Project Title Connectivity Bridges: Reaching Remote Locations with High Speed Internet Services
Amount Awarded USD 150,000
Dates covered by this report: 2021-12-22 to 2023-06-22
Report submission date 2024-02-20
Economies where project was implemented India
Project leader name
Michael Ginguld

Project Summary

AirJaldi used this grant to create a hybrid ‘WiFiber’ system that bridges existing under-used infrastructure, and adds capability and coverage to reach users. Officially signed on November 2021, the objectives of the project, entitled “Connectivity Bridges”, were to build a combined wireless-Fiber (“WiFiber”) network in the mostly rural state of Arunachal Pradesh, providing residents with fast and affordable Internet services which would assist with skilling and training opportunities for local community members and share project learning internally within AirJaldi and externally in India and elsewhere.

However, after preliminary surveys and project planning, the team came to the conclusion that setting up the networks in Arunachal Pradesh at this point in time with the resources available carried the risk of creating networks whose long-term sustainable was not assured.

Following discussions with the APNIC foundation management, it was agreed to shift the project to the neighboring states of Sikkim and West Bengal. The decision was central to ensuring the success of the project, which did meet most of its stated objectives: seven auxiliary networks were created (two are in the process of being completed as this report is written) with the support of three hub networks, 461 customer accounts, catering to about 7,600 people, were created. 11 people were locally recruited and are now part of a team of around 30 people who maintain the networks in Sikkim and West Bengal, over 90% of whom are members of local communities.  

Most importantly, the networks continue to be operational and grow, even as the project funding is coming to an end, and the WiFiber model developed and tested as part of this project now features prominently in AirJaldi’s future growth an expansion plans. The model was also shared and discussed in multiple public forums and the company hopes it will be of use to other ISPs working in rural areas in India and elsewhere.

Table of Contents

Background and Justification

Throughout Asia, not least in India, efforts are being made to expand Internet penetration through multiple infrastructure development initiatives, using existing infrastructure and expanding it, introducing new technologies and making use of wired and wireless networks (terrestrial or satellite-based). Often, in particular in rural areas, these different infrastructures are not easily interconnected, leading to some infrastructure being underutilized. At times, infrastructure built in the past (in particular large telco towers) is deemed no longer relevant and lies unused. At the same time, demand for connectivity is no longer limited to simply being connected: increasingly, users require high speeds to be able to fully utilize the potential of the Internet and the applications running on it.

Massive efforts were carried out by Government owned and private sector telecommunication companies to provide Internet connectivity infrastructure throughout the states we work in. This ongoing work, however, mostly focuses on high-density areas with large populations. Towns and villages with smaller populations are often left out of this connectivity drive with the end result being an ever-expending digital gap.

In this project, we addressed this discrepancy by creating hybrid “WiFiber” systems in three network areas in the Indian states of West Bengal and Sikkim. These systems, which bridge existing infrastructure (fiber backbone infrastructure and wireless towers), add capabilities and coverage to by linking the underserved areas to existing “hub” networks through high-capacity point-to-point wireless links and last mile FTTH infrastructure.  This enabled us to provide users in previously under-served areas with connectivity services that closely match those of people in urban areas close to them (speeds exceeding 20Mbps on wireless and over 40Mps in fiber, uptime of around 98% and generous data allocations).

The project provided benefits for both the recipients, who now have access to high-speed, high quality internet connectivity and relate products (e.g. OTT), and for AirJaldi, as the use of WiFiber has allowed us to reach areas in which setting up a stand alone network would not make economic sense, thereby also increasing the efficiency of utilization of existing resources at the network hub and adding revenue to the combined WiFiber network setup.

Project Implementation Narrative

Objectives and their fulfillment:

AirJaldi is a recipient of an impact grant aimed at helping to create a hybrid ‘WiFiber’ system that bridges existing under-used infrastructure, particularly large communication towers, and adds capability and coverage to reach users in the mostly rural state of Arunachal Pradesh with fast and affordable Internet services. Officially signed on November 2021, the was shifted to Sikkim (as a result of constraints to implementation in Arunachal  Pradesh) in December 2022. the objectives of the project, entitled “Connectivity Bridges”, and their degree of achievement are given below.

