India's telephone man bridging the digital divide

Monday, 24 March 2003, 08:00 Hrs
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BANGALORE: When Ashok Jhunjhunwala speaks of telephones, there is fire in his eyes and commitment in his voice.

Over the years he has not just helped churn out idealistic young engineers from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Madras, but also contributed to making telephones more affordable.

"I am doing what IITs were meant to do -- make India technologically strong. This is the only justification for society to spend the money it does on IITs," Jhunjhunwala told IANS in an interview.

Over the past few weeks, one of the firms he helped incubate, Midas Communication, picked up a $12 million order from Egypt.

India's business press was quick to hail this as the country's biggest export order in the telecom sector, and seemed surprised that it came from a seven-year-old R&D company focussing on rural telephony.

Another business publication called the IIT Madras professors -- Jhunjhunwala, Bhaskar Ramamoorthy and Timothy Gonsalves -- the "angels from academia" who incubated some of the hottest start-ups in telecom and networking.

In Egypt, Midas is to install 200,000 telephone lines based on the corDect wireless in local loop (WLL) technology that it has developed in partnership with the Tenet group, spearheaded by Jhunjhunwala.

The technology is just one of the fruits of Jhunjhunwala's dream to provide affordable telephone lines to the rural poor.

His vision is a mix of technological excellence, lower costs to make communications affordable even to the poor, and a fierce pride that believes India has the brains to come out top in technology.

"We have started deploying corDect in 15 countries. The initial response is very good. It takes a year or two to enter the telecom market in any country," he said.

According to Jhunjhunwala, the firms spawned by his team currently have orders worth 10 billion in India.

He believes it makes business sense to provide communication to the poor, but "business has to be done in a different way".

"In 1987, India opened STD PCOs (inter-state telephone booths) in India. We aggregated the demand of middle and lower middle classes of urban people and provided them shared telephony.

"Today there are 950,000 STD PCOs contributing to approximately 25 percent of the total telecom revenue in the country and serving 300 million people who do not otherwise use telephones. The whole thing makes great business sense," says he.

Jhunjhunwala wants to replicate a similar phenomenon with the Internet.

"Internet is power. It enables people. It is changing the way we live. Those without Internet will have a tremendous disadvantage as we go on. We would like to see that all villages get reasonable speed Internet connection at the earliest.

"India needs (telecom) products at a cost three-times lower than that prevalent in the West. The simple reason is that affordability in India is much lower," says Jhunjhunwala.

His vision is to connect 650,000 villages in India with the Internet and use that to double rural gross domestic product. He would also like 200 million telephone and Internet connections in India "at the earliest".

Ultimately, however, that is a stepping stone to a wider goal: to make India a design house of technologies.

"Telcom in India today is booming -- with prices coming down and service improving. We have contributed towards this. And showed that successful product companies can be built in India and that IITs can contribute towards it."
Source: IANS
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