People do not get to see the information pipeline that we can. Be it Wikipedia, YouTube and all online literature
If you are an average Indian smartphone user, chances are that you have battled slow mobile data speeds, even with ‘4G’ internet. In rural India, the situation is worse. Despite the affordability of internet access, data shows that India’s mobile internet speeds have a lot of catching up to do.
It was this problem that Neha Satak (39) and Prasad H L Bhat (40) set out to solve with their startup ‘Astrome’. Hailing from villages in Rajasthan and coastal Karnataka, they knew all too well how connectivity could make a difference in people’s lives.
Though there is a clear need for the internet in rural India, there is an issue in achieving a pervasive network simply because, “the pipe carrying the data is not big enough. To increase the size of the pipe, one can deploy fibre everywhere, but fibre deployment is extremely expensive and takes a long time,” explains Neha Satak, co-founder of the startup.
GigaMesh, a device developed by Astrome, makes network deployment faster and cheaper by using wireless technology. This cuts down the costs of setting up long and expensive fibre – used in traditional connections. Neha and Prasad have a patent for innovating this technology.
While current methods can beam only one point-to-point link, Astrome’s device enables multiple point-to-point links. In other words, a single-hub GigaMesh device in a gram panchayat can connect multiple villages around it. Right now, multiple devices are set up close to each village.
“This is like the wireless equivalent of fibre optic. You are able to achieve that kind of capacity by installing these devices. It does not require the grunt work of digging the trench,” adds Prasad H L Bhat, who is the chairman and chief technology officer of the startup.
A recently deployed device network, connecting Sompura gram panchayat to Nidavanda village in rural Bengaluru district, is just an example of what the startup aims to do.
This has enabled a government school in Nidavanda to provide online classes to students.
“Our students had a demonstration class for English using this internet connection,” says K Rajanna, the headmaster. “It would be very convenient to have such classes,” he adds.
A student agrees. “It was fun, the screen was projected on the big wall in one of our classrooms. Teachers taught us English and Social Studies online,” he said.
Additionally, operational costs are further reduced due to an automatic realignment feature. In most traditional wireless devices, the beam that transmits the network is directional. Any kind of misalignment will have to be corrected manually. “But in GigaMesh, we have created a smart antenna built into the device, which can allow the beam to be repositioned automatically even if it misaligns due to wind,” says Prasad.
Experts in the field point out that Astrome’s technology is addressing a big challenge.
“When we are trying to expand the scope of digital benefits, we must remember that there are 85 crore people in villages. Their biggest challenge is that they do not have access to connectivity,” says Umakant Soni, chief executive officer of Artificial Intelligence & Robotics Technology Park, a not-for-profit foundation promoted by Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bengaluru.
Genesis of idea
Prasad and Neha’s collaboration began at IISc, where the duo pursued their Masters, and worked together on a student satellite project – AeroSat.
After her Masters in Aerospace Engineering, Neha pursued a PhD in the same subject.
Following his Masters in System Science and Automation Engineering, Prasad founded a startup in 2012 after completing a PhD in Computer Science and Automation Engineering. “During my days at my first startup, Streamoid Technologies, I was looking at newer problems to solve. I reconnected with Neha to discuss what we can solve from space,” says Prasad. This is when he zeroed in on connectivity.
A survey that the duo conducted before launching the startup revealed that more than two-thirds of the population did not have internet connection — in rural and suburban areas. The consequences of a lack of connectivity stood out to the entrepreneurs.
“People do not get to see the information pipeline that we can. Be it Wikipedia, YouTube and all online literature,” says Prasad.
For Neha, who grew up in a village in Rajasthan, it was important to, “solve a problem that is big for the people in the place we grew up. That was the motivation behind building Astrome,” she says.
At Astrome, Prasad takes care of the research and development side of things and Neha handles the business by pushing for adoption among various use cases including projects with the Department of Telecommunications and Indian defence.
The name Astrome was coined by merging two words: ‘Astro’, meaning universe, and ‘me’, representing ‘my relation with the universe’, Neha explains. “However, Prasad has his own meaning for the word,” she says.
“The name comes from ‘Aster’ – in some sense to mean ‘space’; then we added a spin of ‘Om’ into it to signify vacuum – so it is a combination,” says Prasad.
The journey to building this technology, however, was not easy. The road ahead, too, is complicated.
A device like the GigaMesh uses various kinds of circuit boards, which can be challenging in case of a chip shortage.
“In the hardware industry, it takes a long cycle to design something and realise it. We need to fabricate it, test it, qualify it and then finally deploy it. While this was our initial challenge, we have been able to bring that cycle time down considerably,” notes Prasad. He hopes the printed circuit board fabrication will get better in India soon.
While the company is currently running pilots in a few villages of Karnataka, it plans to expand to 25 to 30 villages in a year. Besides its solutions for rural India, the company also has been in talks with Indian defence to provide their technology for communication in border areas.