Connecting the rural communities in India through unlicensed spectrum since 2010

In the last 25 years, half the world has been connected to the Internet and the almost infinite opportunities it has to offer. Most of these, among the 3.5 billion connected individuals of the world, are people who are largely economically empowered, literate and reside in urban or accessible areas. The biggest barrier to widespread connectivity is the high cost of infrastructure. With most telecom companies unwilling or unable to build infrastructure in far flung and rural areas, large swathes of the world have remained in media darkness. Evidently, most of those who are excluded from digital ecosystems are people who are largely at the bottom of the pyramid and reside in rural or inaccessible areas. They are people who have not been connected by the mainstream Internet Service Providers (ISP), and people who may have to wait a long time to be connected.

So, who will take the responsibility of connecting them? It has to be the community themselves.

Wireless community networks, also called community-based Internet service providers (C-ISPs) are networks whose infrastructure is built, managed, operated, and administered by a community-driven organisation or by a community itself by pooling their existing resources and working with partners to start-up and scale their activities.

Wireless for Communities (W4C) is a flagship programme of Digital Empowerment Foundation (DEF) and the Internet Society (ISOC) that has been supported by various partners over the years. Launched in 2010, Wireless for Communities or W4C aims to connect rural and remote locations of India, where mainstream Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are not willing to provide internet connectivity as they feel their operations would not be commercially viable. W4C involves line-of-sight and low-cost Wi-Fi equipment, which utilise the unlicensed spectrum bands — 2.4 GHz and 5.8 GHz — to create community-owned and community-operated wireless networks. The ideation behind the project was twofold: firstly, to democratize the availability of connectivity and provide internet access to information in rural parts of the country, secondly to address the issue of lack of content product and services originating from rural areas which affects the economy from percolating to the bottom of the pyramid. The programme has three main components:

  1. Training the trainers for technological know-how of wireless networking
  2. Deployment of wireless across rural communities, especially in clusters
  3. An open forum to discuss best practices, lessons learn and to educate them on issues from both a technical and policy perspective

Over the last 10 years, W4C programme has been providing affordable, ubiquitous, and democratically controlled Internet access in rural regions of India – established over 300 access points in 35 districts of 13 states.

Partners, including the Ford Foundation; Association for Progressive Communications (APC); Commonwealth of Learning (COL); Media Lab Asia; Ministry of Communication and IT; Mphasis; Indus Towers; Microsoft; Ericson; Nokia; Railtel; Tata Trusts and Vodafone Foundation; Goldman Sachs; & IEEE joined in the journey of connecting the unconnected.