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.

Published by

Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.