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November 4, 1997


The Lone Ranger

Professor Ashok Jhunjhunwala of the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras, is fighting a careless government which has rejected his invention for quick and cheap phones and opted for a US technology which is three times more expensive and dramatically less efficient.

But in an interview to Rediff On The NeT, he told Shobha Warrier "I am not going to lose the battle. That is very clear." True to the scientific spirit, the determination of this inventor has eclipsed his frustration.

The Lone Ranger
Software think tank
Rural schools tragedy
The Bengal initiative
But the war he is waging will test the IIT's elitist tradition as arguments fluctuate between physics and politics.

In his last interview to Rediff in June, when the story of his invention was scooped, he was upbeat. Today, he is disappointed and anguished. Especially because the fruits of his team's work of years is being denied on the flimsy excuse that the wireless frequency range in which his technology operates has been allotted to the military and cannot be used for commercial purposes.

There are reports that the DoT has decided to float a tender and their preference is the CDMA-based (code division multiple access) wireless technology and not the DECT (digital enhanced cordless technology) system developed by you. What's the difference?
The news report is about a system made by US company Qualcomm. CDMA is also a standard wireless local loop system. It is referred to as IS-95. It can be used for wireless in local loop, but it has severe limitations. For instance, the rate at which data can be transmitted in this system is not beyond 9.6 Kbps. That means it is difficult to add any extra data device to your phone.

On the other hand, the DECT system can handle data transmission up to 64 Kbps and ultimately touch 144 Kbps.

When you are moving around town and looking for some kind of voice telephone it does not really matter whether you have 9.6 Kbps or 64 Kbps. Because for that kind of mobile communication both the technologies work perfectly. But for a home and an office telephone that is going to be there for 15 years, is it not good to have a system that can also handle data connectivity at high speeds? If you opt for CDMA instead of DECT you are shutting off advantages like connectivity to the Internet.

Take a look at the statement by the Joint Telematics Group of the five IITs and IICs, it will alert you to the importance of our system.

I think it is suicidal to install a CDMA systems in the country. It cannot be upgraded to support data connectivity. I can site two reasons why this IS-95 system by Qualcomm is not acceptable: One; it is three times more expensive than our system. Two; it is not upgradable.

I also think that this technology does not have much use as a wireless local loop system. It is like giving you a cell phone and then telling you it is a fixed-line WLL phone.

My question is when our system is available for a third of the cost and when we can provide 64 Kbps data communication which no technology in the world can, why should you go for something else?

The defence ministry is reluctant to free up the 1800 Mhz frequency band for commercial telecommunications purposes.
We are supposed to operate on the 1800-1900 Mhz frequency band. When we started developing this technology we spoke with DoT and they promised to get the frequency cleared. But they did not do anything about it and today they are saying, according to news reports, that the defence ministry is refusing to release the frequency.

I don't think the defence ministry is refusing to release the frequency. I have talked with a lot of people in the defence ministry and they have always said that if a request comes they will seriously consider the matter and release the frequency. However, the problem remains that the frequency has not been released.

What could have led to such a situation? In a way, the IIT is a part of the government.
I think the government departments have to work together to find a solution. We are only outsiders. Sufficient coordination is needed in this matter. First of all, I do not know when and where exactly the request for the frequency was made, what was the effort put in by DoT and what was the defence ministry's reaction. At least from what I came to know as an outsider is that no clear-cut request has reached the defence ministry and they are willing to look at clearing the frequency in most of the country. Maybe in one or two sensitive places, they may not release the frequency.

Do you think the frequency clearance issue is an excuse to lock you out?
It may be true that DoT may not have the frequency today. But it can be obtained. Yet, it is not proper at all to float a tender for a similar technology before trying everything to get the frequency clearance. I am sure if they had tried, they would have got the frequency cleared.

You are exporting your technology to countries like Malaysia. Do you feel disappointed that your work is not appreciated at home? I have heard that there was some discussion in Parliament about the work done by your team and the rigid stance taken by DoT.
I don't care about being appreciated. I think if our solution is cheaper, better and useful for the country it should be used.

If at all I am disappointed, it is because we cannot get a hundred million telephones installed in the country quickly even when we have the means and the technology to do so.

That's what I want, a hundred million telephones for our country. I know that here, in India, we don't have much money. But I am sure that our technology can help circumvent the money problem.

This IS-95, CDMA system is expensive. It will cost you nothing less than Rs 45,000 per line while ours can be had at between Rs 10,000 and Rs 11,000 per line. And our costs are expected to come down further.

I know the issues here have been discussed in Parliament. But multinationals are powerful in the country. They can lobby and get things done. We haven't done these things before. But we know our country and we will do whatever is required. We should have been more prepared to face such problems.

Were you expecting this, fighting against multinationals and losing the battle?
I am not going to lose the battle. That is very clear. We are not going to lose the battle.

