Rural Computer Room

AirJaldi Brings Internet to Difficult Terrains in Rural India

In this golden age of social networks and ecommerce, and everything else online, internet is taken for granted. Urban India is constantly logged in–be it on their phones, tablets, laptops, or those huge machines called desktops. But for AirJaldi, all this was a rarity in the areas they first ventured into, though now their efforts have brought hundreds of rural communities online.

AirJaldi started as a social, non-profit enterprise established in Dharamshala, HP, that provides affordable, wireless broadband connectivity to remote rural areas at reasonable rates. It was born out of the efforts of a group of people who visited Dharamsala frequently and developed an affinity for the place and its people—mainly Tibetan refugees—and wanted to do something for its development. Yahel Ben-David, an internet pioneer from Israel, and Michael Ginguld, an Israeli engineer with a masters from Harvard, are the co founders. AirJaldi was born out of a need for a network that connected local institutions and the community via the Internet. However, the infrastructure wasn’t available. But things began moving in 2005, when two bandwidth ranges (2.4 ghz/5.8 ghz), known as wi-fi ranges, were delicensed by the Government of India. The group could then interconnect locations without having to procure a licence.

AirJaldi purchases huge bandwidth from ISPs like AirTel and distributes it to its clients, offering speeds ranging from 256 kbps to 6 mbps for now, though it is capable of offering speeds as high as 60-70 mbps. AirJaldi’s philosophy and business model centers on creating networks that by design are meant to reach out to all potential clients at a reasonable price. Each relay is built to reach specific clients but at the same time, each client is also potentially a relay to other clients. This allows networks to grow organically and quickly respond to demands, thereby contributing to the ultimate goal of reaching out to all users in rural areas.

AirJaldi helped connect this “Dharamkot Government School” in the upper part of McLeod Ganj, on the top of a hill where no companies provide an internet connection. It is a small school with about 45 students aged 5-13 funded by the government. What sets them apart is the vision of going beyond being just another school in rural India, a vision brought to life with Airjaldi providing them affordable and sustainable internet. Ravi, the headmaster of the school, had plans to use internet for his school with a hope to bridge a gap between the school and the outside world.

Tsering Paldom, 54, a tuberculosis ward coordinator at the De Lek Hospital in McLeodganj used to wait days for medical reports by post, but now because of the hospital’s free AirJaldi connection, the analysis is in within 24 hours by email.

Earlier this year, AirJaldi provided a steady wireless link in Bodh Gaya Bihar to enable live streaming of teachings by His Holiness, the Dalai Lama through six different channels with narrations in multiple languages, to be followed by people across the globe.

An AirJaldi node draped by Tibetan prayer flags

Concentrated in the northern parts of India, especially spreading across Jharkhand, Kumaon, Kangra and Garhwal, AirJaldi is making internet happen in the picturesque but tough terrains of these areas. Some remote locations require many hours of pre-planning and field scouting for locations to set up transmitting towers called ‘relays’. Each deployment has its own set of challenges–be it the tough treks in the foothills of the Himalayas or the extreme weather conditions on some peaks. Over the last few years AirJaldi provided a lot of business clients, small govt schools and various colleges with internet services which are reliable in all weather conditions and available at very reasonable rates. Their efforts have helped schools, monasteries and hospitals of these areas harness the power of the internet, who receive their free services, thus helping rural India to develop one step at a time.

AirJaldi started as a non-profit organization, but three years ago, the network went commercial when the strictly not-for-profit organisation needed more funds to achieve its goals. AirJaldi.com is for profit and AirJaldi.org is the non-profit wing which is for research and teachings.

Here is a conversation with Michael Ginguild, co-founder AirJaldi:

How does the AirJaldi network work? I mean the gory details. How do you create a wireless network for those ranges? Where do you get the bandwidth from?
Upstream links from multiple large internet providers are carried to a local Network Operation Center (NOC), at times across many Kilometers. The NOC has monitoring tools allowing efficient, secure and reliable service. From the NOC, connectivity is extended through small, environmental-friendly wireless relays to clients near and far. Distances between relays range between a few hundred meters to 50 Km. or so.  Our wireless relays are solar powered and mounted on small poles. Clients connect to relays through Customer Premise Equipment (CPEs), which are made of small and powerful routers. Each relay is built to reach specific clients but at the same time, each client is also potentially a relay to other clients.

What sort of licenses do you need from the government, especially for the non-profit wing?
We adhere with the requirements on DoT relating to ISP licensing.

How do you manage to set up your infrastructure? Do you have all the necessary manpower and expertise to do that by yourself, or do you outsource a part of it to some other company?
The infrastructure is set up by our team based on physical and online surveys and planning. We do not outsource any part of our work.

Do you strictly provide your services only in the rural areas? For small towns on the border, how do you decide if it is rural or urban?
We follow the definitions of the Govt of India on rural vs. urban areas, although the demarcation is sometime far from clear. As a rule, we determine rural to be an area that is not a big city, is relatively sparsely populated and has need for our services. We are not focusing only on rural areas, although this is our priority. If in the there is a specific demand for internet in an urban area adjacent to our rural deployment then we may look into it but we do not really venture into urban areas as a first priority.

When, and why did you turn to a for-profit company? Does the for-profit arm also operate only in rural areas?
The non-profit wing carries out R&D work and also provides training on networks design and management. The focus is indeed on rural areas. Three years ago, the network went commercial when we realised that our strictly not-for-profit organisation needed more funds to achieve its goals.It was a tough but unavoidable decision. Now, I can take on commercial clients like hotels and use the profits accrued to give free or subsidised connections to schools. Our route has altered a bit, but the destination remains the same: connecting those who need it at an affordable price with reliable service.

How do you market and publicize yourselves? Frankly speaking I had not heard of AirJaldi before you contacted us on Pluggd.in, even though you are in the business for quite some time now.
We do not undertake any big national level marketing initiatives but rather focus on marketing locally within areas where we work.  Our main aim is to make the local population aware of our services. For this, we use basic techniques like posters, flyers banners etc. Our online presence is mainly aimed at  spread information on our work in general and developments in rural areas. We have a presence on Facebook Twitter and Google+.

How big is the team behind AirJaldi? Are there more Israelis in the team?
Michael Ginguld is still with the company and is the Director of Strategy and Operations. Yahel Ben-David is presently not with the company physically as he is pursuing his PhD from Berkeley. Our total team numbers around 25 people at the moment.

AirJadi is a grassroots innovation for the ‘modern’ rural India in its own might. With internet-specific jobs, and working remotely a common trend among the youngsters, good internet connectivity in remote, rural areas would provide opportunities for employees to work from the comfort of their homes. This would also mean lesser migration to the already overcrowded cities, and more monies coming into villages, enabling all round development, in the process creating more local jobs, increasing literacy, the results of the chain process are limitless. Internet, in this way, can help in reshaping the rural landscape.