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Issue of September 2002 
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Tech Update - WLAN
Wireless MAN for rural development

Pravara Village IT Project (PRAGATI) is a classic example of how new technology can narrow the digital divide. Thanks to this project the rural communities of Ahmednagar district in Maharastra are able to compete with their urban counterparts…wirelessly. by Akhtar Pasha

Promoted by National Informatics Centre (NIC), Delhi; the PRAGATI project aims to connect a hundred villages in Ahmednagar covering a population of more than 2.5 lakh with a wireless MAN solution (WMAN). When completed, it will empower the rural population and improve their quality of life. The seven lane program will help the villages in establishing local IT centers, dissemination of information regarding government schemes, marketing of agricultural products, healthcare, education, agro processing and economic development.

Convergent Communications was selected for implementing the wireless solution as they had executed most of the NIC's projects in the past. After initial talks with Pravara Group, NIC and Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), the project was kicked off in 1999. It was executed in two phases. In Phase I, Convergent connected 13 sites using a WMAN. Institutions were networked and connected to the Internet using a 64 Kbps VSAT connection. During Phase II, the wireless solution was extended to six other remote sites—Shirdi, Satral, Kolhar, Rahata, Babhleshwar and Loni. The remote sites use an 11 Mbps pipe shared between six locations.

The project is expected to bring a host of benefits to the farming community. The villagers can communicate with agricultural experts at Krishi Vigyan Kendra (a knowledge center for farmers) and gain knowledge on better agriculture methods and storing and packing their products. The wireless solution will also be useful in tele-medicine and keep abreast with new government schemes.

Infrastructure blues
Arun Nale, System Administrator, Shirdi Sai Rural Institute, said, "There was no proper telecom infrastructure. A leased line was not feasible as most of the electromechanical exchanges did not support data transmission. Lack of proper roads created hurdles in transportation of equipment during Phase I.

In addition to this, there was a hillock in Loni (Lontek) because of which there was no clear Line of Sight (LOS) and the RF network required clear LOS.

The institutes like Pharmacy College, ITI and Home Science Institute were not connected. The wireless RF towers were installed by Convergent in a record time of three days at ten locations."

Technically the range of the RF specified by Convergent was for a 5 km radius. Since this proved insufficient for connecting faraway towns like Shirdi and Rahata that were 19 kms from the hub, custom enclosures were designed to boost the range of the transmitters.

WLAN for WMAN
Chidambara, Consultant-Wireless & Education, Convergent Communications (India) Pvt. Ltd., said, "The products which were available that time were typically used in a WLAN solution. To make it work in a WMAN was a technical challenge. We developed and manufactured certain products in-house in Bangalore like the accessories—antennas, RF amplifiers, lightning arrestors, power dividers and weather-proof outdoor housing enclosures. Lucent's Wireless LAN bridges and wireless NICs were the core products that were used in the implementation. The reason why we chose to implement WMAN was because Pravaranagar does not have basic telephone infrastructure and getting a leased line was not only difficult during those days but also expensive. With WMAN in place Pravaranagar has dedicated 2 Mbps connectivity."

Company
Pravara Group consists of Co-op societies, engineering colleges, sugar factories, Krishi Vigyan Kendra, schools, banks and medical trusts. Their approach is to 'think globally and act locally'.
Problem - Providing connectivity to a hundred villages where there is no basic telephone infrastructure was the biggest challenge.
Solution - A wireless MAN. Lucent's wireless LAN Bridges, wireless NIC and Convergent's own products have been used in the implementation.
Benefits - Villagers can interact with the Krishi Vigyan Kendra for new developments in agriculture. Students can acquire knowledge from the Internet and it will also help them in finding jobs. The farmers can get an update on various government schemes. Telemedicine helps bring modern treatment to the rural interior.
Wireless Network for PRDA


Click on image for larger view

People Behind the movement
PRAGATI began four years back. Shri Balasaheb Vikhe Patil, Minister of Heavy Industries Government of India and Dr. Y.K.Alagh, M.P & former Minister for Science & Technology, Government of India, took a personal interest in the project. They visited ISRO to assess the possibility of getting their interactive technology in 1999. Then they had a series of discussions with then Director General, Dr. N.Seshagiri, of National Informatics Centre (NIC), Delhi.

