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New Indian tech could help rural communities bridge digital divide

The Pruthvi chip, made by Bangalore-based Saankhya labs, can make use of unused TV bandwidth to provide long-range Internet access to rural areas.

A white space base station used for rural broadband. This model costs $850. Saankhya Labs

Bringing Internet access to the developing world has been a major goal for both governments and the tech elite. One of the big roadblocks, though, has been the lack of quality infrastructure in third world countries -- but an Indian company may have just developed a device that can clear that hurdle.

Meet Pruthvi, a little chip with a big destiny.

Pruthvi -- Sanskrit for Earth -- is at the heart of a transmitter called Meghdoot, made by Bangalore-based Saankhya Labs. Meghdoot uses TV white space -- the unused frequencies in the television broadcasting wireless spectrum -- to power Internet routers, the Economic Times reports.

Networks often leave a buffer between channels for safety reasons, and these bands of empty signal are known as white spaces. These spaces, usually in the 470 MHz to 790 MHz band, are at a lower frequency than cell phone signals and therefore a longer wavelength, giving the signal a longer range. In this case, they can be used to deliver fairly low-speed Internet access over a wide area.

Limited Internet connectivity in developing nations, particularly in densely populated India, is an issue that the likes of Google and Facebook have tried to address. Google last month announced its plan to provide free Wi-Fi to 400 train stations in India, while Facebook has been working on the Internet.org project, which makes certain websites and apps available without the user needing to pay for data.

The Meghdoot technology has a stronger connection range than most regular home routers, which usually have between a 10-20 metre range, with white space broadband having a connection range of 10-15 kilometres (6.2-9.3 miles) and the capacity to travel through man-made and natural obstacles, such as walls and vegetation.

A single unused channel on the spectrum has 22 Mbps of bandwidth, according to the nonprofit WhiteSpaceAlliance, and can serve up to 512 devices. In a densely populated area with a large number of smartphones that will make for slow Internet access -- impractical for watching YouTube, but good enough for banking and messaging.

Pruthvi's specific use in the process is to allow Meghdoot to connect to a user-side modem to translate these white space signals to the more common Internet bands that smartphones, tablets and computers use.

"[The] world over, regulatory authorities are using or planning to use this spectrum for their respective connectivity programmes," Parag Naik, CEO and co-founder of Saankhya Labs told the Economic Times. "India can take the lead in both technology and the markets for TV white space-based broadband delivery."

Saankhya Labs is reportedly set to conduct field trials in India and has also partnered with organisations in the Philippines, US and Singapore for more far-reaching trials of the device.