Jan 10, 2005 – Footprints Column
“We’re from Aravind Eye Hospital. Can we go on your roof?” That’s what the residents of Theni and Ambasam heard as a small team of graduate students from the University of California at Berkeley (UCB), aided by Ashok and Saravan, went on a unique mission that took them to the tops of water towers, chicken sheds, public high schools, and rooftops of some government officials’ homes. The team is part of project called Technology and Infrastructure for Emerging Regions, or TIER, that focuses on developing hardware and software explicitly designed for the economic, political, and physical realities of the developing world. Specifically, this team was working on getting a high-bandwidth wireless computer network link set up between the Aravind Eye Hospital in Theni and the Aravind Clinic in Ambasam with the aim of making telemedicine more feasible.
At present, Aravind maintains a low-bandwidth radio frequency link between Theni and Ambasam that is used for basic computer communications. The greater bandwidth of the proposed system would make it possible for a patient in Ambasam to have their eyes checked by a doctor in Theni, and eventually, by a doctor anywhere. Essentially, a patient could come into the clinic, have images of their eyes wirelessly transmitted over the high-bandwidth link to Theni, where a doctor could make a diagnosis about whether the patient needed to visit the hospital or could be treated on site, saving both the doctor and patient valuable time and transportation expense. The greater range also makes it possible to set up ophthalmic information kiosks at other non-hospital sites that could do automated diagnosis or live remote consultations, in addition to a number of other non-medical services.
In the United States, high-bandwidth wireless computer networks are increasingly common. The problem with using the same technology in India is that the devices usually have a range of about 100 meters, and require a stable power supply and relatively high power consumption that make them expensive and unreliable for this market. Recognizing these problems, Sonesh Surana and Rabin Patra of UCB began working on a team that developed a modified technology with a much greater range that required less power and could function normally even after power resumed from an outage. Lead by UCB Professor Eric Brewer, the larger TIER project is supported by the U.S. National Science Foundation, Hewlett Packard, Intel, United Nations Development Program, IIT Delhi, the Markle Foundation and Grameen Bank. Also collaborating in the effort is the MS Swaminathan Foundation which has already established wireless communication between a number of villages near Pondicherry that will also be connected to the Aravind Eye Hospital in Pondicherry.
After four days of climbing on top of every recognizable and visible high point in the region around Theni and Ambasam with laptop computers, bionoculars, antennas, power cords, global positioning system (GPS) units, and a telescope, the team was finally able to achieve computer communication on January 6th between a relay point in Theni and Ambasam at a range of about 8km. Sonesh and Rabin returned to Theni on the 7th and after two days mixing cement, welding poles, and mounting antennas, they were able to achieve communication speeds of 4 megabits per seconds between Aravind Eye Hospital and Ambasam, creating a link 10-12 times faster than the satellite link between Theni and Madurai. “The coolest thing was that so many people pitched in to help just when we needed them,” said Sonesh as he marveled at the cooperative spirit that came through from so many unnamed helpers at Aravind.
(migrated from my Livejournal post)