We’re committed to making White-Fi happen: Microsoft

Varun Aggarwal Mumbai | Updated on March 12, 2018 Published on May 05, 2016

BHASKAR PRAMANIK, Chairman, Microsoft India

About two years ago, CEOs of Google, Microsoft and Facebook — all spoke to the Indian government about allowing alternate technologies such as solar drones, helium-filled balloons and in Microsoft’s case unused television spectrum or White-Fi technology to provide low-cost internet to rural India. While Facebook and Google are yet to kickstart their projects, Microsoft has already deployed its White-Fi technology in three Indian villages but waiting for government approvals for widespread adoption.

Microsoft India Chairman Bhaskar Pramanik spoke with BusinessLine about how White-Fi, which uses unused space in terrestrial TV spectrum to provide cheap internet connectivity to remote areas, can help solve the last-mile problem in the country. Edited excerpts:

Microsoft has been speaking about White-Fi technology for almost two years but the deployment has not gone beyond a couple of villages. What are the reasons?

We've received clearance to do a number of pilots. The latest is in Harisal village in Maharashtra. The project is yet to be implemented. But Srikakulam (Andhra Pradesh) and Varanasi have all done very well.

We are now getting calls from operators asking for more information. When they realise that we are not going to be the service providers and our technology is much cheaper than setting up a tower, they are all excited.

Some of the critiques of white space say the actual end game of Microsoft is to get its proprietary technology in. They have questioned your altruistic intensions.

White-Fi is for unused spectrum but not free spectrum. The government can decide to charge a fee for it. But am I being altruistic? The answer is absolutely. This was a promise made by Satya (Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella) and I committed to make it happen. There’s no revenue attached to it whatsoever. I'm just trying to help the government solve the last-mile problem. Somewhere in that value chain there will be some piece that'll be valuable for Microsoft but it may be equally valuable to Google or any other provider.

Any operator can setup a tower (to provide broadband connectivity) in village like Harisal where there are 1,700 people. But no one has done that so far.

There are multiple ways in which you can solve the last-mile problem. We've given our view and we believe it is the most cost-effective and proven with enough technical papers around it. IIT has done research on it. Now, the government has to take a decision on it.

What is delaying adoption of White-Fi at a larger scale?

We are waiting for the government to come back. They wanted us to show them the technical viability, which we have done. Now, they want to get feedback from multiple different sources and then they have to take a decision.

So you (the government) can either sit on the so-called unused spectrum or you can decide to give it to the citizens of India and improve their lives.

How are you trying to make Harisal a template for smart village?

So far we've implemented the White-Fi technology only in schools in Varanasi and Srikakulam.

At Harisal, the idea is to put internet at the village panchayat level and then look actually look at what are the potential applications that can have an impact.

We've been working on it for some time and the fact of the matter is that any of this kind of technologies have to have an impact on the lives of the villagers. And that is not very apparent how to do it. Because you have to raise the incomes so that people can afford to pay for this kind of technology.

Each village has a different ecosystem. So, we've finally found that it is not a technology problem. The problem is anthropological in terms of what is it that you're trying to solve.

What we are doing at Harisal is conglomeration of multiple different companies with one goal, which is to uplift Harisal because if it works there it can basically work anywhere.

At Srikakulam, it is only about Skype and education and getting access to the internet. But at Harisal we’ve actually have specific projects identified, applications and services identified. We're trying to bring about change transformation which is also required for people to accept this.

We'll put a project manager there who will live there for two years and will coordinate all these different projects.

Published on May 05, 2016
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