1. Build a hybrid wireless-fiber broadband network capable of delivering speeds of up to 100 Mbps per user

Result: Seven “fiber Island” networks, connected to three hub networks are deployed in the states of Sikkim and West Bengal (two being completed at the time of submitting this report). All networks have a headend capacity of around 500 Mbps. In addition, a fiber infrastructure/backbone of a total of 50 Km. across various networks (not including fiber from the backbone to customer’s premise), has been built and is used the connect the vast majority of customers connected as part of this project.

2. Connect a minimum of 450 institutional and private accounts within the project duration benefiting around 3,000 connectivity users.

Result: A total of 461 customers were connected to date, reaching an estimated 7,600 users.

3. Provide Internet exposure training to at least 1,000 people in the project areas.

Result: There were unfortunately very few takers to the free, online-only courses offered by us as part of this and other projects in the two states. As a result, we are now offering hybrid courses (live+online) and hope that we will be in a position to offer these in the hub and auxiliary networks in he future.

4. Demonstrate the technical and economic viability of creating high-speed networks in areas not reached by Fiber

Result: The model developed as part of this project met and surpassed our technical and economic expectations. As a result of these learnings, the WiFiber approach is now a central part of our future network build plans across various states in India.

5. Train and build a local cadre of ISP operators in four clusters

Result: We have recruited 11 local people who are presently actively working in the networks and expect to hire an additional four people in the coming months.

6. Share project findings with other rural operators in and outside India

Result: to date, the project findings were shared in a number of forums, chief among them participation and presentation of our work, including a discussion of the WiFiber idea, in a panel on rural connectivity which took place on April 17, 2023, as part of the 2nd G20 Digital Economy Working Forum meeting, held in Hyderabad, India; overview and inclusion of the WiFiber approach as an integral part of AirJaldi’s future growth strategy plan, developed by multiple consultant teams, with the support of the US Trade and Development Agency (USTDA); participation and presentation of the project as part of the APrIGF meeting held in Brisbane in August 2023, and participation and presentation of our work in Sikkim and WB as part of the 7th Community Network Exchange Conference, held in Assam in November 2023.


Following the revision of project locations, AirJaldi’s field teams in Sikkim (based in the towns of Singtham and Pelling) and West Bengal (based in Kalimpong) carried out field surveys with the aim of identifying towns and village centers that on the one hand are big enough to justify creating  a “fiber Island” that can be connected to one of the three network hubs, while on the other hand needing an improvement on their existing quality of connectivity. 10 such locations were identified, out of which eight were selected, five are live and an additional two, whose deployment was delayed as a result of internal team capacity constraints, are being  built at the time of this report. As planned, these “auxiliary/spoke” locations – three in WB and four in Sikkim, were connected through high capacity (~500 Mbps) wireless WiFi links from our closest larger network “hub”. A fiber network was built from the point of termination of the wireless link and extended to cover users within the locality targeted. The possibility of wireless provision was made possible, although hardly used as most existing customers are located within reach of the FTTH infrastructure built. Locally-recruited and trained team members then begun reaching out to potential customers and connecting clients under the guidance of older team members located in the hub networks.

Challenges and Responses

The program faced an initial major challenge when it became clear to us, following two detailed field surveys in Arunachal Pradesh, that the project funding would not have been sufficient for a full and sustainable realization of our WiFiber approach. That, together with physical and administrative challenges, led us to approach the APNIC Foundation’s management team with a request to change the project implementation area. A request that was happily approved. Upon beginning our work in Sikkim and West Bengal, we had to make some hard choices in terms of the number and location of auxiliary networks to be built. Considerations here included physical ability of building a high-capacity wireless link (necessitating a clear line of sight and a distance of up to 15 Km. for a single point-to-point link), economic viability of building a spoke network (minimum number of customers, potential for future growth) and serviceability (auxiliary networks being close enough to the hub networks). These considerations led us to choose eight locations, seven of which ended up being chosen for implementation. The location that was dropped from the final implementation was deemed unsuitable due to the presence of additional providers, putting the viability of the deployment in question.

The lengthy process taught us, and hopefully our partners, that the willingness to be attentive to discovered realities and changing field conditions and, more importantly, be willing to respond to them with revisions to the project plan of execution, can be the difference between a theoretically sound proposition followed by implementation failure, and a revised outlook resulting in a successful realization of our joint overall goals and objectives.

