Other blocking factors include discrepancies in frequencies of operation, non-viability of real-time and interactive applications as well as high-bandwidth data applications due to limited capacity and bandwidth issues, and political differences and regulatory issues between different countries.
Dr Borkar adds, “These satellite based systems cannot compete with mobile systems, with their range of capabilities at different price points. This gives significant competitive advantages to different generations of mobile systems, from 2G to 5G. Clearly, there is a market for bicycles as well as cars in the telecommunications business.”
Dr Borkar’s strong faith in mobile systems is rooted in constant innovations, therein. Evolution of mobile systems, especially 2G Global System for Mobile (GSM) communication, 3G Wideband Code Division Multiple Access (WCDMA)/ High-Speed Packet Access (HSPA), 4G LTE and 5G Next-Generation Networks (NGNs), are illustrations of continuous innovation for providing viable solutions to evolving market needs. Advances include Cooperative Multi-Point (CoMP) systems, multiple-input-multiple-output (MIMO) antennae, cloud based service creation and network management, and operations at extremely-high frequencies.
5G Wireless network is being positioned very well for meeting the advanced needs of the market in the 2020+ time frame, including mobile multimedia and differentiated customer experience. These include ultra-high-definition (UHD) video, everything connected, sensor based M2M communications, smartcities, ubiquitous computing, real-time and cloud based services and instantaneous communication regardless of distance.
Coming to the question of how this helps in universal connectivity, Dr Borkar explains, “Mobile systems are scalable and can provide a range of viable options from low-cost voice services to extremely-high-bandwidth advanced services.
“5G NGN specifically is being designed to operate all the way from the lower frequency range of the 3G/4G spectrum in the 700MHz range to as high as 100GHz frequencies. Using a range of mobile systems including macrocells, microcells and picocells, it is well-positioned to provide selective as well as universal geographic coverage across the globe.
“In fact, due to advantages of seamless handovers, pico or femto cells are expected to be a better option than the currently ubiquitous Wi-Fi systems, especially for mobile devices. Wi-Fi has had its days, since nomadic access from devices like laptops without automatic handover to the mobile network has been the market norm.”
He adds, “There are applications where base stations based terrestrial networks are not feasible, for example, over the ocean, remote locations, high mountains and so on. For such niche markets, it is likely that SpaceX and OneWeb will combine and provide viable solutions.”
Eyes on television white-space
Another trending technology in this space is the utilisation of television white-space. From Google and Microsoft to indigenous companies like Saankhya Labs, and various universities including Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), researchers are beginning to believe in the white-space approach to connecting areas where traditional broadband is not feasible.
White-space refers to the gaps left by television networks. Usually, television networks leave gaps between channels for buffering purposes, leading to some unused frequencies in the wireless spectrum. This space is similar to what is used for 4G, and can therefore be effectively used to deliver broadband Internet. White-space broadband is somewhat like Wi-Fi, just that it can travel a much longer distance of approximately 10 kilometres.
“The unused TV spectrum in the ultra-high-frequency (UHF) band, called white-spaces, has very good propagation characteristics, which makes it attractive for long-range communications at low power. These properties make this spectrum particularly attractive to provide affordable wireless broadband connectivity to large rural and remote areas, which are not served today.
“A single television white-space base station can reach households that are as far away as 5km to 10km, depending on antenna height. Bridging the broadband digital divide between rural and urban areas is a must have for the success of Digital India, and television white-space modems play a vital role here,” explains Vishwa Kayargadde, co-founder and chief scientist, Saankhya Labs.
You need special modems to use television white-space, and Saankhya Labs is a forerunner in this industry. Pruthvi is a semiconductor chipset developed in India by Saankhya Labs. It is a unique class of chip called software-defined radio (SDR), which allows the same hardware to be used for different types of wireless communication by loading appropriate software.
Pruthvi contains highly-specialised signal-processing central processing units (CPUs) and hardware engines designed by Saankhya from the ground up. These CPUs are very powerful and can perform tens of giga operations per second in a small silicon area while consuming low power, which allows broadband wireless communication to be performed by embedded software running on this chip.
Pruthvi SDR has been used in various applications, including UHD set-top boxes, television dongles, video-distribution/surveillance drones, satellite receivers and Saankhya’s Meghdoot base stations and user modems that provide rural broadband using television white-space.
Meghdoot is a complete VHF/UHF base station modem consisting of radio-front-end and baseband processing, powered by Pruthvi.
“Unlike other solutions powered by field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs) and general-purpose digital signal processors (DSPs), Saankhya’s solution is the first television white-space modem to be powered by a communication system on chip (SoC). Also, being a designed-in-India and made-in-India solution, we have several advantages besides easy access to the local market,” says Kayargadde.
