A drive down India beyond an 8-10 km radius of most major city limits often feels like a drop down the rabbit hole of Alice in Wonderland from a digital connectivity standpoint. Pervasive data connectivity adequate to run most bandwidth hungry data applications, often taken for granted in urban settings by both retail and enterprise customers, seems a far-fetched reality in the realms of rural India.
It is often believed that mobile-based 4G connectivity would rapidly solve the problem of digital divide. However, the reality is far from the dream. Even in relatively well-connected states like Andhra Pradesh, nearly 20% of villages lack any form of 4G connectivity.
Even where 4G exists, it rarely satisfies the need for applications with social impact such as access to quality education, uninterrupted entertainment, financial inclusion and government schemes.
For enterprises, fluctuating bandwidth makes SIM-based access at best a backup solution for low bandwidth usage applications like IoT. Current 4G connectivity in these dispersed locations is an inadequate alternative to fiber on a standalone basis.
Some factors that contribute to this digital divide:
Spotty tower coverage: Weak signal footprints in dispersed rural contexts due to inadequate tower coverage.
Limited fiberization: With only 30% fiberization of towers, mostly concentrated in urban areas, bandwidth availability at rural towers is highly contested, making simultaneous video applications a challenge.
Data caps: Mobile data caps ranging from 18-20 GB per month, compared to 3-4 TB per month on fiber, make mobile connectivity restrictive, especially for small to medium-sized branch offices.
This lack of connectivity leads to lack of development due to limited skilling and limited industries. For enterprises seeking secure connectivity, the lack of fiber connectivity poses issues in deploying and maintaining secure Virtual Private Networks (VPN). Traditional multi-protocol label switching (MPLS) links at remote locations are expensive, bandwidth-constrained, and offer restrictive internet connectivity due to lack of local Internet breakouts.
Here, comes software-defined wide-area network (SD-WAN) to the rescue!
SD-WAN solutions have matured over the years and can help bridge the digital divide for retail as well as enterprise users. Technology has now evolved to offer an effective solution across the technology stack. SD-WAN works like a remote desktop application with the operating system hosted in a cloud, delinked from the underlying hardware with communication between them established via encrypted tunnels.
Here's why SD-WAN is a game-changer!
WAN agnostic: SD-WAN solutions can operate well over various WAN types, including broadband, leased lines, MPLS, broadband over satellite, and 4G/5G connectivity. They can seamlessly failover between these WAN types based on network issues or divert traffic based on application criticality.
Zero-touch provisioning: SD-WAN supports zero-touch provisioning and troubleshooting, improving manageability without the need for on-site IT experts.
Full stack solutions: Many SD-WAN solutions offer full-stack network solutions, including stateful firewalls, intrusion detection and prevention, micro-segmentation of networks, and managed Wi-Fi solutions, reducing complexity and vendor coordination issues.
Simplified procurement: SD-WAN can work with simple X86 boxes, simplifying procurement and deployment at scale.
Advanced features: Some SD-WANs offer advanced features like geo-fencing for access to applications, providing an additional layer of security for sensitive applications.
Utilizing SD-WAN to bridge digital divide
Now, we can use SD-WAN to bridge the digital divide.
Retail users: SD-WAN deployment in rural areas, integrated with multiple mobile operator SIM cards and primary connectivity sources like fiber or Broadband over Satellite, can bring uninterrupted internet connectivity to rural India for key initiatives. It ensures that resources work for financial inclusion and social enrichment rather than bandwidth-choking non-enriching content such as gaming, while also enabling skilling and job creation without significant urban migration.
Enterprise users: SD-WAN enables rapid expansion to tier 2/ 3 cities with low-cost broadband and mobile SIM cards. Its "Network-in-a-Box" feature simplifies deployment in remote areas without compromising security, benefiting industries like BFSI by providing mobile branches for digital banking. The generic blackbox-based CPE solution supported by SDWAN eliminates the need for specialized boxes significantly simplifying deployment and maintenance.
To conclude, modern SD-WAN solutions combine multiple WAN technologies with the celerity of deployment and full stack secure applications to bridge the digital divide across geographies. It's time we embrace this technology to ensure that the benefits of a connected world reach every corner of India.
-- Sameer Kanse, Chief Business Officer, Enterprise Business Unit, ONEOTT iNTERTAINMENT Ltd.