Bus. Std: Wonderful World of Wireless

My latest article from Business Standard:

One of the most significant elements of Indias infrastructure that has taken shape in the past few years is invisible to its users.

The cellular networks that have put 30 million phones in the hands of Indians and continue to do so at a rate of over 2 million a month are a shining example of how wireless technologies can rapidly help India bridge the gap in digital infrastructure.

The cellphone has connected Indians with a technology that is as good as any in the world. In fact, new users prefer cellphones to landlines.

Compare this to a decade or so ago when one still had to wait months for a telephone connection and pay exorbitant charges for making long-distance and international calls.

Competition among operators, led especially by the cellular companies, has ensured that rates have fallen by 70-90 per cent in the space of a few years.

India has one of the lowest telecom rates in the world. To go mobile, all it takes is a few minutes for the paperwork and an investment of a few hundred rupees a month. As cellular usage keeps growing, India will have over 200 million cellphone users by 2010.

The cellphone with its ability to connect people via voice and SMS is just one of the wonders that wireless technologies are bringing forth.

Road warriors in India dont leave home without their Reliance CDMA cellphone connecting their laptop to the internet from anywhere has never been easier.

As 3G networks proliferate in India and handsets become more sophisticated, the cellphones functionality will increase to encompass a wider range of services.

Want to take a photo and send it to family? Want to find friends nearby? Want TV on the cellphone? Want to buy things using the cellphone as a credit card? The phone will be able to do it all.

The wireless revolution goes much beyond cellphones. In India, CorDECT/WLL, developed at IIT-Chennai, is providing voice and data connectivity to people otherwise left out of the footprints of telecom and cellular providers. In the coming years, wireless will also become a key driver of broadb and data connectivity.

The 802.11 family of protocols (of which WiFi is one) is enabling untethered connectivity for computers to devices.

As Bill Gurley of Benchmark Capital put it, 802.11 is to wireless communications what the x86 is to computing and what ethernet is to networking.

The most important element of the 802.11 family is its use of the 2.4 Ghz and 5 Ghz part of the spectrum which is unlicensed in most of the world.

However, both bands are still not completely unlicenced in India. This needs to change if India is to leapfrog into the new era via its use of these emerging technologies. India needs a million WiFi hotspots and this cannot happen with the current restrictions on access points .

In the coming years, technologies like 802.16 (WiMax) and 802.20 (MobileFi) will extend coverage to a complete neighbourhood (15-20 km), getting past the 100 metre limitation of the current generation of WiFi protocols.

At the same time, the speeds available are rising to support tens of megabits per second. This will enable a few towers to blanket entire cities, or a single tower to connect tens of villages in rural India.

Other technologies like Bluetooth and RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) also hold great promise. Bluetooth is already being used to provide freedom from wires.

RFID is going to be embedded in all kinds of objects, and promises to to dramatically reduce inventories across supply chains as information flows in real-time on the movement of products embedded with RFID tags.

Whether it is in providing voice connectivity to the next hundred million at affordable prices or in providing high-speed internet access for rural communities, wireless technologies offer a great leapfrog opportunity for India.

It would be good for us to pay heed to these words of Kevin Werbach (writing in a recent report entitled Radio Revolution: The Coming Age of Unlicensed Wireless for New America Foundation):

The radio revolution is the single greatest communications policy issue of the coming decade, and perhaps the coming century. The economics of entire industries could be transformed. Every significant public policy challenge could be implicated: competition; innovation; investment; diversity of programming; job creation; equality of access; coverage for rural and underserved areas; and promotion of education, health care, local communities, public safety, and national security. Yet the benefits of the paradigm shift are not guaranteed. Exploiting the radio revolution will require creativity and risk-taking by both the private and public sectors. At every step, there will be choices between preserving the status quo and unleashing the forces of change. The right answers will seem obvious only in hindsight.

India faces many of the same decision issues. Radios of a different kind delivered news information to much of India in the previous century. The new radios promise to bring the future to the next generation of Indians provided we make the right choices today.

Kids currency

U.K. based SwapitShop is a startup that wants to monetize the economic influence of kids. It plans to do so by creating a universal currency for children. Kids can also obtain Swapits by auctioning off toys, CDs, Pokmon cards. SwapitShop is aggrandizing the idea by profiting from its direct reach with the kids. Theyve created a division to survey and test-market third-party products to SwapitShop kids, obtaining valuable market data from a group that is traditionally difficult to reach. SwapitShop charges anywhere from several hundred to tens of thousands of pounds for these services.

Inserting a Spider-Man figure in every box of Frosted Flakes costs millions, he explains, and of course many children may not like Spider-Man, or action figures at all. His solution: give kids Swapits, a virtual currency redeemable for merchandise on the SwapitShop Web site. Swapits are distributed as coded numbers printed on coupons or product packages. Printing 100 Swapits on the inside flap of a cereal box costs next to nothing, says Attwood, and kids can get things they actually want.

SwapitShop profits from these transactions by selling its currency to, say, a cereal company, typically for a few tenths of a penny per Swapit. SwapitShop then spends about one-third of its take on new merchandise, ensuring a broad range of gettable goodies and preventing Swapit currency devaluation. The remaining two-thirds is gross profitnot a bad ratio at all!

Some interesting ideas to explore in the context of the rural market in India.

Unified Telephony

Nokia recently announced the 9500 model which is a Wi-fi enabled successor to the 9200 Communicator series. In another announcement Skype developers said they had plans to port their popular P2P net telephony software to PDAs. Can unified telephony become a reality, made possible with the convergence of Wi-fi, VoIP and cellular services? These three stories speculate on various outcomes.

