By Ritu Srivastava
Community networks established by Digital Empowerment Foundation (DEF) and its digital foot-soldiers are bringing health information, banking services and distributing rations in over 100 villages of India.
COVID-19 pandemic has changed the daily routine of people’s lives. On March 25, the government of India announced nationwide lockdown till April 14, 2020, again extended till May 3, 2020, closing schools, offices and public transportation. This crisis ushered in a new era of virtual systems. There are over 40 million migrant labourers across the country and when thousands of migrant workers are going back home in this pandemic, the question arises whether they will be able to educate their children if schools are closed and not connected through the Internet and be able to get basic health facilities or medicines.
In this scenario, internet connectivity is a critical need of the time to receive up-to-date health information, for working professionals to continue work from their home and students should be able to continue their education even if they are living in rural parts of the country. The telecom networks that support voice, telephony and broadband data services are critical infrastructure for the country like India much like electricity, water, sewage and road networks. According to CISCO report, devices and connections in India are growing at a rate of 7% of compound annual growth rate. However, India stands at 128 out of 140 listed countries in mobile broadband, according to Ookla Speed Test report. In fixed broadband, the country stands at 69 out of 176 listed countries giving an average speed of 39.65. India has 19 million fixed-line broadband users which include enterprises and offices and 17 million home fixed line broadband users. Most of this critical telecom infrastructure is built by few private telecom players using their capital.
A closer look at the rural public infrastructure that is required to be connected with internet connectivity reveals that there are 15 lakh schools in the country, out of which over 8.5 lakh schools are located in rural regions. There are over 1.5 health sub-centres, 25000 community health centres and 5000 public health centres in India. But only around 20% of rural regions of the country are connected to the internet and most of them are connected through mobile connectivity.
In the time of isolation, the need of reliable internet service has become a crucial medium for rural India not only to receive relevant information and be aware but also to access their basic entitlements and healthcare services.
In this crisis, when public institutions are struggling to respond to the pandemic, community networks established by community networks like Digital Empowerment Foundation (DEF) and its digital foot-soldiers are bringing health information, banking services and distributing rations in over 100 villages of India. DEF’s Wireless for Communities (W4C) uses the low-cost wireless devices and unlicensed spectrum band- 2.4 GHz and 5.8 GHz, has adopted various models ranging from Hub-and-Spoke model and Wireless on Wheels to Internet-in-a-Box, making the rural communities resilient.
Nasir Hashmi, ISP franchise, has now connected 500 households in Gadchiroli district of Maharashtra. After attending the first wireless training in Chanderi organised by DEF, Hashmi started a digital centre providing digital services and established the first wireless mesh network in Kurkheda block. BSNL (Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd) was the only telecom provider, reaching the district office till 2015. Started with four customers as micro-entrepreneur, the network has now employability opportunity for over 10 local young boys. In the last five years, Hashmi has become wireless and fibre-based network provider for BSNL, BBNL and Railtel, laying out 55 kilometres of fibre connecting three blocks – Armori, Wadsa and Kurkheda of the district.
Today, when internet connectivity is an essential need for everyone, the demand of the internet has been increased from 7 customers per month to 5 customers per day on an average. The network is also providing its connectivity to 55 students to continue their classes online. In the situation of lockdown, the procurement and installation of devices is challenging, thus, he has opted to use unused bandwidth and customised bandwidth as per user demand to provide uninterrupted internet services.
In another instance, the hub-and-spoke wireless model in Nuh district of Haryana, Barabanki and Ghazipur districts of Uttar Pradesh, Bharatpur and Alwar districts of Rajasthan is providing DocOnline, an online health consultation platform on its local network to consult the doctor online when social distancing has become a norm. Over 300 villagers are using the internet connectivity to use Aarogya Setu, a government app for tracking coronavirus patients; to provide basic health services and enable access to relevant information related to COVID-19 while maintaining social distancing.
The cash shortage is another challenge that rural people are facing. BFCI, representing fintech firms, estimates that only 30% of their business correspondents are active in rural regions. The cash shortage in rural areas is making people’s lives more difficult. The lack of proper digital infrastructure including mobile connectivity and broadband communication to a large proportion of the populace makes it more difficult to address authentication challenges, card security infrastructure and last-mile connectivity of Point of Sale (POS) terminals.
In this scenario, Abhinav Pandey, a SoochnaPreneur (Information Entrepreneur) from Guna, Madhya Pradesh, is bringing banking services and entitlements at the doorstep. He has been working on the ground to ensure the community’s safety from the corona virus by delivering money to their homes from the schemes that the government has put in place for them. Many of them, whom Pandey is helping, did not even know that such schemes existed; he informs them of their entitlements and helps them avail the same online. By providing banking services at doorstep, he is helping the villagers practice social distancing, the most important requirement to stop the spread of the virus.
In the last two months, these communities have adopted new approach from making masks to providing online health services to establishing the network to continue online education. From the last nine years, DEF is transforming rural communities resilient by ensuring that they can deal with pandemic like COVID-19 in a way that fits the local context.
Connectivity, when combined with different models including hub and spoke, can help rural communities to sustain locally. Using different community-led models, DEF has established 178 access nodes in 35 districts across 18 Indian states, engaging men and women equally for its installation and management. One thing that was common in all models was the need to capitalise on the social and human value already present in the community and transforming this into a socially sustainable wireless network model.
If people have access to broadband and adequate bandwidth, they could pursue distance education through video conferencing, able to share their local indigenous content with a larger audience. By delaying access to the Internet and not enabling communities with high-speed internet connectivity, we are constantly underutilizing our own potentials and, consequently, delaying economic prosperity.
This pandemic has reminded us to go back from centralised-based to decentralised solutions and creating community-led network solutions which enable rural communities not to be depended on private-led infrastructures. The notion of local living and locally dependent market will lead to the sustenance of the local economy to create a diverse system.