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Digital Strides: Karenda village sets an example

April 28, 2017
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By Puneet Kumar Arora

A day-long visit to Karenda, an underserved village in Rajasthan, turned out to be an eye-opener. The visit, organised by Vihaan Networks Limited (VNL), gave proof to the silent information and communications technology (ICT) revolution taking place in the country.

It took our group four hours to reach Karenda from Delhi, the last stretch along a bumpy, muddy access road, which forced us to switch from our comfortable sedan to an all-terrain vehicle. Karenda has a population of 2,155, as per the 2011 census, comprising mostly marginal farmers and factory labourers.

At first sight, Karenda looked just like any other Indian village, with rough, rundown roads and modest mud houses. However, there was a difference. Somewhere between the fields and semi-pucca village structures stood a massive 70-feet high telecom tower, powered by six large solar panels of 270 W each. This is VNL’s WorldGSM system, a turnkey GSM and broadband solution designed specifically for rural and remote locations. Once fully charged, the batteries under the panels enable the system to beam uninterrupted Wi-Fi signals for three days. Laying a fibre optic cable, the next best alternative, would have been hugely more expensive and impractical owing to the rough terrain.

The site receives 100 Mbps bandwidth from a Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL) exchange located 6 km away, through an omni-antenna. The site provides voice telephony in a radius of 5 km using GSM. It is connected to two other nearby villages, Phalsa and Bahadari, wirelessly via internet protocol (IP) radios.

The people of the village are not quite interested in the technology details. But what excites the entire village is the free internet they have been accessing through Wi-Fi connectivity ever since the project started in March 2015. As a pilot project, the villagers are given paper coupons with the passwords for accessing a limited amount of data. The village has around 450 registered internet users and around 150 coupons are dispensed daily.

The benefits of the improved internet access have been manifold, with the villagers leveraging it in all aspects of their lives. Perhaps the most game-changing application in this digital village is SmartClass, an e-learning solution set up by VNL in Karenda’s government school, which is helping teachers impart education in an interesting and innovative way. The digital classroom is powered by VNL’s PowerCubeTM 300, a solar-based power management solution mounted on the rooftop of the school. The classroom has a large digital whiteboard, and a Linux-based e-learning platform for providing access to instant information through the internet and pre-installed audio-visual content. It also has a biometric machine that tracks student attendance. The principal of the school was, however, dissatisfied with the internet speed in the classroom and asked the VNL team to provide more bandwidth.

VNL has also deployed an IP-based public address system (PAS) in Karenda, which can be accessed via IP or by dialling a phone number connected over GSM for making important announcements such as weather-related warnings. The site also has a pan-tilt-zoom camera that can scan sensitive areas around the tower.

The high speed internet access has also facilitated the working of the e-Mitra kiosk in the village. An e-governance initiative by the Rajasthan government, the e-Mitra scheme enables villagers to access services such as obtaining Aadhaar cards and ration cards at a fraction of the cost that they used to previously.

Digitisation has also facilitated banking services in the village. The villagers shared stories of how they were able to easily make online banking transactions during the recent demonetisation drive and how this has become a habit since.

Interestingly, our visit to Karenda was followed by a visit on the same day by the telecom ministers of Bangladesh and Bhutan, and by senior telecom officials from Indonesia, Malawi, Tanzania, Cambodia and Laos. They were pleasantly surprised to see the students leveraging the benefits of the digital classroom. When a member of the delegation pointed out that healthcare must be a challenge as there was no hospital in the vicinity, the people were quick to point out that e-healthcare has come to their rescue on many occasions. The delegation left the village suitably impressed and interested in implementing similar solutions in their countries as well.

VNL’s WorldGSM solution has attempted to transform Karenda into what has officially been conceived as a “Digital Village”, where telecommunications, ICT and renewable energy converge to provide a host of services to villagers. Bridging the digital divide between rural and urban India is imperative for the success of the government’s Digital India vision. Karenda has demonstrated how this can be achieved - a success story worth emulating. s

(The article is a first-person account of the author’s recent visit to Karenda village on VNL’s request.)


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