Interview with Rajiv Mehrotra, Chairman & CEO of VNL

Developing Telecoms recently had the opportunity to speak to VNL Chairman & CEO Rajiv Mehrotra about the firm’s activities in the field of rural connectivity...

Developing Telecoms recently had the opportunity to speak to VNL Chairman & CEO Rajiv Mehrotra about the firm’s activities in the field of rural connectivity.

A veteran of the telecom industry, Mr Mehrotra was instrumental in projects which brought first cable TV, then wireless telephones to hundreds of thousands of Indian villages. He later founded Shyam Telecom, the flagship of the Shyam Group. Various subsidiaries of the group have launched GSM, CDMA and VSAT services across India.

Mr Mehrotra founded VNL in 2004 as part of his vision to connect the billions of unconnected in rural areas. The company’s solar-powered WorldGSM system is designed for deployment in rural communities, and has enormous potential for emerging markets.

DT: Tell us about how the WorldGSM system was originally conceived.

RM: Necessity is the mother of invention. Back in 2001, 2002, when VNL was operating its own mobile systems, the problems we ran into were always to do with backhauling, and with the power supply outside cities. Each base station needs power, but there is no immediate resolution to the issue of power shortages and the subsequent need to supply base stations with diesel. Therefore, the necessity was to create a self-sustainable system to service rural areas which would become an intrinsic part of communities – which would belong to the people.

Once this need has been identified, several more criteria arise – for example, it had to be low-cost. VNL knew how much people could pay for such a service, and in India it couldn’t be more than around 100 rupees, or US$2.5. Ultimately, this system would need to allow an operator to go into these rural areas where people can’t pay over the odds and provide services while still being able to make a profit.

In terms of the upkeep of the system, it is designed for remote areas with little to no infrastructure – no roads, no hotels, no available manpower. There is nobody to supervise planning, commissioning, surveying or installation – with this in mind, it was crucial that the solution be designed so that every aspect of it could be taken care of by the villagers themselves.

Obviously, then, the remit was to design a simple rural broadband system. It needed to be solar powered to avoid any issues with grid or diesel power, and the unique backhauling and power systems make it easy to install.

DT: What are the major advantages of the system?

RM: A major advantage is that it is commercially viable. Other solar powered systems have not reduced the power consumption enough, and as a result have to be powered by up to 72 panels – operators will never make any money if they are forced to invest in this amount of infrastructure. Instead, this type of project is often viewed merely as a corporate responsibility programme. While a firm may have deployed 1000 solar powered base stations, it won’t deploy 100 000 due to the ratio between energy consumption and expense.

A commercially viable solar solution therefore has to have minimal infrastructure; it needs to be optimised for a rural environment. It must also have an advantage over current solutions. One of the biggest problems faced by operators is power – virtually 100% of telecoms installations in Africa and India have a diesel generator, which collectively represent an enormous source of air pollution. While operators know this, and want to ‘go green’, vendors haven’t presented a commercially viable alternative. WorldGSM however is totally green, self-sustainable, very economical to install and operate, and incurs virtually no operating or maintenance costs.

DT: What kind of coverage does the solution provide?

RM: The antennas are designed to be placed on the rooves of buildings; to prevent theft or damage, they will normally be placed on the village chief’s house. They have an outdoor range of 3km, and an indoor range of 1km. Rural Indian villages are typically around 4 – 5km apart, so as long as each village has one antenna, coverage is fairly seamless. As many of the villagers are illiterate, voice is the main method of communication, so a high capacity system is essential – the WorldGSM antenna is modular to allow for capacity upgrades if necessary.

The solution was tested for 2 years in India and is now deployed by 7 operators globally. Across the whole of India, the solution is active in over 100 villages, and it has also been deployed in Nepal, Uganda and Kenya.

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