The company is currently performing pilot tests of their solution at various locations in India, in collaboration with various IITs. Unlike the USA, the UK, Singapore and several other nations, India is yet to release television white-space spectrum for unlicensed access. It is expected to be released in the near future. Until that spectrum is made available for unlicensed access similar to the Wi-Fi spectrum, large-scale proliferation of television white-space devices is unlikely to happen.
However, television white-space is a very promising technology for connecting rural areas. It has been tested successfully in several university campuses and districts across the world, after Microsoft, BBC, BT and Nokia launched a consortium to support the project in 2011.
Microsoft 4Afrika is also betting big on white-space technology to connect interior regions of Africa, and so is Google.
Kayargadde believes that it will do wonders for India, too, even better than balloons or drones. He says, “Television white-space modem technology can be used to provide connectivity between any two points on the Earth or in the air, like a balloon or a drone. However, in the Indian context, unlike Project Loon, in one of the deployment scenarios proposed, the television white-space modem technology could effectively provide last-hop wireless connectivity from the nearest optical-fibre node to rural/urban areas.
“High-speed optical connectivity is being made available at most panchayats by National Optical-Fibre Network (NOFN) project, BharatNet. Connectivity to high-speed optical backbone makes the television white-space modem solution quite unique to enable Digital India.”
Building connectivity in Africa with digital BRCK
Bad weather, harsh terrain, poverty, name the problem and it is there in Africa. Yet, BRCK has found a way of providing connectivity to the remotest corners of this continent. And guess what their website proudly proclaims: “If it works in Africa, it will work anywhere!”
BRCK is basically a ruggedised router that can work under extremely-bad weather conditions and with very unreliable power supply.
According to the company, “It is a rugged, cloud-managed, full-featured modem/router with built-in fail-overs and programmable general-purpose input-output (GPIO) expansion. If there is a way for you to connect, BRCK will help you get up and stay up, no matter where you are.”
This makes it a perfect tool for connecting rural areas. In Africa, for example, BRCK is being used extensively to provide connectivity to rural schools, so children can have access to good educational content.
All you need to do to get BRCK up and running is insert a 3G data-enabled subscriber identity module (SIM) card and the device starts broadcasting Wi-Fi signals, enabling up to 20 devices to connect to the Internet. It works in more than 140 countries.
In case you do not have a SIM, you can opt for BRCK vMNO for global connectivity without SIM cards. There is an external GSM antenna port, which helps improve reach along the edge of a signal range. The battery, which can be charged using solar power, car battery, computer or regular power source, lasts for eight hours in full-power mode and much longer when used in low-power mode.
Plus, the robust BRCK system is designed as a platform that you can build on. You can write your own custom software for it through the application programming interface (API), connect sensors and other hardware through its Arduino-compatible GPIO ports, upgrade the 4GB onboard storage and do much more.
The most interesting part is that BRCK can be managed on the cloud. So this was, say, a non-profit organisation somewhere in New Delhi can install BRCK in a school in a Himalayan village, remotely manage its settings, push content and apps to it, among others.
Innovative devices to extend the reach of BharatNet
India is also gearing up to the connectivity challenge. We are aware that the current government is committed to take broadband connectivity to all 250,000 villages. While BharatNet, the Rs 720 billion NOFN, will be the backbone of the project, private and government-funded companies are simultaneously developing appropriate devices to improve last-mile connectivity. Kayargadde explained one scenario using television white-space to us earlier.
Wi-Fi products launched by Centre for Development of Telematics (C-DoT) in July 2015 are also good examples of this trend.
One device is a long-distance Wi-Fi system, which can solve connectivity issues in rural areas, hilly terrain, highways, tunnels, dense forests and others.
The other is a solar-powered Wi-Fi device, which will reduce dependence on grid power. It has also developed a smart green power supply solution that can make broadband solutions self-sustainable.
These cost-effective solutions help improve the reach of BharatNet, beyond panchayats, to the remotest corners of the country.
Indeed, it is heartening to learn of such efforts closer home, because universal connectivity is not something we can distance ourselves from, and watch the world develop. It is a real problem faced by real people, in our own country, and requires each of us to empathise with the situation and do our bit, as engineers, entrepreneurs, philanthropists or volunteers.
While signing off, Dr Borkar leaves us thinking about how economics matters at the grassroot level. He says, “Primary issues for a product or service to customers are affordability and capabilities that can be provided at that price-point to consumers. The goal of any commercial enterprise is to make profit. For providing the Internet to customers, currently price-points are higher than what almost two-thirds of the people can afford.
“Although making universal broadband Internet available to all may be a laudable goal, economic reality dictates the imperative of providing scalable and affordable Internet with a range of prices and corresponding performance and capabilities.
“High tele-density of 2G GSM wireless system in India is a prime example of a basic voice technology being priced within the buying power of most people. Unless availability of the Internet is considered a fundamental right with significant support by the government, universal broadband Internet connectivity will stay a dream.”
Janani Gopalakrishnan Vikram is a technically-qualified freelance writer, editor and hands-on mom based in Chennai