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Case study: E-governance

‘Akshaya’ for rural India

The Akshaya project, the country's largest rural wireless network, helps bring the benefits of e-governance and utility services like basic connectivity to individual households in Kerala. A look at how it was managed in stages. by Akhtar Pasha

The state government of Kerala, not only content with administering the most literate state in India, wanted to extend literacy efforts to the Web, through e-literacy. And it fulfilled this desire through the project 'Akshaya', which is now driven by the gram panchayats. Akshaya is the country's largest rural wireless network.

Delivery of Internet services to rural communities was one of the biggest challenges in bringing IT to the masses. Project Akshaya accepted this challenge head-on, and brought Internet services to the rural residents of Kerala.

Infrastructure related to Akshaya has already been deployed in the Malappuram district where 250 centers are on the network. Each Akshaya center caters to between 1,000 and 1,500 households. By the end of March 2004, all 630 Akshaya centers will be online to help citizens guide and support e-governance initiatives; intervene in community development; buy and sell online; and to get relevant information. This will make it the largest rural wireless network in India.

Linking difficult terrain

Early attempts at using dial-ups between locations had failed, because bad quality connections allowed less than 10 percent of the centers to go online. Always-on connectivity was the need of the hour.

Wiring up the entire district spread across 3,550 square km would have been a daunting task. The geography comprised the Nilgiris in the east, the Arabian Sea in the west, evergreen forests, ravines, hills, rivers, and palm fringed coasts. The state government decided that rolling out a wired infrastructure in the vast state would be impractical and expensive. Wireless solution providers were asked to demonstrate the feasibility of having a single wireless hybrid solution before a tender was floated.

RFP

A Request For Proposal (RFP) floated in May 2003 received response from around 75 solution providers with technology solution options like wiring up the entire Malappuram district.

Tulip IT Services Ltd was chosen as the wireless system integrator for the project. The company was chosen because the government found that the solution promised to be based on hybrid technology, claimed to be scalable, and was economical.

A pre-bid meeting was held for the respondents where the bidders visited the Akshaya centers and assessed the technical requirements. Santhanam G, Principal Consultant for Tulip IT Services Ltd said, "The biggest challenge was to set up a Radio Frequency (RF) network. The hilly conditions, difficult terrain, and thick vegetation in Malappuram are unsuitable for RF."

The pilot goes live

A wireless network was designed with fiber in the backhaul by a team of four people from Tulip IT Services Ltd, who worked with the Kerala State IT Mission's technical panel.

The integrator put around 40 people on this project and implementation began in December 2003. Post implementation, 10 people will remain to maintain the network of 1,100 users.

"The network at Malappuram is the pilot. The Kerala government is interested in having a statewide network by 2006," said Aruna Sundararajan, IT Secretary, Government of Kerala. There are 13 more districts to go.

Bharti laid fiber for an 8 Mbps pipe in the backhaul. Tulip chose a mix of wireless technologies, namely Wireless IP in Local Loop (WipLL) and Versatile Intelligent Network (VINE).

VINE in the backbone

The backbone uses VINE technology. There are seven VINE points, using 2.4 GHz frequency, spread across the district connecting to the fiber backhaul. The backbone is basically a number of radio links with high capacity.

Thanks to VINE, each repeater station requires only one radio with two antennae. One faces forward and the other backward, instead of two radios with competing technologies.

This effectively reduces the number of radios to half. Simultaneously, the throughput of radios in VINE is high at 8 Mbps. This kind of network topology allows easy scalability. If the bandwidth requirement doubles to 16 Mbps one can simply add another pair of radios to the existing infrastructure.

The radios at the POPs can also talk to other radios in the adjoining backbones creating a mesh architecture, building redundancy into the system in the process.

WipLL in the access network

All the 630 Akshaya centers will hook up to 22 POPs using WipLL radio stations. WipLL is based on a Multipoint Microwave Distribution System (MMDS) used for Internet access. WipLL equipment from Airspan Networks (a UK-based company) has been used for this project.

Sectoral antennae that cover 90-degree sectors are being used at the base station. Four such antennae offer complete 360-degree coverage. The transmission has a capacity of 4 Mbps although the mandated requirement is 16 Kbps to 64 Kbps. This bandwidth is being used to provide services like e-governance, voice, intranet, and video for e-learning.

