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Enhanced Experience: Educational institutes and real estate developers use telecom to empower users

July 03, 2014
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With the increasing use of telecom and information technology (IT) in every sphere of life, industries across verticals, particularly education and infrastructure (including townships), have been making significant investments to augment their telecom infrastructure.

In India, where the need for even basic education is high, a large number of educational institutions are using technology to improve their functions to make education available to a large section of the country’s population. Government as well as private institutes are investing in technology to develop their IT infrastructure and for providing an enhanced learning experience to students. The Indian government is playing a critical role in driving the adoption of digital technologies in the education sector. Under the Eleventh Five Year Plan (2007-12), the National Mission on Education through Information and Communication Technology was set up to provide digitised content, connectivity and low-cost computing devices to the higher education sector in the country.

With schools, colleges and higher institutes of learning increasingly relying on cutting-edge IT tools to improve student and faculty experience, huge business opportunities have opened up for technology vendors.

At present, the majority of educational institutions are opting for networking solutions, storage solutions and enterprise resource planning (ERP) to support and upgrade operations and streamline budgets. In order to cater to the requirements of thousands of students, universities and educational institutions are investing heavily in establishing wide area networks (WANs), which allow educational institutes to connect administration, faculty and students on a single platform. Amongst various connectivity technologies, Wi-Fi is emerging as the preferred medium of connectivity on campuses. It is being used to upload assignments, provide student information online and conduct exams and virtual classes.

Further, with virtual universities and virtual classrooms gaining popularity, particularly among higher education institutions including those offering distance learning programmes, a number of institutes are encouraging the use of tablets and iPads within their premises. To benefit from the digital revolution taking place in the education sector, institutes are investing in technologies such as interactive management, collaborative environments, mobility and cloud.

Besides the education sector, infrastructure and real estate developers are leveraging telecom and IT solutions to build smart cities and townships. In India, infrastructure developers are focusing on using technology to plan efficient and smart buildings. Unlike in the developed economies, where technology is being retrofitted onto ageing infrastructure to make cities work better, in India, new townships such as Lavasa and GIFT City are being built and expanded ground up, to offer inhabitants a true smart city experience. In smart cities, a network of sensors, cameras, wireless devices and data centres form the key infrastructure, which allows civic authorities to offer essential services in a faster and more efficient manner. Further, these cities and townships are far more environmentally friendly as they use sustainable materials for building facilities and reduce energy consumption.

Developers building smart cities and townships depend on telecom and IT tools to establish better coordination among various civic services within the building premises. The planned townships have a central command room where data is fed from different infrastructure systems. This centralised data offers managers (personnel managing buildings) vital information regarding the upkeep and performance of various assets. Enterprise tools, including planning and management solutions, enable managers to identify problem areas on a priority basis and take appropriate action to address issues regarding utility services such as electricity, water and sanitation along with the safety and security of residents. Round-the-clock connectivity within and outside a smart township is another bonus for the residents. Wireline and wireless connectivity empowers them to access critical services online and make e-payments for various facilities being accessed by them within the township.

All in all, telecom and IT tools are playing a greater role in helping stakeholders in the education sector and township segment to empower users through a connected world.

tele.net surveyed various organisations/ institutions in the education sector and township segment to assess their specific telecom requirements and solutions.

The following questions were asked in the survey:

•             What are the organisation’s key technology requirements?

•             What mix of service providers and vendors is used?

•             What are the biggest concerns with respect to telecom infrastructure?

•             What are some of the mobility and enterprise applications implemented by the organisation?

•             Which network security tools has the organisation implemented?

•             What redundancy tools are being used?

•             Which new product or service holds the most relevance for the organisation?

Key technology requirements

The survey results indicate that the majority of players in the education sector and township segment require a highly robust, reliable, scalable and secure network. In fact, players in these segments are looking for low-cost telecom services with an aim to provide timely and easy access to multiple services to users at affordable prices.

In order to meet their communication requirements, a large number of players have established a multi-tiered communications infrastructure using a combination of wireless and wireline technologies. To meet their day-to-day connectivity needs, organisations use telecom tools such as Wi-Fi, DSL connectivity, optic fibre and copper networks, VPNs, leased lines and point-to-point Ethernet networks. Several educational institutions have deployed leased lines as the backbone of their telecom infrastructure. In addition, colleges and universities are building a robust telecom network using routers and switches for establishing wireless connectivity within the campuses. Jawaharlal Nehru University, for instance, has established a local area network (LAN) by using Cisco 802.11n connectivity. The university’s LAN network comprises an optic fibre cable network and Cisco 2960 series edge switches.

Since institutes of higher learning offer distance learning programmes to students, they make provisions for virtual routing and forwarding, thereby providing a common access platform across distant locations. According to S.K. Tiwary, information technology officer, XLRI – Xavier School of Management, “The institute’s telecom infrastructure boasts of an integrated campus-wide voice communication system with a SIP-enabled IP-based communication server. The set-up provides the institute the flexibility to upgrade the existing network to meet its future communication requirements.”

