Providing connection to the unconnected
The internet began in earnest in the 1970s as ARPANET, but 2014 is the 25th anniversary of Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s invention: the World Wide Web.
Over a short period of time, the Web has become an integral part of our lives, central to news, learning, shopping and communications. Moreover, in the case of the Arab Spring, it proved itself a fundamental tool for change in politics and geopolitical power struggles.
In urbanised areas, we take the Web for granted and now consider it a utility like water and electricity. Rural and remote regions do not have that luxury. The first 25 years of the internet has seen its explosive growth in urban areas, yet in the next quarter century, it will need to reach all corners of the globe — however rural or remote. At the 2014 Mobile World Congress, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg discussed the Internet.org project, which aims to bring the Web to rural and remote parts of the world.
But there’s an elephant in the room. Why are Facebook, Google and others even considering ideas like internet access via balloon and drone to provide connectivity in remote regions?
The fact is microwave has been providing rural internet access for years and will continue to do so in an increasingly effective manner.
Heavy lifting but not the burden of Atlas
That’s not to say connecting the rural and remote parts of the world is not a heavy undertaking — it is. But it’s not a ludicrous endeavour! It’s certainly not comparable to Atlas holding the world on his shoulders. Nevertheless, as
Internet.org points out, two-thirds of the world’s population still cannot access the internet, and the majority of the unconnected are in rural and remote regions. Arguably, the single most important challenge is the distance involved in connecting rural and remote communities. Unlike urban regions where distances are relatively short, rural and remote areas are, by their very nature, much farther afield.
This has a serious effect on the economics of provisioning the Internet. Connecting rural regions just costs more than urban areas. Governments around the world have been impatient with the speed of service providers’ rollouts for connecting rural areas. Yet service providers, which are typically for-profit corporations, have a tricky financial puzzle to solve to provision rural internet.
So what are the cost-effective options for the transport, or backhaul, network — the part of the network that spans these long distances? In urban areas where reaching many people is relatively straightforward, thanks to population density, fibre solutions have been the preferred choice. This is mainly due to the volume of data that such solutions can deliver. However, as operators move away from urban regions to rural areas, the fibre scalability advantage counts for nil.
Rural and remote areas need a solution that can cover long distances without the need for fibre, which quickly becomes prohibitively expensive and time-consuming to implement. Wireless solutions are the only practical answer for these service provider networks.
For example, microwave radio can carry a large amount of data just like fibre, but it can cover long distances in a cost-effective manner. Furthermore, it can cover the distances involved in non-urban telecommunications without needing to lay cables. It offers a high speed and reliable service for rural and remote regions that other wireless solutions cannot match.
Just the beginning
Microwave backhaul is already demonstrating its credentials with deployments in Africa, Alaska and Australia. However, this is just the start, and as the need for internet access grows, so will the need for microwave backhaul. An extra benefit is that with a new class of product (the microwave router) higher layer services can be added to a service provider’s portfolio quickly and easily. For rural or remote enterprises, where the mobile Web is the only game in town, mobile operators can offer the same level of security and control that their urban competitors enjoy. It is a win-win situation for rural business users and for service providers, who can generate greater revenues from value-added services.
Governments, operators and NGOs such as Internet.org are already pushing to connect the entire world to the internet. Of course, there is a whole ecosystem of issues to resolve such as language barriers, literacy levels, power availability and the cost of mobile devices. Yet nothing can move forward without making the prerequisite network infrastructure available first. The solution is already available in microwave technology, which makes infrastructure cost-effective and affordable.
A quarter-century ago, the internet was a simple science experiment. The next 25 years will make today’s internet seem simple by way of comparison. A paradigm shift will occur as more rural and remote communities gain access and microwave backhaul will silently power it.
Stuart Little (pictured) is director of solutions marketing, Aviat Networks