SugarBox Networks: How this hyperlocal content delivery network enables internet access in remote areas and running trains

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Updated: October 09, 2021 10:35 AM

In an interaction with CEO and Co-founder Rohit Paranjpe, we tried to understand how this technology works and how SugarBox Networks is working on providing this high-speed internet in usually unconnected areas.

Rohit Paranjpe, Co-founder and CEO, SugarBox Networks

SugarBox Networks: Internet has become a necessity, especially with the coronavirus pandemic. The internet is not really just a medium of being connected with loved ones and acquaintances, but it has now become important to be able to work as well as study, what with remote working and remote learning becoming the new trend. However, while people in the metro cities have had it easy in terms of switching, only needing to adjust their routines, as we go closer to the remote areas, the problem of unstable internet itself is a huge barrier for people living in these places. Amid this, Financial Express Online talked to SugarBox Networks, which works with Hyderabad Metro, Chennai Metro and has even tied up with the Indian Railways to provide Hyperlocal CDN technology inside the coaches for high-speed internet connectivity during travel.

Also read | Know your customer: The fast lane to digital adoption

In an interaction with CEO and Co-Founder Rohit Paranjpe, we tried to understand how this technology works and how SugarBox Networks is working on providing this high-speed internet connectivity not only in trains and metros, but also in the remote areas of the country so that people who do not get stable broadband otherwise can also access the internet. Excerpts.

What is SugarBox Networks?

If you look at India today, we have 700 million people in India who are connected. But if you really see how many of them have reliable connectivity at all times, the number probably would be somewhere in the range of 250 or 300 million. Looking at the world as a whole, we can split it into three parts. There is the connected part, which in India is about 300 million people. Then there is something called an under-connected part, which probably is the next 400 million people in India who have access to the internet but it is not reliable or not stable at all times. And then the last part is made of the people who still have not adopted the internet, either because they can’t afford it or because they live in places where the internet hasn’t reached at all. This is the unconnected part of the world.

At the backend, what has happened is that cloud computing has transformed a lot of things. One big part of the cloud computing industry that came in was something called a content distribution network. And where content distribution networks have really played a very key role is the scalability of the internet. Close to 85% of all data consumed today on the internet is video, and if you look at a file, say, on Netflix, it is one file being consumed by billions around the world at multiple times. So, the CDN companies figured that instead of storing this one file in one place with everyone in the world going to that particular server to access it, we could create, say, 1 lakh servers or a million servers around the world and store this file across all of those million servers. This way fewer internet bytes will be used for the user to access the data set. And that is really how the internet works at the backend today.

So SugarBox really started from the idea of bringing the server to the user, instead of depending on a user to go to the server, or getting a miniaturised portion of the cloud down to the user instead of the user being able to read the cloud. So that is really where the thought process for SugarBox is. We deploy a small portion or miniaturised portion of the cloud, that we call the Hyperlocal Edge inside places where people are already available.

How does SugarBox Networks work and what does it aim to achieve?

If you look at why the internet ecosystem exists, you will realise that the final answer lies in economics. The areas that have reliable access to the internet consist of a large number of people who can afford it. So, for an ISP running the internet services as a business, it makes sense to deploy infrastructure where people can afford to pay to get access. An ISP needs to deploy or invest in infrastructure for one square km area and the only way that the ISP can make money out of this one square kilometre is by multiplying the number of users or number of subscribers in that particular area with the average revenue per user. If you now take this economic equation and apply it to India, you will see the representative nature of the internet. In India, cities like Bombay, Delhi, Bangalore, are high density high ARPU areas. So, they will always be profitable for an ISP. And therefore, ISP will keep investing more infrastructure into these places. Whereas now if you try to apply the same economic equation to a village, the density of users with affordability, it makes no sense for an ISP to connect this particular village, which is why the connectivity there is really bad.

And what we realised is that because we are getting a portion of the cloud or the portion of the internet down to the user, we were actually able to harness local area networks. LAN is the Wi Fi router that is installed at a user’s home or the LAN cable that connects to a laptop. And the interesting part about local area networks is they are unlicensed, globally. And because they’re unlicensed, they’re not limited, which means that anyone can set up local area networks of their own. And they’re far more reliable than traditional networks and also much cheaper. To the extent of being free. So, by virtue of getting this technology down to the user and down to a local area network, we were able to reduce the cost of delivering one GB of data to a user.

Another interesting thing that we were able to do is that a CDN or a cloud computing company actually never charges the user anything. A cloud computing company essentially works with the digital economy and works with the apps and digital services on the internet. We realised this is another interesting revenue sort of model that we’re getting to the ecosystem. And if we could share this revenue back with the ISP and then back with the internet infrastructure companies, we actually would be able to create a model wherein deploying internet services even inside of villages would be profitable.

Could you explain a little more in detail, the aspect of using the cloud to provide internet in these areas?

Essentially, what the cloud did is it enabled anybody and everybody to access three things: the cloud has some sort of compute, so that I’m able to process something, it has some sort of storage, I’m able to store a lot of data, and then the third thing is that it has something called as RAM. When it comes to cloud technology, we build our own technology. The technology patent that we have is about the hyperlocal cloud.

What we thought was that if we were able to provide the same three things by installing a small cloud inside an aircraft, these resources would not be needed in this particular device to cater to a million people. For only going 100 to 200 people in an aircraft at any point, only very little compute power, storage and RAM is needed. This is what we are doing with the cloud.

Now the second part of the cloud becomes what digital services use the cloud for. What we do with these services is that we actually enable them to optimise their utilisation of the cloud, so that we are able to work with the limited resources available on that particular cloud.

Do you think that SugarBox could potentially be threatened by Elon Musk’s Starlink which aims to directly beam internet to the users in remote areas?

StarLink is also an ISP. So, we are not competitors at all. In fact, ISPs are our best friends. And without ISPs, we can’t deliver our technology and internet services to the end users. So, the way we are currently working with ISPs and telcos, we will also start working with satellite communication when they come. Let’s look at StarLink. Today to access it, the cost of the device to the user is $500. And after spending that $500, the user has to pay $100 per month. $100 is more than people even in the metros are spending on the internet, so people in remote areas are not very likely to pay for that kind of service.

So, SugarBox can work very quickly and closely with StarLink. We will put a StarLink device, and invest the $500 and work with StarLink to pay $100 per month. With this, we will be able to optimise the data delivery in remote villages using local area networks and the SugarBox technology, and will actually be able to sell internet services to the end user. So that is typically the way we work with all of the satellites or the telcos, the value proposition remains the same.

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