The final decision to assign the project to NIC was taken in June 1999. The target date for the completion of Phase I was set as 15th August 1999 and it took six weeks to complete this phase.

Building WMAN-Phase I
First, a suitably high location—Rural Polytechnic for Women—was identified. The VSAT was installed by the NIC engineers and was connected to a typical Windows NT setup of Primary Domain Controller (PDC) and Backup Domain Controller (BDC). During Phase I, 13 sites were networked including schools, professional colleges, Pravara Medical Trust hospital, Pravara Co-operative Bank, Krishi Vigyan Kendra and Padmashri Dr. Vitthalrao Vikhe Patil Sahakari Sakhar Karkhana (sugar factory). These institutions were then connected to the Intranet using a 64 Kbps FTDMA VSAT at the Rural Polytechnic for Women. RF towers at 11 other institutions with clear line of sight with the main hub were constructed. At the remote sites 16 Pentium II PCs from Wipro were used. The wireless network was connected through Avaya Access Points to a hub and the PDC and BDC were also connected to the same hub.

With this, all the institutions have Internet access (for browsing and also sending and receiving mail) and can communicate amongst themselves. Within each institution, there can be any number of computers connected through a cable network and all these computers can also access the Internet and communicate with PCs in other institutions.

The equipment used in phase I are 64 KBPS FTDMA VSAT- Gilat with Sky surfer accessories, RF Access Point-WavePOINT-II_99UT12206350, Wireless Cards - 2 Mbps Lucent's Wavelan Cards, 10 Mbps NICs, and 10 Mbps Hubs.

"Communication has become faster and more efficient. Extensive computer training at all levels in Marathi and data input services have been planned to ensure that the facilities are utilized by the target population," says Nale. The test run of the system was taken on August 14th 1999. It went live on Independence Day 1999 and all centers were declared operational.

Phase II
In January 2000, the management of Pravara Group decided to upgrade the 64 Kbps FTDMA VSAT to a 256 Kbps high-speed SCPC VSAT in order to extend the Internet to six other remote sites located in Shirdi, Satral, Kolhar, Rahata, Babhleshwar and Loni. The work began on June 2001. NABARD sponsored six village IT centers to the tune of Rs 15 lakh.

Installation of the SCPC VSAT lead to faster communication, browsing and video-conferencing with other locations. An IBM Netfinity server is used for proxy and caching services while an xSeries200 server is used as the mail server (pravara.ren.nic.in). Other products used in Phase II are—Cisco 2600 series router with 16 ASYNC ports, RF Access Point - Orinoco Outdoor routers, Wireless Cards - 11 Mbps Lucent's Wavelan Cards, 10/100 Mbps NICs and 10/100 Mbps Switches.

Benefits of the implementation
The advantages of providing a wireless MAN in a setting like Pravara for different population segments are many.

Linking all high schools in around 50 villages within a radius of 10 km lets teachers and staff stay in touch with the HO of their Education Society. This helps them introduce modern methods of teaching, including computer-based learning (virtual school) at convenient timings for children who have to work during the day. Students from professional colleges can acquire knowledge using the Internet and it will help them find new jobs.

Farmers can communicate with the agricultural experts at the Krishi Vigyan Kendra and learn new farming techniques as well as better ways of storing and packing their products for marketing.

Health care professionals at the villages can consult specialists at the Medical College and Hospital thereby providing specialized treatment, especially during emergencies, at people's doorsteps.

Information about government programs for the welfare of the people can be made available to the people and they can interact with the concerned government official right from their village. This will particularly benefit rural women. The villagers can interact with the sugar factory as well as with the Pravara Co-operative Bank saving time in the process.

Going forward, the Pravara group is planning to connect at least seven more villages using RF and 15 through dial-up by the end of 2002. The ultimate goal is to connect 100 villages through PRAGATI.

Akhtar Pasha can be reached at pasha_ak@yahoo.com

 
     
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