initiated for use by civil services sector as well. But the Private sector saw profit and started lobbying for privatization. And the big hearted wise Govt. opened up. Result? Tremendous success was achieved by the private sector in increasing the reach of Telecom and enhancing the subscriber base.
No Sooner was it realized that rural communication was not speeding up. Ditto for broadband. So world looked back to Govt. for growth in broadband. Hence to boost broadband, Govt. after Govt. announced various plans for investment, for laying out optical fiber network and for increasing use of e-services. Reality Check ! Big investments by Govt. for rural Communications are still awaited. Everybody in the world is still looking for that magical touch in rural com.
Rural Communications should aim to put rural people in a position where they can have the necessary information for informed decision-making and the relevant skills to improve their livelihoods , so that a close-knit family can be realised by connecting people across developed and developing parts of the world.
If live and springy, advantages and benefits of rural com will be beyond count and immense. People’s participation and community mobilization, confidence building, raising awareness, sharing knowledge, changing attitudes & behaviours, altering lifestyles and mentality (e.g., female foeticide, rapes, etc) and fostering decision-making will be the boons to name a few. Lets bring a change to add a smile on less fortunate and under privileged faces.
But if one wishes to do something good, one is face to face with monstrous indigenous barriers. Hence rural community have their bunch of shortcomings and flaws that include: spread and diversity- the large number of consumers scattered across the Country with diverse geography, demography etc; low population density, large distances, hard physical terrain which is not easy to access, low per capital income leading to low ARPU, low literacy levels, language & physical communication barriers, poor infrastructure facilities like lack of roads, telecom facilities, postal services, TV, print media etc.
Hence, the lofty target of rural communications face challenges motored by both technological and economic considerations, namely, backhaul connectivity, erratic or lack of power supply thereby making all equipments largely power hungry, high costs for smaller capacity, skilled manpower requirement for installation, commission & maintainance, designing & optimization for high ARPU, high density user base, and lastly, high CAPEX & OPEX affecting the business competitiveness.
Versatile technologies are being created with passion all over the world, largely by scientists, engineers & researchers for cut throat competition of being the ”most advanced”, “ the first time ever”, “ the fastest of all”. The focus on “what is needed”, “indigence of the hour” is rather lost and missed.
The “initial model” of telecom came into existence out of pure “need” and then the concept of “inventions” or the “solutions” followed. But now invention has become primary focus while marketing needs has taken back seat. At times, a new technology is announced, may be because we’ve failed to achieve what was promised in the previously released technological advancement & discovery. Ground reality is to realize that its not what power or what infra is available so as to lead technological revolution, rather it’s the other way round. Demands for technology should be primary concerns whereas power& infra should be secondary. There is compulsion of researchers to see whole world as one market and make technologies that can make best money in shortest possible time frame. So the burning question is does these technologies suit rural com? What about tech like MARR, corDECT? Where to they fit? What is their scope? Are they all in vain?
Ever wondered who makes “the standards”? Answer is sour and bitter truth. Its largely the technology inventors who consider what they have made and hence formulate standards that are largely suitable for urban areas and their elite people, thereby dominating and suppressing less fortunate and under fortunate people in rural and remote areas.
We have seen Apple iPhones, iPads, 4G, 5G, but have we ever heard of minus 1G for rural areas or a 5 USD handset for the large masses living in rural domains? Hence lets spare few seconds and compliment GIFSI and ITU who have brought reforms for rural standards and thought of bringing smiles on their faces.
Global market has limited the equipment suppliers across globe. Manufacturers depend upon volumes for cost optimization, which rural multitude evades. Difficulties are faced in providing after sale service, maintenance to large scattered rural areas with highly qualified and talented engineers & technicians. Each and every company in globe swear for development of rural communications and vigorous R & D and innovations in this regard. So how to achieve this far-sighted or near-sighted goal. So a quick question that pops up in mind is do global manufacturers need new strategies or would localized manufacturers supported by global companies would be a better option ?
Thanks to mergers and acquisitions, we see few service providers for fixed line and mobile phones. They need to heavily invest in infrastructure, licenses and regulatory compliances to make all even. Service providers face brunt of customers expectations for the hypes created by Technology providers. Service providers who are answerable to their shareholders, hence, are necessarily and forcibly on look out for profits. Unfortunately rural Communications seems comparatively nonviable. So if rural com is indeed nonviable and close to impossible, why worry ? Why not drop the idea? Would a separate class of operators dedicated for rural areas bring in some peace and progress in this sector? Would they act as silver lining that every cloud has? Can they bring a ray of hope?
Multi Government fundings have been one of the steps in spotlight. Numerous schemes, funds and incentives were undertaken by various agencies for development of rural areas. ITU, UN does a lot for this sector that cannot be put into words. Almost every Country has USO for telecom. Many village Panchayats and several departments of rural development have worked and invetsed in a lot to empower health, roads, employment generation, electricity, education, drinking water, housing, alternate energy, etc. A swelled up question arises at this heating moment and at this hour so as what should be the focus of Govt. ( and all its departments)? Should they deploy telecom, mobile and spectrum for big money or for development of its people? Should these schemes be coordinated in a effective way for sustainable growth?
Lets throw light on Government’s assistance in the Telecom Sector. In India the assistance under USO is limited to service operators. In USA when President Obama announced plans for broadband, the assistance was extended to the department of rural and agriculture development. So do we too need to extend assistance under USO and other schemes to manufacturers, technology providers, local bodies for rural communications?
Major policy stakeholders are Telecom operators, equipment suppliers & Technology providers. Ministries which design and implement communication policies (e.g., Communication, Infrastructure, Rural Development, Food and Agriculture, Science and Education). Media outlets like TV, radio, print, internet, either private, public or from the civil society. Representatives of farmers’ or rural peoples’ organisations who are to collect and formulate the communication needs of their clients. Development organisations for policy advice and harmonisation of development interventions.
Any “invention” is not a one time thing, rather its a tool that needs to constantly evolve with time to cater different ad-hoc tastes of people and, even a “re-invention” to change how we communicate and how we think. With technology, we all ride high on efficiencies and usability it brings along with it, less concerned about its penetration in the society and its adoption demographics.
So what is Task?
The task is not just an issue of Resources and Technologies, nor of hardware and software. It is also a matter of wise priorities, good policies, intelligent leadership, transparent decision, and population involvement.
Thoughts are endless, Ideas are endless, Talks are endless!! Lets us start action .
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