One Person, One Phone

Indoor Wi-Fi coverage would be offered by cellular carriers as an added service. Subscribers would likely have to pay an extra $5 to $20 a month for it, says Ken Kolderup, vice president of marketing at Kineto Wireless in Milpitas, CA, but theyd get cheap Internet calls when they were on the Wi-Fi network. And by providing more reliable service indoors, the cellular carriers would be able to fully compete with traditional telephone companies…

And Kineto has developed a network controller that can be installed on a cellular-telephone companys network to bridge cellular and Wi-Fi. If a cell-phone user is indoors and near a Wi-Fi access point, his or her phone would sense the stronger Wi-Fi signal and tell the controller that it should route any incoming calls through the Internet, and ultimately through the local access point. Three carriers in the United States and Europe are now testing Kinetos technology; Kineto expects dual-mode service to be available this year.

Net2Phones VoIP play

Net2Phone, one of the oldest Internet telephony services in the US announced Voiceline, a VoIP service that is custom tailored for the cable operators. A prime example is St. Kitts lone cable provider, The Cable, which is going to roll out VoiceLine to provide their customers with a reliable VoIP service using their existing infrastructure and with minimal cap ex. Cable operators can also choose Net2Phones PacketCable Managed Telephony, a managed broadband telephony service. I have a feeling that Net2Phone and Vonage will be butting heads in their bid to capture the private label VoIP market.

Could WiFi Kill the Cellular Star?

New voice-over-IP (VoIP) phones promise free wireless calls while at work using special phones that let you run voice on Internet packets. But this technology is only now maturing, previously beset with long delays and poor quality phone calls. I tried out a VoIP phone from Clarisys recently, along with a Vonage SoftPhone on a laptop. The phone was wired into my laptop, but I could make and receive calls through my laptop anywhere on my wireless home network. The quality was decent and my phone conversations were nearly normal.

Managing the Complexity of Content Management

Victor Lombardi gives some practical and useful advice drawn from real-world successful CMS implementations.

1. Keep the team small.
2. Dont try to fix everything at once. A CMS alone is complex enough; combining that effort with a site redesign, new workflow, new content, and more may be asking for trouble.
3. Only build what you need. If more effort is needed to implement a CMS than to manage the content manually, the return on investment is quickly lost.
4. Create an efficient information architecture. A content management system with a different template for every published page would not be very efficient.
5. Show your content some love. Of all tasks in a content management project, the creation, editing, and migration of content are probably the most frequently underestimated on the project plan.
6. Hire bouncers as project managers. You do need rigorous project managers that understand CM issues who will babysit the team to make sure every little task is getting done.
7. Tightly integrate design and technology. CMS involves certain components, such as content entry screens, that require a combination of interaction design, information architecture, writing, and database programming skills. Few people do all these things well, and having different people or groups design these components in isolation risks poor quality and consistency.
8. Buy the right size. The number one problem with software is the expense.
9. Design faster than business can change. Designing fast may mean keeping the scope small, but it can also mean finding innovative approaches to problems rather than simply following conventional methods.
10. Get a second opinion. Content management is an elaborate, dynamic field and there are several solutions to any problem.

Timely tips to keep in mind as we go about re-organizing and designing Netcore’s website using a CMS.

TECH TALK: As India Develops: Education (Part 3)

Continuing with Atanu Deys ideas:

Delivery of the Content: The Last Mile

Ultimately, primary education has to be delivered to the hundreds of thousands of schools throughout the land by an impressive number of teachers. Training of these teachers itself is a formidable task. Again ICT tools can come to the rescue both for teacher training and for assisting them in delivering the content to the millions of students.

This component of the educational process involves high fixed costs and high variable costs. The high fixed costs can be reduced by facilitating the last mile delivery through ICT tools. ICT tools can reduce the total training that the teachers need by shifting the burden of content creation from them to creation of the content centrally and have the teachers facilitate the delivery of the content. For instance, the actual teaching could be done by a virtual teacher on a CD connected to a TV monitor, while the physical teacher is someone who mediates the delivery and maintains discipline and the schedule.

As we noted earlier, about seven million teachers are required for the primary education of those who are currently illiterate. Training those teachers alone itself is a formidable task. This task can be made tractable through the use of ICT in three distinct ways. First, the training of the teachers themselves can be mediated by ICT tools. And second, the teaching of students by these teachers can be more effectively done by the use of tools such as audio-visual material to supplement books that are currently in use. This not only reduces the load on the teachers but in fact teaches the teachers at the same as the students. Finally, it reduces the variation in the quality of the teaching delivered. This happens because the audio-visual material is professionally produced and the quality of the teaching imparted is not entirely dependent on the skills of individual teachers.

As we shall see later, ICT has a key role to play in the entire process. The commoditisation of hardware and software makes it affordable for use across the education value chain and deliver education to large numbers of Indians more rapidly than any other mechanism.

The challenge lies in the creation of content. At present, there is some content available in some Indian languages. What is needed is an investment to create quality content from the best teachers in the country, and then have it translated for delivery at the schools and colleges. The same ideas can be also used for vocational education.

The likes of NIIT and Aptech have done excellent work in delivering IT education to Indias students in urban and semi-urban India. What is needed is the equivalent of such organizations for the poor India. As Atanu puts it: The fortunate fact is that education pays for itself many times over. The return on investment in education is estimated to be many multiples. An educated labour force is many times more productive than an uneducated one. The policy prescription is therefore simple: spend whatever is required to provide education because the future earnings will more than pay for the present expenses. Even if a nation has to borrow the funds required, it would assure a future in which repayment of the loan would be easy. Education is too important a subject for it to be neglected merely because the nation is deemed poor at present.

Tomorrow: Microfinance

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