Copyright (C) 1996, Rishab Aiyer Ghosh (email@example.com)
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June 6, 1996: Dassault Automatismes et Telecommunications, the telecom wing of the French defence equipment manufacturer, has succeeded where many have failed - in selling new technology, in the form of a pilot project, to India's Department of Telecommunications (DoT). During the next few weeks, Dassault will install wireless-in-local-loop systems for 1,000 subscribers each in the cities of Calcutta and Vijayawada, based on its EASYNET CT2/CAI technology. The contract, valued at FFr 8.46 million (approx. US$ 1.5 million) includes equipment (72 base stations, eight base station concentrators), on-site network engineering and technical assistance, as well as the training (in France) of DoT staff. The trials will last for three months.
For these two sites, Dassault will be paid regardless of the DoT's evaluation of the project's success or failure (technical and commercial) - being, after all, merely an equipment provider. Another experiment, on a much smaller scale - the expense will be borne by Dassault - is in the rural areas around the town of Ludhiana in north-west India. This will commence sometime next month, and involve only 10 subscriber terminals. It is meant to prove the technology's viability over larger distances, as the density of telephones - though not necessarily of the population - is low in rural areas. Sunil Aggarwal, consultant to Dassault's Indian operations, hopes this field trial will translate into orders for EASYNET systems in rural areas across the country. Such orders could be from the DoT - or from the various private basic telephony providers likely to have their licences confirmed by the new government after a confidence vote in Parliament next week.
About 75% of India's 900 million population is found in villages; only a third of these (say 200,000) have even a single phone. This makes total telephone density still below 1 per hundred people, but the situation on the ground is much worse when 400 million people cannot access - leave alone own - a phone. The DoT bears some moral responsibility to increase the pathetic telephone density in rural India. Private telecom providers, on the other hand, have contractual obligations. Commitments to build "Village Public Telephones" - rural pay-phones which, thanks to low levels of telephone ownership, have very high usage rates - were given a weightage of 15% in the tender evaluations (against 72% for the bid licence fee). Most bidders gave high assurances of coverage, promising to reach all villages within the first year or so of operations. This is quite unrealistic, unless very heavy use is made of wireless technologies. The DoT, in the tender documents, has specified the uniform use of fibre, copper permitted only in the last 500 metres of the loop. Wireless technology is encouraged, but even in rural areas, analogue technology requires special permission. Normally, all rural wireless systems will be digital - like Dassault's EASYNET. EASYNET uses a CT2/CAI protocol defined by the European Telecommunications Standards Institute, uses time-division duplexing for digitised (ADPCM) voice. It is designed to fit transparently between subscriber and exchange equipment intended for wireline use, and can also provide fax and modem connections.
Despite its EASYNET projects, the DoT has not in general been very receptive towards new technologies, even for rural areas. Dassault itself took two years persuading the DoT to let it conduct the minimal rural field trials outside Ludhiana. But US West, which planned a pilot project involving broadband and wireless communications in rural districts of the southern state of Tamil Nadu, is not sure it will be able to go ahead at all. Unlike Dassault, US West invited publicity, and its project quickly became controversial. The DoT feared competing private providers arguing that the project violated basic telephony licences. It did not, though - the tenders specifically gave the DoT a right to commission pilot projects to test new technology, irrespective of the licences. But a lawsuit might have dragged on, and the verdict could have been unfavourable (see a forthcoming report on Indian courts and telecom) - so the DoT slept over it. Similar worries made the DoT reject mobile trials of EASYNET - cellular service licensees could object, so the trials are for fixed-wireless only. Besides, Dassault supplied equipment and services for a fee, with which the DoT felt comfortable. US West intended to manage its experimental service itself, with the possibility of earning profits however small, but also, and this was perhaps forgotten by both the DoT and private competitors, the risk.
A report on India's courts and telecom will be available later next week at http://dxm.org/techonomist/news/
Information on cellular and basic telephony privatisation is at http://dxm.org/techonomist/news/bids.html