Against strong multinationals too?
I don't say that. I have no problem about anyone getting any technology from outside, provided it helps our country. But when it is not going to help our country and when we have better technology available at much lower cost in our country itself, I am definitely going to oppose that. I am quite certain that we are going to get this point of view through.

How can you be so confident that you can convince the hitherto heedless government departments?
We have to persuade them. We have to keep on doing whatever is needed. I know that there are a lot of people in the country who want positive things done. We have had many problems of this kind earlier too. Still we continue to do whatever is required. I am absolutely confident that we will be able to get sense through.

We will see to it that the person who is trying to take a decision like this understands the foolishness of adopting CDMA. The decision can also be dangerous to the economy.

But you are exporting this technology to many countries like...
Currently, we are doing a field trial in Brazil. We have shipped our system to France and China too. We have signed up with some companies in Brazil, China, France and several other countries. We have got orders from many other countries too. We have also started getting orders from within India. We have started installing systems in India. Yes, we have frequency problems here but, as I said, we will solve it.

You mean, orders from private companies?
Many private companies have shown tremendous interest. Of course, they also need frequency clearance... I am sure DoT is also going to use our system. This is not the first time things like this have happened. As long as our technology is good, and I believe it is, I think sooner or later we will be able to convince people.

I think all this requires effort. I did not think till now that all this effort will have to be made by us. I thought these are things that would be taken care of and we could concentrate on our job of developing technology.

Today our success in many places in the world has led many industrialists in this country to back us. Many bureaucrats are backing us, many people in DoT are also strongly in favour of our system.

See here, in Adyar, people have been using our system for nine-ten months. We have gained supporters among them too. In spite of us paying more duties and taxes, more than an imported system, our line is worth only between Rs 10,000 and Rs 11,000. Today a telephone in India costs between Rs 18,000 and Rs 20,000. And we are replacing it with much cheaper and efficient technology.

Recently I talked with an engineer in the telecommunications department. He says the department is going to have optical fibres running from the exchange to a particular point on the roads instead of cables and from there they will connect to various houses. He says wireless in local loop will become redundant when this happens. Is it true?
What they are talking about is fibre in local loop. We are also working on fibre in local loop. That is one of the projects that we are currently working on. I believe that fibre in local loop is very important for the country just like wireless in local loop. These two are complimentary technologies. In some places, fibre in local loop is preferable while in other places wireless in local loop is, and in some other places a combination of these two is preferable.

I don't think there is any one solution. Yes, I agree fibre in local loop is very good and it is going to happen. In the next few years you are going to see more and more of fibre in local loop.

He told me that instead of big exchanges in one place, they will have several small exchanges on the road itself and telephone connections would be given out from there.
It is true. That is exactly what we are developing.

Are we already using fibre in local loop anywhere?
No. Not fibre in local loop. But we have what is called the digital group carrier system which is not exactly fibre in local loop. But we are working on fibre in local loop which is very important to a country like ours.

But I was told that fibre in local loop will make wireless in local loop completely redundant?
That may be one point of view. My own reading is that wireless in local loop has its own place and fibre in local loop its own. When I say you can have a combination of both, it is like this: You can have fibre till the curve but you can use wireless in local loop in the last 500 metres towards the subscriber's premises. Because we have to dig and lay the cable from the junction to the house it is in the last few 100 metres that most of the faults occur.

You had told me that wireless in local loop is very important in rural areas where population density is very thin…
Of course it is very important in the rural areas. But in the rural areas, I think solutions like wireless in local loop are not going to take place for quite sometime because as the telephone density is not very high, it becomes very expensive.

In dense urban areas, fibre in local loop and wireless in local loop become very meaningful. But there is no doubt about the fact that wireless in local loop is going to play a major role in rural areas too.

Where is wireless in local loop more essential, densely populated urban areas or sparely populated rural areas?
There are different kinds of systems for rural and urban areas. Some systems are important in dense urban areas. For example, our system can work in very dense areas. That is, about 10,000 telephones per square kilometre. But IS-95, which DoT is supporting, cannot go beyond 1,000 telephones per square kilometre. In a different way, if we use our system, using all kind of fibre lanes or point-to-point wireless loop, we can provide solutions in rural areas at as low as 0.5 telephone per square kilometre. So, our system can range from 0.5 to 10,000 lines per square kilometre!

Besides it is much cheaper and can also support data speeds up to 64 Kbps.

What will you do if your system does not get selected by DoT?
We will get DoT's acceptance. We will get the frequency clearance and DoT is going to use our system. I do not believe that it will not happen.

When did you come to know that DoT has given preference to the CDMA system?
I read about it on October 2, on Gandhiji's birthday. I opened the newspapers and the report shocked me. For a few minutes, I didn't know what to do... But such shocks are a part of our lives and we get over it after some time. We don't have a choice, do we?

I am sure people will see sense. Totally senseless things cannot be done.

Earlier interview: The Negroponte switch; made in India

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