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India builds data network to reach the stars

Ambitious new, high-speed data network promises to be a game-changer in India.

S.V. Raghavan, the person in charge of the project, is a veteran professor of the world-renowned Indian Institute of Technology in Chennai, and the program is being overseen by the National Informatics Centre, a government agency that focuses on IT.

"The National Knowledge Network is a game-changer," said Raghavan. "It integrates India's higher education and research. If an institution in the northeast wants to collaborate with an institution in the south, it used to be that they had to find a way to do it themselves, which was difficult so there was no motivation to do it. Now if you provide them the infrastructure to do it they will use it."

The network will facilitate research collaborations that could solve many problems the country faces in areas like health, sustainable development and the spread of technology.

Raghavan says the network is working with India's state-owned telecommunications providers to make the ambitious project a reality. "This is the hidden treasure of the nation," Raghavan said about India's public telecommunications infrastructure. "In a large socialist democracy, state intervention is the best way to reach the masses."

The knowledge network will be a marked improvement, Raghavan said. "Scientific institutions have had linkages, but they've been suboptimal. Now we provide unparalleled optimization. An institute can ask for advice in the morning on a research issue ... and can get the answer at the latest by the evening," he said.

The network has already helped with the shortage of faculty members in India's eight new Indian Institutes of Technology. Before the new institutes opened, the seven older ones suffered from a dearth of professors, and the expansion drew criticism for that.

The knowledge network helped make virtual classrooms at the new institutes. Classes at the older establishments were broadcast to students at the new ones. And it wasn't a one-way interaction. A professor could see students on a large screen, and they in turn could ask questions and have discussions with the teacher and their peers.

That didn't completely solve the faculty shortage problem, of course. It is difficult to develop relationships remotely, and the students at the new institutes wanted to have occasional tutorials in person with teachers. But it helped alleviate the problem in the short-term.

The knowledge network is focused on public universities, but it will benefit private ones too.

"We are linking even the private colleges and universities for two to three years at no charge because we want to create a cultural change," said a senior technical director at the National Informatics Centre who declined to be named. "After the initial free period, we might ask them to pay operational costs and everyone will pay it. ... They will get addicted."

In addition to helping Indian higher education connect to itself, the knowledge network will link it to the outside world.

For example, the network has assisted India's ability to contribute to research efforts with the Large Hadron Collider, the giant particle accelerator in Europe. Indian scientists are studying data generated by the collider, and the network has helped them receive and process that data.

The senior official with the informatics center says Canadian and American universities too are "all excited to be able to connect to Indian institutions," in part because of the network's capabilities.

For their part, Raghavan and Pitroda envision almost limitless possibilities thanks to the network — the discovery of life-saving drugs, new entrepreneurial ventures and more.

"Welcome to life at 10 gigabits per second," said Raghavan.