Wi-Fi Delivers For Developing Countries

DakNet is a patented wireless package that does
away with base stations. Instead, a custom Mobile Access Point (MAP) is mounted
on, and powered by, a vehicle. A government bus is being used in a current implementation
that transports data to and from wireless-enabled computers. The plan is to
export DakNet to various parts of the globe.


The deployment is one of many taking place throughout the developing world.
Rather than customers sipping lattes in a wireless-enabled coffee chain, Wireless
Fidelity (WiFi) is becoming a platform for the development of data and voice
communications where often none existed before.


Earl Mardle, Information Manager for international advocacy organisation, Technology Empowerment Network (TEN)
neatly summarises the trend.


“Three years ago, if anyone had suggested that broadband Internet could be
delivered to your door for almost nothing by a geek with a Pringles can for
an antenna, you would have been locked up,” he quips.


High costs associated with legacy Public Switched Telephony Networks (PSTN)
are often outside the reach of some developing countries. This is particularly
the case in rural areas that have lower subscriber density or geographic challenges
such as mountainous terrain, large bodies of water, or jungles. But disruptive
technologies such as WiFi are ready to challenge the status quo.


Mardle says, “with the growing adoption of WiFi flavours and the probable integration
into the chips that drive the machines, the whole process of expanding broadband
coverage will slowly, then very quickly, become a trivial issue.”


The benefits for developing countries are particularly significant. These include
greater possibilities in multimedia and voice over Internet protocol (VoIP)
applications, community control and involvement, including job and skill creation.
WiFi is also a low entry investment, can generate valuable revenue, and is relatively
easy to replicate and relocate.


Mardle continues, those trends will “be hastened by the development of cheap
mesh networks devices, which are networking tools par excellence and make possible
David Reed’s model that assumes that every new user adds more bandwidth than
they consume.”


David P. Reed explains in a recent submission to The Federal Communications Commission’s Spectrum Policy Task Force, “what is clear
from analyzing networked architectures is that as the demand for capacity increases,
and as the density of terminals increases, adaptive network architectures that
involve cooperation among all of the communicating entities create radio systems
whose capacity can scale as demand increases.”


“This is a whole new way of thinking about connectivity,” Mardle says, “and
must be driving crazy the businesses, like the telcos, who have poured huge
resources and debt, into building fibre networks and running cable everywhere.”


He points to several examples to reinforce the perception that broadband access
is becoming a trivial add-on. These include multinationals such as Starbucks
and McDonalds offering wireless Internet will burgers and lattes.


“These all indicate that owners of legacy systems are going to get their tails
caught in the crack,” Mardle continues, “as newer, cheaper, simpler, broader
bandwidth technology comes on stream. Throw in a growing realisation that David
Reed is also right about the fake issue of ‘interference’ and it starts to look
like a paradigm shift.”


For developing countries, the International Telecommunications Union
(ITU)
argues that, “with the increasing privatisation of the telecoms industry
worldwide, many economically under-developed regions, particularly in rural
and remote areas, remain outside the scope of the public infrastructure. For
this reasons, initiatives to achieve universal service can capitalise upon newer
wireless technology in rural zones.”


Several such initiatives are already underway throughout the globe.


One example is DakNet, which was originally conceived, developed
and patented at Massachusetts Institute of Technology
(MIT)
. The project is an exportable solution for the ‘first mile’ with a
low-cost wireless network that is easy to set up and maintain.


The Government of India, who provided seed funding,
and MIT established Media Lab Asia
in 2001. DakNet is one project under the Bits For All initiative developed by
the not-for-profit company.


Media Lab Asia consists of regional laboratories with input from grassroots
communities.


Wireless network research focuses on mesh peer-to-peer topologies for rural
802.11 networks that will solve the ‘last 25 kilometre’ problem of rural India.
Many communities are within 25 kilometres of fibre.


Reprinted from Australia.Internet.com.

Amir Alexander Hasson, business development manager at Media Lab Asia, helped
to initiate DakNet while studying for a Masters in the Management of Technology
at the MIT Sloan School of Management.


He explains, “we are using IEEE 802.11b equipment at 2.4Ghz. We don’t use base
stations, but rather our custom DakNet Mobile Access Point (MAP) that is mounted
on and powered by a vehicle. The current implementation uses a public government
bus that transports the data to and from computers enabled with WiFi cards.”


Data is transported through the access point, which automatically and wirelessly
collects and delivers data from each ‘kiosk’ on the network. The patent-pending
hybrid network architecture combines both physical and wireless data transport
to enable high-bandwidth intranet and Internet connectivity among kiosks of
public computers and between kiosks and hubs. In other words, places with a
reliable Internet connection.


In the most recent deployment in rural Karnataka, the DakNet-enabled vehicle
drives past a village kiosk where it picks up and drops off land record queries
and responses. Each day, this is synchronised with a central database.


“The network layer is ad-hoc peer-to-peer mode,” Hasson explains, “not infrastructure
mode. Therefore, these are short point-to-point links that get established whenever
the MAP comes within range of a kiosk or hub.”


Omnidirectional antennas are used on the bus and either directional or omnidirectional
antennas are located at each of the kiosks or hubs. Amplifiers are used to boost
the signal and range for higher bandwidth applications.


The speed of the connection between the access point and the kiosk or hub varies
in each case. But on average, they can move about 21Mb or 42Mb bi-directionally
per session. This is the period of time where the access point is within range
of the kiosk or hub. The average goodput or actual throughput is 2.3Mbps.


Hasson says the location of the Karnataka deployment presented several challenges.


The first is a lack of access to the required equipment. He says, “it took
us two months to receive some equipment from the United States, combined with
a forty percent custom duties surcharge.” However, some of that equipment is
becoming available locally.


“Dearth of existing revenue-generating end-user applications and services that
require data connectivity,” Hasson highlights as the second challenge.


Thirdly, power. “We’ve had to get back-ups for our power back-ups,” he quips.
“We figured out how to power the access point from the bus battery. But the
villages don’t have power much of the time, which is critical for when the bus
drives by.”


Hasson says the fourth major challenge is finding the required talent. “Not
too many people understand how to deploy, let alone customize, WiFi networks
outside of Europe, United States and,” he concedes, Australia.


He has “had a tough time getting a team together here in India to develop DakNet,
and have had to build the capacity internally. Combine this with the lack of
people who know how to turn a computer on/off in a village and you sometimes
wonder if this is all premature.”


For the rest of the year, the team plan to make DakNet more robust. The complete
‘connectivity package’ includes wireless hardware, networking software, server
and cache software. Custom applications such as browsing, audio and video messaging
are also provided.


Such is the interest in WiFi for developing countries that the United Nations
(UN) established a Wireless Internet Institute (W2i) under the auspices
of the United Nations Information and Communications Technologies (ICT) Task
Force. A New York conference
on the topic is planned for June this year.


The UN explains, “pilot projects around the world are fast proving that WiFi
technologies can bring broadband access to underserved populations at a fraction
of the cost of alternative wired or wireless technologies. But even as technological
hurdles are rapidly falling, rigid spectrum policies, protective regulatory
environments and lack of sustainable business models remain big obstacles to
faster and broader deployment.”


Kofi Annan, Secretary-General of the UN, concludes, “information technology
is not a magic formula that is going to solve all our problems. But it is a
powerful force that can and must be harnessed to our global mission of peace
and development. This is a matter of both ethics and economics; over the long
term, the new economy can only be productive and sustainable if it spreads worldwide
and responds to the needs and demands of all people.”

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