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September 2, 1997


A lack of WLL

Govt spikes home-grown WLL tech for cheaper phones.

An indigenous 'wireless local loop' technology which provides cheap urban and rural telephone services and has successfully won international contracts is ironically facing hurdles at home.

To make matters worse, the government is scouting for options overseas which are significantly more expensive and without one extra advantage.

The WLL technology, developed by Professor Ashok Jhunjhunwala and colleagues at the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras, is based on the DECT or 'digital European cordless phone technology' which uses radio waves instead of conventional copper wires to transmit signals.

Jhunjhunwala recently told the Indian Science Writers' Association that the IIT system could not bid for any tenders for wireless telephony services in India because the operating frequency band of 1880-1900 MHz has not been cleared by the Department of Telecommunications on the plea that the band is used by the Defence Research and Development Organisation.

However, Jhunjhunwala claimed DRDO officials have assured him that there will be no major objections from the defence establishment if the frequency band they are using is asked for.

Jhunjhunwala pointed out that frequency clearance has been updated for all competitive technologies being offered by multinational companies but not for the Indian system which is awaiting clearance for the over two years.

In less than a year after the Indian technology was ready it was sold to eight companies outside the country including China and Brazil.

The absence of a frequency clearance is the main reason for the IIT system to have lost a tender opportunity sponsored by the Asian Development Bank last November for rural telephony services in eastern India even though "ours was the lowest bid".

"Allocation of frequency should not be used as a tool for eliminating or enabling the choice of technology," Jhunjhunwala said, citing the examples of China and Brazil which are operating WLL in the 1900-1930 MHz range.

The IIT system costs two to two-and-a-half times less than imported systems, he said.

Jhunjhunwala said frequencies in the 800-1000 and 1700-2000 MHz band were allocated to defence before the cellular phones revolution and much before the advent of the WLL concept.

Even when cellular phone operators were allowed to do business, DoT had to negotiate with the defence ministry to release some frequencies.

Even for the ADB tender DoT negotiated with the defence for releasing some frequencies in the 800 MHz band which is suitable for the 'code division multiple access' or CDMA technology developed by the US firm Qualcomm Limited.

However, DoT ruled out the DECT technology, saying that the frequencies required are not available from defence. Jhunjhunwala pointed out that its DECT systems offered more advantages over other systems. It helps expand telephony rapidly at costs lower than that incurred while laying down conventional copper lines.

He said the WLL systems can offer 64 kbps data connectivity which is needed for Internet services which are witnessing a sudden boom.

This is unlike CDMA and similar systems that offer 13 kbps or lower data connectivity rates. The IIT system has four basic units: a control system called 'DECT interface unit' which acts as an interface with the local exchange; base stations which transmit signals and wall-sets which receive signals and user handsets.

The IIT group successfully demonstrated the utility of their system in their 1,000 line exchange unit with 20 base stations near Madras.

The major advantage with the Indian system is that it can be use for both rural and urban areas.

For high-density urban areas, the researchers propose that clusters of base stations, each cluster with 8-10 base stations, will be mounted on the top of buildings similar to mobile phone infrastructure.

Signals from each cluster are multiplexed and carried through optical fibre or microwave radio to the local switch.

For rural areas, the IIT group has proposed a slightly different approach which has been patented. Here, the central base stations transmits to a relay base station in the rural area which then carries the signals to the subscriber.

The ADB project

In the meantime, DoT officials are planning to travel round the globe to fix a 'suitable' WLL system for the ADB rural telecom project in eastern Uttar Pradesh.

Rural telecom for eastern Uttar Pradesh was one of the dream projects of Communications Minister Beni Prasad Verma. The new development follows the tender fiasco in which almost all offers from world telecom giants proved unsuitable and did not comply with tender specifications of the DoT.

Global competitive bids for design, manufacture, supply, installation and commissioning of the network system were floated last year.

The Telecommunication Engineering Centre of the DoT, which evaluated the bid offers, has in its confidential report dated July 7, suggested that since no offer could be considered technically and commercially nearest to the tender specifications, the members of the TEC should visit the installations of companies whose bids have come close to meeting the conditions.

The companies whose offers were found nearest to the tender conditions are BEL and PCL. The TEC report said that "Though PCL and BEL claim that working systems are available, it is not sure whether they are exactly on the lines of the quoted system. As per the tender document it shall be possible for the bidder to arrange inspection and verification of installation by the purchaser at the purchasers' cost."

The report further said "TEC suggests that a visit of the members of the TEC to the installations of these systems and discussions with the operators who are using the same will be essential."

TEC will submit a supplementary report after the proposed visits. It wants the findings of the visit to the sites to be taken into account before opening the financial bids.

The ADB rural tender is a classic case of the DoT pussyfooting in the rural telecommunication programme. Beni Prasad Verma was keen on implementing the ADB project as eastern UP is considered to be his political cradle. Now that the global tender has proved a non-starter, he will have to wait long before he is able to reach telecom facilities to his rural constituency.

In response to the DoT invitation 14 bidders participated in the tender. These were Harris Canada Inc, Punjab Communications, Bharat Electronics, Alcatel Telecom, Motorola, Netelco Systems, Lucent Technologies, ARM, Crompton Greaves, Sat Division Telecomms, Qualcomm, ITI, Toman Corporation and NEC Corporation.

The TEC rejected five of them instantly as they were considered unqualified to participate.

The tender had raised a controversy, with telecom majors like Siemens, Alcatel, Ericsson and Crompton Greaves objecting to the frequency band specifications which they felt were designed to keep these companies out of the bid.

Now, the DoT has got caught in its own web. PCL has offered two types of subscriber units consisting of voice and PCO. It has further said that one of its commercial systems is in operation in China. The TEC says it is not clear that the offered system is the same as the one offered against the tender. And hence "physical verification is required".

On the other hand, BEL's experience with the commercial system at a number of locations has been indicated, said the TEC. These systems are of TDMA-10 version as against TDMA-3 offered by the company. The TEC has indicated that only the fully compliant network engineering solution should be considered for financial evaluation.

The TEC report said "The offer of Harris is not acceptable on account of non-compliance of environmental specifications and mixed analogue digital operation. Lucent technology has not furnished full replies to clarifications sought and only a part reply has been given. However, it is clear that the offered system is a mixed analogue-digital system. Battery backup does not meet the specifications and has not complied with commercial clauses. As such the offer is not acceptable."

"NEC has indicated that they will give replies to many questions later. However, considering deviations noted regarding capacity, compliance with standard and RF spectrum requirement for more than five plus MHz, and in the absence of clear replies the offer is considered as not responsive and unacceptable."

"The remaining offers are also not fully compliant. BEL, PCL, ITI and Qualcomm have offered fully digital systems with some deviations. Qualcomm, clarifying about environmental specifications, has put a condition of software override against damage. This is not acceptable. They have also not unconditionally accepted the commercial clauses, for which the offer is not acceptable," the TEC report concluded.

Earlier: The Negroponte Switch - Made in India

- Compiled from the Indian media

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