NOC

A NOC will soon be deployed at the Malappuram Kinfra park. It will be responsible for the management of bandwidth, the wireless infrastructure, gateway routers, and firewalls.

Lt. Col. H.S. Bedi, VSM, Managing Director, Tulip IT Services Ltd said, "The NOC is in the planning stage and we expect it to be ready by March 2004. We are planning to use Sun Servers at the NOC."

VoIP the killer app

25 percent of Kerala's population lives abroad. This creates the need for cheap and reliable communication. This makes VoIP a killer application. Akshaya centers are in the process of being repositioned as a combination of Internet centers and VoIP booths. The network provides telephony to government offices located in remote areas and allows video streaming for training programs.

After the full rollout

After the complete rollout in March 2004, the Akshaya project will let the state government provide a range of e-governance and utility services to citizens.

Sundararajan said, "The project will allow citizens to use a service called 'Friends'. This is a single window distribution point for 35 services like payment of electricity bills, tax bills, and university fees. Around one million Keralites will access these services. Further, the state plans to use this wireless infrastructure for connecting all police stations, land records, the state forest department, and health centers."

On the cards are services like online rural banking, online technology resource centers, e-enabled education centers, call centers, assisted health care, and e-post.

Sundararajan concludes, "We have created the information highway and would like to have participation from the private sector to drive this initiative further."

Akhtar Pasha can be reached at akhtar@expresscomputeronline.com

WipLL for all

WipLL is a high capacity point-to-multipoint wireless wide area networking system that utilizes IP technology, with an operating range in excess of 10 Km Line Of Sight (LOS) and several kilometers Non Line of Sight (NLOS).

It carries voice, video, and data services on a single platform over the metropolitan area. It supports QoS and Bandwidth on Demand (BoD).

It features an IP-based air interface and industry standard interfaces. It is modular in design and interworks easily with existing IP LAN and WAN technologies. Its modular design and many integrated features ensure that the entry cost is low and the incremental costs are kept low.

At the same time it allows the system to scale to support more than 3000 remote sites from a single base station. WipLL allows the construction of high capacity broadband wireless access networks, taking IP services to remote users.

WipLL benefits

  • Minimizes initial investment, maximizes return, and has low incremental costs
  • IP-based air interface which supports high-speed data, VoIP and video services for enterprise users
  • Modular architecture with flexible deployment features
  • 4 Mbps per sector, up to 24 sectors per Base Station
  • Compact, integrated design
  • Advanced QoS features
  • Simultaneous support of Router and PPPoE functionality
  • Sophisticated bandwidth management features
  • Supports 802.1Q/p and VPNs
  • Easy install, indoor subscriber terminals
  • Auto-seek and connect feature for faster deployment of customer terminal

In a nutshell

The project

The state government of Kerala has deployed a project called 'Akshaya'. The aim of the project is to offer e-governance and utility services to citizens of the state. The pilot phase in Malappuram is the largest rural wireless network in the country.

The need

Wiring up the entire Malappuram district was a daunting task as the district had terrain with steep slopes and thick vegetation that impedes RF.

The solution

Tulip IT Services Ltd set up a wireless infrastructure that uses hybrid technology—VINE in the backhaul and WipLL for the access network—to connect 630 Akshaya centers with the fiber backbone.

Benefits

The wireless network delivers a host of services like utility bill payment, e-learning centers, call centers, e-governance initiatives, and the use of VoIP for making long distance calls.

A little bit of VINE

Wi-LAN's patented wireless VINE technology is a new networking technology that overcomes the non line-of-sight obstacles and minimizes initial up-front costs of developing networks. VINE technology focuses on overcoming the line-of-sight issues imposed by challenging terrain topography.

As your network grows, any node can be promoted to become a repeater. The only requirement for a new node to get attached is to have RF connectivity to any node already on the network. This is a deployment strategy called anypoint-to-multipoint, since any node already in the network can become the center of a point-to-multipoint branch.

Hard-to-reach locations that are obstructed can easily be reached once the VINE spreads into that neighborhood.

 
     
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Copyright 2001: Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) Limited (Mumbai, India). All rights reserved throughout the world.
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