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Is countrywide high-bandwidth network cost-effective?

By K. Ramachandran

CHENNAI, FEB. 19. A countrywide high-bandwidth network, proposed by an experts group, for interconnecting premier institutions and universities has raised new and exciting possibilities for quality upgrading of education. The experts group, under the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD), headed by S.V. Raghavan of Indian Institute of Technology-Madras, in its report proposed `MHRDnet', designed as a 10 (2.5 x 4) gigabit per second (Gbps) network, connecting 120 centrally-funded institutions, including Indian Institutes of Technology, 300 universities and 700-800 engineering colleges and a large number of arts and science colleges.

The network can virtually annihilate distance and more importantly kick-start a movement for developing high quality technical education. The network can help college students receive IIT-quality education in any region.

The group has recommended a model, which enables any agency with fibre laid across the country covering these institutions to participate in the network with their `dark or unlighted' optical fibre pairs. The optical and electrical/electronic equipment to be deployed will depend on the network topology. The total cost is expected to be around Rs. 250 crores.

Coping with technology obsolescence and upgrading would require Rs.75 crores every five years, and Rs.200 crores every eight years. Annually, Rs.30 crores would be required to maintain the network.

As the report points out, the question whether such a large bandwidth is necessary arises. However, technology today has developed phenomenally. The latest INTERNET2 is being established at 2.5/10 Gbps. Its deployment can be justified by several possible applications: E-learning, digital libraries, data centres, videoconferencing across educational institutions, information search and exchange of large databases are just a few. A single countrywide classroom or time-table can be made available for learners. Researchers, students and teachers can interact, learn and experiment with concepts from different corners on a real-time basis. A handful of teachers can reach out to any number of students on an interactive mode.

Citing the example of classroom lectures being made available on demand, the report argues that at any point of time 200 lectures are taking place on one subject in two IITs. Discounting for a partial overlap of 50 classes, between the two institutions 150 unique lectures are being delivered. A 300 megabit per second connectivity can support an application, by which all the lectures can be accessed, captured and stored. Similarly, 200 telephone conversations can be carried on between the two institutions. Large genome databases can be transferred faster, saving hours

of researchers' time.

All this could require at least 622 Mbps connectivity between two institutions: which means its multiples would be required for more institutions to form the CORE of the network. A 2.5 Gbps link will allow at least four institutions to share bandwidth at the same time.

Also, technology in the form of Dense Wavelength Division Multiplexing allows for laying optic fibre bundles of 12, 24, 48, 96 or even 400. The end equipment deals with bandwidth in units of 2.5 Gbps. When one `dark fibre' is lit four times, 2.5 Gbps is automatically available. Scaling this down to current levels of 2 Mbps will be difficult, argues the report.

Though tariff levels at this rate is yet to be computed, judging by the scale of operation, an one-minute call with 2 Mbps for videoconferencing may cost a mere 10 paise a call against, several hundred rupees today. This will usher in an era of `digital opportunities' as opposed to `digital divide', thereby realising a digitally-integrated India. The best places to begin are the higher technological institutions. Given the reputation of the IITs, it is to be expected that such grand plans would only emanate from their corridors.

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