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Sam Pitroda, Advisor to the Prime Minister of India, is bringing networking resouces to all of India's 1.2 billion people and connecting them to other parts of the world. He was the keynote speaker at the Technology Innovation Summit for Economic Revival in Chicago, Tuesday.

Connecting the world 1 billion people at a time

by Matt Rhodes
Oct 24, 2012


Matt Rhodes/MEDILL

Pitroda shared ideas for technological innovation that can interconnect the world.


Matt Rhodes/MEDILL

Bruce Montgomery opened Chicago's Technology Innovation Summit on Tuesday. He's  CEO of Broadband Illinois, a commission that oversees the  stimulus funding of broadband projects throughout Illinois.

The United States and India are partnering to implement one of the most ambitious communication networks ever conceived.

Developing a more egalitarian society in India and the world as a whole can be done by democratizing information, said Sam Pitroda, advisor to the Prime Minister of India. And that means a robust, broadband, optical fiber infrastructure, he said.

“The best brains are busy solving the problems of the rich who don’t really have problems to solve. And as a result, the problems of the poor don’t get the kind of talent we need,” said Pitroda in his keynote speech at the Technology Innovation Summit for Economic Revival, held at Northern Trust Bank in Chicago, Tuesday.

Pitroda said he long wondered how it would be possible to provide the poorest of the poor with the best education and healthcare services possible. As the Public Information Infrastructure and Innovations Advisor, he chaired India’s National Knowledge Commission in 2005. The commission studied access to knowledge and education and how knowledge is created.

Several years and hundreds of advisory reports later and the National Knowledge Network has launched in India. The $3 billion platform consists of 1,500 connection point nodes operating at a bandwidth of 40 gigabytes to pull together all of India’s universities, libraries and higher learning institutions.

“The idea behind it is to radicalize democracy by democratizing information,” said Pitroda.

When Pitroda met with President Barack Obama last November, they decided to launch a joint open-source, open government platform for the U.S. and India. In August, Pitroda met with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to announce that this platform will now be available to all countries free of charge.

The Network - now available to Japan, the European Union and the United States - enables each country’s universities to seamlessly interact with one another.

“So, I can listen to a professor from the University of Chicago and broadcast to 5,000 colleges in India today,” he said

Bruce Montgomery, founder, producer and host of Technology Access Television in Chicago, points out that Illinois is at the forefront of these innovation possibilities.

“Here in the state of Illinois, there’s about $350 million worth of broadband stimulus projects that are going on as a result of the President’s stimulus initiative,” said Montgomery after Pitroda's address.

“Just last week the governor announced two stimulus grants, one at the University of Chicago and one in Aurora, that will support one-gigabyte networks, which is 100 times faster than the typical broadband that exists for public use today,” Montgomery said.

India is also connecting 250,000 local governments through almost 1.5 kilometers of optical fiber at the cost of an additional $6 billion. Pitroda said he hopes to have this completed in the next 18 months.

As if these two networks were not ambitious enough, Pitroda explained one more program that raised a few astonished eyebrows in the audience.

“Along with these networks, we have a program to identify and tag every resident in the country – one billion people are being given a unique ID – with fingerprints, iris and photograph - at a cost of $3 to 4 billion,” Pitroda said.

Sound far-fetched? India has already documented 200 million people and by December 2013, 690 million Indian residents will be part of the network. That is more than half of India’s total population of 1.2 billion.

“The idea is to tag every human being in the country” to link people to a variety of resources and services, Pitroda said.

And he’s not done.

The government of India is also spending another $2 billion to map every physical space in the country.

“There’s too many maps from too many agencies,” Pitroda said. “We need one map.”

The idea of having an entire population geo-tagged along with every physical space accounted for in one giant network might be slightly disconcerting, especially to American sensibilities. So, it was no surprise that the first question from an audience member was how Pitroda plans to balance privacy and civil liberties with such a program.

“If people think that their privacy is a major issue, they’re kidding themselves,” Pitroda responded. “Everybody knows what you’re doing everywhere.”

Pitroda said he doesn’t think the privacy issue should be ignored, however, it’s just that the benefits of the program, such as improving the delivery of public services, and creating transparency and accountability, far outweigh the loss of privacy necessarily involved.

“There’s a lot of leakage in the delivery of public services – a lot of middlemen trying to steal here, steal there, corruption and all that,” explained Pitroda. “We feel that unique ID is going to be very important in delivering public services and keeping track of who gets what and when.”

Pitroda used the example of the food distribution and ration programs in India, where poor people get food delivered to them at lower prices. To keep track of distribution and allocation of food and rations, this program will be completely streamlined though the unique ID platform.

“We’re trying to improve efficiency, productivity and transparency,” Pitroda reassured.

Pitroda insisted that the motivation underlying all these projects is the attempt to redefine the classic model of education and balance equity disparity through technological implementation, innovation and communication.

“It’s not just about governments, it’s about education and the access to knowledge anywhere you are – it’s about mobility,” Pitroda said in an interview.

“I can have a little kid in the South Side of Chicago learning math on a cell phone. That’s an option, but we don’t have that today. Today, you have to go to school, you have to get admitted – today, everything is structured. Twentieth-century models are obsolete,” said Pitroda.

Poonam Gupta-Krishnan, President and CEO of the Illinois-based Iyka Enterprises Inc.
created and organized the Technology Innovation Summit with support from the Illinois Institute of Technology. The Summit was created in the effort to "bring back the creativity and innovation in our public life to create jobs and economic stability," Gupta-Krishnan said.

In addition to bringing the Summit back for its third year in 2013, Gupta-Krishnan wants to go one step further.

"I would like to establish a non-profit organization that provides consulting and support for government technology professionals," she said.

But she was quick to point out that this would only be possible if United States government agencies and major corporations teamed up in the effort.

Pitroda emphatically pointed out in his speech that none of the ambitious technological developments he's spearheading would have been possible without the Government of India's support.

"We need to have political will and support also to make the impact the Technology Innovation Summit intends to make," Gupta-Krishnan concluded.