Meanwhile, a large number of developers use the hub-and-spoke model and MPLS technology to connect to remote sites. In the absence of an MPLS network, they opt for VSAT connectivity to enable employees to connect to the main network. Since township developers have a worldwide footprint, they need to stay connected  with their international offices round the clock. This is established through a person-to-person network, an IP-SEC tunnel, MPLS, the internet and a secure VPN for mobile users. The Hirco Group, an international group of public and private entities operating in the real estate, construction, infrastructure, hospitality and health care sectors, has put in place a WAN. The company has deployed 10 Mbps MPLS connectivity and high-bandwidth internet based on a hub-and-spoke model, provided by Tata Communications. The WAN is used by the company for all its communication and data requirements, which include email, messaging, videoconferencing and system access. In order to provide external connectivity, the Hirco Group uses ISDN for videoconferencing and the internet for other requirements.

Further, within townships, providing 24x7 connectivity is a priority for developers. In order to ensure this, developers allow multiple operators to offer basic telephony services within the township. In addition, developers provide intercom facility for allowing users to make calls within the township. It is also used for ensuring communication between different buildings within the township and the township’s common control room, security wings and the maintenance staff.

A number of mobile enterprise and IT tools are also used by educational institutions and township developers to meet their communication requirements. A large number of institutions are using ERP solutions to automate their internal processes such as admissions and fee collection, besides conducting examinations online. For example, the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, has deployed IT tools for administrative purposes. For e-learning, the institute has launched the open source moodle learning management system. For all activities related to human resources, the institute uses human resource management software.

Institutes of higher learning are also opting for storage solutions offered by technology vendors such as Dell, IBM and Microsoft. The deployment of storage and security solutions helps educational institutes reduce their overall costs by cutting down on operational overheads and decreasing storage footprints.

Service providers and vendors

The findings of the survey indicate that educational institutes, townships and buildings use a mix of operators and vendors to meet their telecom-related requirements. These include Bharti Airtel, Vodafone India, Reliance Communications, Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Limited, Idea Cellular, Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited, Tata Communications, Dell, Cisco, McAfee, Spectranet, Juniper Networks, Avaya, IBM, Hewlett-Packard, Polycom, Nortel, Ruckus, Tandberg and Nokia Networks.

Mobile applications

The most commonly used enterprise mobility solutions in these segments include email, instant messaging and data connectivity. For facilitating any time, anywhere mobility, players in these two segments have established a corporate intranet – a cost-effective and easy-to-use communication medium. For on-the-go connectivity, users access the corporate intranet through their mobile handsets. The videoconferencing facility is another communication tool widely used on campuses and by township developers. In addition, with the growing use of mobile devices, applications such as push alerts are also gaining popularity amongst users. Other popular enterprise applications used by players in these sectors include video-, audio- and web-conferencing; IP video solutions; VoIP; and contact centre solutions.

Further, institutes of higher learning bank upon telepresence services for offering users access to online programmes. Other widely used applications by institutions include web hosting, Web 2.0 tools and social networking. Further, educational institutions also deploy applications such as moodle, while township developers use SAP and ERP solutions. Like players in the education sector, township developers too are leveraging various IT tools to streamline various day-to-day operations, such as AutoCad, StadPro and Offpipe. Other popular applications used by township developers include the Oracle Business Suite for ERP, Oracle Human Resources Management System and Google Applications on cloud for emailing. For estimating project costs, developers use the Candy system and the Frango application for corporate financial management and control.

Commenting on IT applications being used, Ramakant Jha, managing director and group chief executive officer, GIFT City Limited, says, “We are using various infrastructure development applications including the Bentley suite of application for infrastructure planning and development, and Revit architecture for design purposes. Also, master planning for the city is being done on the GIS platform.”

Data centres

A large number of educational institutes and townships have established data centres that are used to house data servers and security devices, and ensure network backup and uptime. Since players in these segments have to handle large amounts of data, they set up dedicated data centres for the storage and processing of information. Data centres also act as a dedicated helpline for students and prospective buyers seeking information regarding admission procedures and apartment booking.

Network redundancy

Ensuring adequate backup for timely dissemination of information is a top priority for educational institutes and township developers. The network redundancy tools widely used by players in these segments include leased lines, ISDN lines, dual backup systems, switches, disaster recovery centres, high-availability links, data recovery and archiving.

Network security

To secure their network, educational institutions and township developers have deployed several mediums. A large number of players use a unified threat-management tool for network security at various levels of the network. With an aim to protect their networks from external threats, organisations in the segment also implement firewalls and intrusion detection systems. Further, a few of the players create isolation circuits to safeguard their networks from security threats. For example, XLRI has secured its internal infrastructure by deploying high-end UTM and controller-based Cisco Wi-Fi access points.

Issues and concerns

The major issues faced by educational institutions and township developers include identifying the appropriate technology and telecom equipment, high bandwidth costs, managing downtime and the acceptance of new technology by students, faculty, administrative staff, and prospective buyers and investors.

The way forward

To keep pace with the fast-evolving technologies, most of the educational institutes and township developers have earmarked significant investments for upgrading their existing networks and introducing new applications.

For example, XLRI plans to make significant investments in cloud computing and online sharing of resources with leading global universities. Further, with the introduction of new technologies and devices in the network, the business school is focused on strengthening the security of its network.

Similarly, the management at GIFT City plans to introduce ERP to integrate various functions, including finance and inventory management, on a single platform. This would enable the authorities to have a 360-degree view of various functions and help assess the organisation’s performance.

Going forward, growing awareness regarding the benefits of telecom and IT will encourage educational institutes and township developers to strengthen their existing telecom networks by adopting cutting-edge technologies.

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