Beginning of Project

Field survey and network planningOnline and field-based surveys of deployment location (infrastructure, sites to be connected, topography, etc.) followed by network topology planning.2
Local locations contractSecuring contracts for use of infrastructure (towers, fiber, locations for relays, etc.)2
Local team recruitmentrecruitment of deployment team and network management.3
Network BuildDeployment work - securing uplink connections, building and interlinking backhaul and access network3

Middle of Project

Exposure training fo users (online)Provision of online training packages on the use of the internet - content, safety and security13

End of Project

Project summary preparation and disseminationPreparation of project reports2

Throughout the Project

Local team trainingTraining on rural networking (AirJaldi's "wireless 108" course) provided to selected candidates and additional community members. Given twice during the project duration2
Promotion and marketingLocal advertisement and promotion of the project in order to find and onboard users/customers.13
Connecting customersProvision of connectivity to customers via wireless and fiber13
Exposure training fo users (face to face01-day training sessions provided in select project locations, in four intervals1
Project promotionAdvertising and promoting the project and its activities in and outside India12
Operation of networksRunning built networks (throughout the project and projected to continue beyond the project).13

Project Indicators

Increase Internet availability in unserved and underserved communities in the Asia Pacific region (# and type of sites providing additional connectivity (beyond 2G) to underserved communities (poor neighbourhood, rural)Completed
Improve Internet affordability and support local access networks and expand connectivity to underserved areasCompleted
Improve diversity and expand Internet access and adoption in the Internet industryCompleted
IndicatorIncrease Internet availability in unserved and underserved communities in the Asia Pacific region (# and type of sites providing additional connectivity (beyond 2G) to underserved communities (poor neighbourhood, rural)
Status: Completed
Start and End Dates: March 10, 2021 to January 26, 2024
Baseline: The locations we plan to deploy networks, mostly underserved
Activities: AirJaldi built seven auxiliary networks (two being completed at the time of this report submission) connected to three hub networks in rural and semi-rural areas of Sikkim and West Bengal.
Outcomes: A total of over 450 connections were created to date, in turn allowing us to reach close to 7,000 users in seven different locations in Sikkim and WB, most of whom had limited access to high-speed, high-availability broadband connection. Furthermore, the networks remain operational, onboarding new customers continuously, and serving as a basis for further expansion of AirJaldi’s regional network coverage in both states.
IndicatorImprove Internet affordability and support local access networks and expand connectivity to underserved areas
Status: Completed
Start and End Dates: March 10, 2021 to January 26, 2024
Baseline: The baseline realities in the areas we intend to cover was described in the entry for the previous category.
Activities: high-capacity wireless links interconnecting three hub networks with seven auxiliary wireless/fiber networks, thereby providing high speed connectivity to users, were created. The topology consisting of high capacity Ubiquiti AirFiber 5XHD point to point wireless links terminating in a multi-core fiber network, allowed us to provide users with speeds of up to 250Mbps at present, with the ability to increase these speed multifold depending on demand and users’ willingness to pay for higher bandwidth.
Outcomes: The outputs described above (high-capacity wireless links interconnecting three hub networks with seven auxiliary wireless/fiber networks, thereby providing high speed connectivity to users, were created. The topology consisting of high capacity Ubiquiti AirFiber 5XHD point to point wireless links terminating in a multi-core fiber network, allowed us to provide users with speeds of up to 250Mbps at present, with the ability to increase these speed multifold depending on demand and users’ willingness to pay for higher bandwidth.) led to a reality whereby users in each of the areas covered as part of this project now have access to internet services similar in quality and pricing to those available in urban areas across India. The project's contribution in relation to this indicator has more to do with the expansion of fast and reliable connectivity to the areas reached. The prices are similar to services in other, more dense areas. It is worth noting here that the present prices for internet services in India are the cheapest in the world by some distance and in our view there is little to no room to lowering these without subsidies.
IndicatorImprove diversity and expand Internet access and adoption in the Internet industry
Status: Completed
Start and End Dates: March 10, 2021 to January 26, 2024
Description: Training and recruiting members of local communities as deployment team members in networks built. Providing connectivity to local communities. Improving women's access to available, affordable and stable connectivity.
Baseline:• At least 20 people trained 12 people recruited by AirJaldi to become network deployment and management team in the new networks.. • At least 40% of users belonging to local West Bengal communities (Sherpas, others), at least 30% of broadband subscribers women (if measurable)
Activities: • Provided fast and reliable connectivity to seven auxiliary networks located near three hub networks in West Bengal and Sikkim, provided connectivity to over 300 accounts which in turn serve around 7,000 users in educational and government institutions, health facilities, business enterprises and private residences. • Recruited, trained and retained 11 new employees, all of whom are local and one of whom is a woman.
Outcomes: The project has ensured the provision of fast and affordable Internet connectivity to multiple rural and semi-rural communities in the northern part of West Bengal and in Sikkim, reaching an estimated number of around 7,000 users, of which a considerable portion are women, although the exact numbers could not be verified. The project allowed us to recruit ten new employees for the auxiliary network. Further, these 11 people are part of an overall team of 31 people overseeing our operations in West Bengal and Sikkim, of whom 28 are local.

