There are two types of networks which are relevant in the context of inter-connecting the network commPuters. The first is the LAN, and the second is the WAN. In the local area, Ethernet holds sway globally. In fact, even in the emerging markets, the state of the LANs is nearly as good as the developed markets. With 100 Mbps and 1 Gbps LANs, there is plenty of bandwidth to service the needs of the access devices in enterprises, educational institutions, government offices, and the like. Where there is a huge lag is in the wide area network. More specifically, the issue is in the connectivity available on the last mile.
Lets take India as an example. There are two possible connectivity options for Internet (and grid) access at present: via the telephone line, and via the cable connection. Both will not go far in India, and that is where the short-term for real broadband looks bleak. With BSNL and MTNL controlling most of the 40+ million local loops and the government deciding not to unbundle it, we are at the mercy of the two (soon to be merged into one) government telcos to provide us with high-speed xDSL connectivity. (High-speed does not mean shared 128 or 256 Kbps access, but genuine multi-megabit connectivity.) The cable companies are doing their best to fill the gap, but are hampered by the quality of the cable, other technical challenges which hinder two-way access, and the investments they can make.
What the singleton network commPuters in India need is broadband wireless connectivity. We need to leapfrog to next-generation networks which can blanket urban and semi-urban population clusters and deliver high-speed (512 Kbps-2 Mpbs) connectivity over the last mile, and then hub these connections into fibre back-haul networks, which already exist in plenty across India.
These broadband wireless networks can come via multiple technologies and providers. IIT-Madras has developed a cable wireless technology, which uses cable for the downstream connection (1 Mbps) and wireless (via CorDECT) for the upstream connection (100 Kbps). Mesh Wireless networks could use the unlicenced WiFi spectrum to provide last-mile connectivity. Then, there is WiMax. The mobile operators could roll out 3G (and perhaps, 4G) on their networks. Considering that voice revenues are likely to flatten (and even fall, with VoIP), the mobile phone companies in fact need to think seriously about getting into data networks.
So, even as the short-term outlook for broadband remains bleak in India, I am optimistic in the long-term (2006 and beyond). The broadband wireless revolution in India will happen. The government will, however, need to be forward looking on making spectrum available for some of the technologies. The Indian telecom companies and ISPs do have the financial strength (with assistance from international investors and partners) to build out an always-on, high-speed and ubiquitous network. The New India has to built, literally, out of thin air.
TECH TALK Tomorrow’s World+T