IIT Bombay’s Project for Affordable Rural Broadband Wins Mozilla’s ‘Equal Rating Innovation Challenge’

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Mumbai: Global non-profit organization Mozilla has announced IIT Bombay’s project ‘Gram Marg Solution for Rural Broadband’ the winner of its ‘Equal Rating Innovation Challenge’. The Mumbai-based Project Gram Marg will receive USD125,000 (INR 82 lakhs) in funding for its unique affordable broadband initiative.

The project won by an overwhelming margin. The competition called for initiatives to make affordable Internet available to all. The challenge received 100 submissions from 27 countries. The final shortlist of best five entries was prepared after deliberations by an esteemed panel of expert judges from around the world. Nearly 6,000 votes were polled in the online community voting in the final phase of the competition, with Gram Marg and Zenzeleni emerging as the leading vote-getters.

Gram Marg, which roughly translates as “roadmap” in Hindi, seeks to bring 640,000 villages in rural India online. Spearheaded by Indian Institute of Technology Bombay professor Prof. Abhay Karandikar, Dean (Faculty Affairs) and Institute Chair Professor of Electrical Engineering Dr. Sarbani Banerjee Belur, a Senior Project Research Scientist, the project reinforces the remarkable progress such communities could achieve once they have access to information pertaining to education, health and the political process.

In its bid to both bridge the digital divide and empower unconnected communities, the Gram Marg team has created an ingenious and “indigenous” technology that utilizes unused white space on the TV spectrum to backhaul data from village wifi clusters to provide broadband access (frugal 5G). The team of academics and field workers leverages what people already have in their homes, and creates rugged receivers and transmitters to connect villages in even the most difficult terrains. The solution has been rolled out in 25 villages on a pilot basis so far. The win entitles Project Gram Marg to USD 125,000 (INR82 lakhs) in funding.

Reacting to the honour, Prof. Karandikar said, “We are humbled by the judges’ decision and the community votes that choose our solution as the winner. All semifinalists were equally competitive. It was really a challenge to pitch our solution among them.”

He further added, “We will continue to improve our technology solution to make it more efficient. We are also working on a sustainable business model that can enable local village entrepreneurs to deploy and manage access networks. We believe that a decentralized and sustainable model is the key to the success of a technology solution for connecting the unconnected. We are also evaluating an applications and services model to enable local village populations to reap the full benefits of broadband access. We hope that our model can be aligned with our Prime Minister’s vision of ‘Broadband for all’ under the government’s Digital India program,” he added.

Following the announcement, Katharina Borchert, Chief Innovation Officer at Mozilla, noted in a blog post, “Mozilla started this initiative because we believe in the power of collaborative solutions to tackle big issues. We wanted to take action and encourage change. At Mozilla, our commitment to Equal Rating through policy, innovation, research and support of entrepreneurs in the space will continue beyond this Innovation Challenge, but it will take a global community to bring all of the internet to all people. We’re incredibly honoured that part of this global community came together and engaged with us through this Innovation Challenge. We’re excited and optimistic about the road ahead.”

Lauding project Gram Marg’s initiative, one of the Judges, Nikhil Pahwa, founder of Medianama.com and co-founder of SaveTheInternet.in observed, “What impressed me particularly about Gram Marg was the fact that they were able to bring the cost of the technology for delivering broadband over the TV White Space spectrum down to a fraction of the cost. This spectrum allows delivery of broadband without line of sight connectivity. As a result, it is more useful across hilly terrain, and can help bring cheaper Internet access to those areas. The technology will be open source, which means that it will be accessible to anyone anywhere.”

The runner-up award of USD 75,000 went to Afri-Fi: Free Public WiFi, led by Tim Human from South Africa. The project is an extension of the successful project Isizwe, which offers 500MB of data for free per day. The key goal of Afri-Fi is to create a sustainable business model by linking together free wifi networks throughout South Africa and engaging users meaningfully with advertisers so they can “earn” free wifi.

The “Most Novel” award worth USD 30,000 went to Bruno Vianna and his team from the Free Networks P2P Cooperative, which is building on the energy of free networks movement in Brazil to tackle the digital divide. Rather than focusing on technology, the Coop has created a financial and logistical model that can be tailored to each village’s norms and community. The team experiments with ways to engage communities through “barn-raising” group activities, deploying “open calls” for leadership to reinforce the democratic nature of their approach, and instituting a sense of “play” for the villagers when learning how to use the equipment.

Mozilla, the non-profit organization behind the open source browser Firefox, launched the ‘Equal Rating Innovation Challenge’ in October 2016 as part of its endeavour to help catalyze new thinking and innovation for providing open internet access to communities living without it. It called out to entrepreneurs, designers, researchers and innovators from all over the world to propose creative and scalable ideas that can cultivate digital literacy and provide affordable access to the full diversity of the open internet. Mozilla offered awards totalling USD 250,000 (INR 164 lakhs) in funding and expert mentorship to bring these solutions to the market.