Project Review and Assessment

The project focused on providing infrastructure and support solutions for users whose location makes it harder to reach them with fast and reliable connectivity. The project activities confirmed our operational assessment that building point-to-point wireless links between “hub” network to “auxiliary” sub-networks can provide a way of overcoming the challenges of reaching smaller communities. The auxiliary networks, each of which started with a small number of users, are going steadily and, together with the “hub” network have created a dynamic and sustainable system. The project has helped our local team literally expand their horizons and enabled them to consider, and implement, similar WiFiber set ups that reach additional locations around our networks in Sikkim and West Bengal.

More specifically – in response to the questions posed:

• To what extent has the project achieved its objectives?

In our view the project achieved the vast majority of its objectives, most importantly demonstrating to ourselves and others how re-thinking and rearranging topology concepts and existing technologies can improve the technical and economic performance of our networks, and thereby allow us to continue to provide high quality services in underserved areas.

• What were the most important findings, outcomes and outputs of the project? What are your plans to use and promote them?

The findings pertain mostly to the ways in which the WiFiber approach can allow us to reach relatively remote and sparsely populated areas with high speed services, giving us a competitive advantage and added economic viability to our operations and allowing us to provide users with the type of internet services they need in order to realize the full potential of connectivity in years to come. The findings of the project comprise an essential component of our future growth plans.

• What contribution to Internet development did the project make? Is there already evidence of positive impact?

The contributions made were described in some details earlier. Evidence of positive impact include a number of stories, most notably during a severe monsoon flood which took place in Sikkim in August 2023, where our WiFiber infrastructure showed higher resilience and faster post-flood recovery, and a number of cases where institutions (schools, hotels, etc.) which previously were reliant on slower, mostly mobile/wireless links, can now make use of >100mbps connections.

• To what extent has the project lived up to its potential for growth/further development?

 As noted earlier – fully.

• To what extent have the project activities supported the development of local technical capacity?

Partially – we cannot claim that the recruitment of 11 people consist of a fundamental change to both these states. On the other hand, the skills developed by the team members and the skills enabled through the networks built will surely contribute to technological advancement in our areas of work, though clear and exact quantification of this impact may be hard to measure at present.

• What lessons can be derived that would be useful in improving future performance?

Any project plan should address three crucial aspects: probability of achieving its stated goals, ability to do so within the given resources (financial and otherwise) and likelihood of sustaining the project beyond its stated duration. We began the project by not estimating the second consideration properly. This lesson serves us well as we continue our work and embark on additional projects.

• To what extent has the project helped build the capacity of your institution or of the individuals involved?

As noted earlier, the project strengthened the viability of our networks in Sikkim and West Bengal and added an important topology approach to the way we build and expand our networks, one that has already been implemented at various AirJaldi networks across India.

Diversity and Inclusion

One of the main inclusion targets of the project was reaching ethnically and culturally diverse groups. Our areas of work in both Sikkim and West Bengal, and the smaller towns and villages around the bigger towns are rather ethnically and diverse and include Gorkas, Gurungs, Bhutias, Nepalies, Lepchas, Sikkimese, Sherpas, Tibetans and others. These populations are also religiously diverse with Hindusim, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam and a variety of other India traditions being practices side by side. As for gender diversity – while we have not been collecting data on the gender makeup of our users, we can safely assume that the presence of a fixed connection (as opposed to only a mobile connection) increases the participation of family members other than the household head, who normally carries the mobile phone (the most commonly used, and sometime the only device available for internet connectivity) as they can use it once the device is at home without exhausting the sometimes limited data packages and also be ensured of a fast and stable connections, which they may have not otherwise enjoyed in their village/town.

We have no data on the reach and possible contribution of the project to disabilities.

As for the internal work culture and practices – we have always emphasized the importance of non-discrimination within our team and in relation to our customers. This project funding has allowed the team to reach relatively more remote and ethnically diverse groups than they encounter in bigger urban center and has thus helped them put words to practice in their daily work.

