Imagine getting email and data over the radio. A 22-year-old has developed a software that lets one do just that. Radio reaches every corner of India. Small transistors are cheap and easily available. Vinny Lohan has found a way to send computer data over normal radio waves. He believes that the idea could get all India online in a jiffy.
"Computers are all about zeros and ones. Be it video or text or music, to a computer, it is all zeros and ones. Since that's so, we asked ourselves, can we take a book or a video and convert it into music. And then send it over the airwaves. Turns out the answer was yes," Vinny said.
All it needs is OneBeep, the special software that Vinny and his friends wrote together. To send a file, be it video or text, the broadcaster simply selects and drags it into the software. OneBeep converts that data into an audio file, which is then transmitted over the airwaves.
Listeners can plug in their radio to a laptop or a cheap tablet computer, using a normal headphone jack. OneBeep software installed on their machines, will automatically convert the audio files back into data. It's like getting email over the radio.
OneBeep CEO Vinny says, "It's a bit like bit-torrent. When you are downloading something, the software is intelligent enough to know when something is paused and when it is restarted. We break digital data into packets. The software is converting audio into packets of data on the computer. Say your signal is weak or your battery died. When it restarts, it starts from the place it left off."
OneBeep needs absolutely no changes to the existing radio stations. And so, it's got attention. In 2010, Vinny and his team bagged the third prize in Microsoft's Imagine Cup - a worldwide contest for tech innovators. But their idea does have a few drawbacks.
First off, it's slow. Sending just 2 MB of data can take upto 40 minutes. Second, the idea itself isn't new. HAM radio operators have used a somewhat similar software since the 1970's. Third, it could be misused by terrorists. But Vinny thinks he's got that base covered.
"Each radio frequency transmission needs a government licence. Most amateur transmitters have a range of 20-30 metres. Anything stronger than that can easily be traced. If any unauthorised frequency transmissions take place, the army will be privy to that," Vinny says.
But because it's so simple and easily adaptable, Vinny's idea still has potential. Rural school kids can use OneBeep to download assignments overnight. Community radio stations in villages can also use it to transfer panchayat related files.
India will soon adopt Digital Radio Mondiale, a new technology which besides great sound, offers file transfers on the radio. But that is still a few years away. OneBeep already works and Vinny wants to offer it for free on the web. He wants to kick off a tiny revolution and give rural India a taste of the internet over the radio.