Project Communication

The project approach and deployments in both Sikkim and WB were shared in multiple discussions carried out with local government organizations in Sikkim and WB, with Indian and international government representatives in a G20 preparatory meeting held in Hyderabad, at the 7th CNX conference held in India, as part of our USTDA study and expansion plan development, and consequently in discussions with existing and potential funders.

In addition we participated at the 2023 APrIGF in Brisbane. 

The value of conferences lies in the following: 1. connecting with old and new colleagues, providing an opportunity or exchange of experiences, ideas etc. 2. Presenting AirJaldi's work and through that hopefully contribute and inspire similar work, 3.creating new opportunities and engagements for AirJaldi 4. Partake in general discussions shaping the way in which connectivity and related activities develop in the future. 

Project Sustainability

In our view, the outmost measure of a project’s sustainability is its ability to continue its activities beyond it’s defined implementation timeline. On that count, the project has surely been successful. The auxiliary networks are functioning, customers continue to enjoy the services offered by them, and customers are being constantly added. Of additional importance in this regard is the fact that customers have been paying for the services from the time they were connected and therefore the often painful (and not always successful) transition from a funded to a self-funded phase has been avoided here.

While the project may have not directly generated new funding opportunities it certainly impacted the way in which we use additional connectivity funding. As noted earlier, the WiFiber approach not features rather prominently in two major initiatives AirJaldi is involved with – the first is a plan to expand our reach within existing areas and in three new states during the coming three years with funding from Microsoft India and the second is a study conducted with USTDA funding with the aim of preparing AirJaldi for a major expansion funded by international and local public and private funding. This study features the “Hub and Auxiliary” model as one of its main components.

Project Management

The project has not made a significant change to management and procurement practices. The only possible exception was our decision, following surveys carried out by our field teams that led them to request the AirJaldi management to consider changing the implementation sites, with ISIF’s permission. These discussions contributed to better ownership of the project by local teams and probably also empowered them to voice their opinions on various proposed and ongoing deployments and other connectivity-related activities in their areas of work.

In addition there were two types of courses offered. The first was a general introduction to the internet (i2i) that was to be given to users. This course was offered via our online Learning Management System (LMS) accompanied by live online sessions. The course was met with little demand, leading us to change the way the course is designed and delivered (presently it contains at least two physical, face to face interactions). The second course to be given was our own "networking 108" course. The original course was designed with a focus on wireless networks. A new version, updated to include fiber and hybrid networks and was also updated with an online (LMS) adjoiner to the mostly in-person sessions (about three weeks induration). We hope to be able to deliver the recently completed course to our team members (presently trained "on the job") in the near future. 

Project Recommendations and Use of Findings

We believe the questions posed here have by and large been answered and reflected upon in some detail in the previous sections. To succinctly reiterate some of these main points:

Project planning – consideration of ability to meet stated goals within the time and resources available should be paramount, as is the ability of the project activities to be sustained beyond the project’s timeline.

Implementation – as good and thorough as a project plan may be, realities and previously unknown factors may greatly challenge it. The ability of both the funder and the implementor to honestly consider such challenges and respond to them in an effective manner is both crucial to the ultimate success of a project and is also a testament to the professional honesty and maturity of all involved.

Technical considerations – at AirJaldi we have often described ourselves as “innovators, not inventors”. By this, we mean that our strengths lie less in our ability to invent totally new technologies, but rather to be able to use existing ones in an innovative way. We believe this approach may be useful for many of the APNIC Foundation recipients, as well as the organization itself, as they seek to make a difference to the way things are done in their areas and make a difference to the lives of people living in their areas of work.

Organizational considerations – sustainability, defined as they probability of a project being able to sustain its activities beyond the project’s life -  be it in terms of continued operation if it involves a field implementation, or in terms of its ability to garner more support, if it is a research activity -   should be a chief consideration in any project undertaken as part of the APNIC Foundation’s activity. The effort made and risks taken by all involved in these projects will be well-served if this consideration serves as one of the main guiding lights in considering which activities should be supported and how they are to be managed during the implementation stage. We would like to add here that the APNIC Foundation team’s continue flexibility and support to us as we made efforts to ensure the sustainability of this project provides ample evidence that the foundation is well aware of these considerations and has been a crucial factor in ensuring the success of this project.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License