Take a look at the many options that are being considered globally to connect remote areas affordably
At a time when we use the Internet for everything from communications and education to shopping and navigation, millions of people across the world live several kilometres away from base stations without access to mobile networks. In rugged terrains and interior regions, laying cables is also too costly, making broadband connectivity impossible. According to a UN report, this leaves nearly half the world’s population ‘unconnected’!
However, people in remote areas need the Internet as much as us. Farmers can use the Internet to manage their crops better and sell their produce. Rural artisans can peddle their ware directly instead of selling cheap to middlemen. Education, women empowerment, economy, healthcare, sanitation and many other facets of life will get a positive spin. This makes it imperative to connect the rest of the world’s population to this magical realm called the Internet.
But, that’s easier said than done. It will take years to extend the kind of communications infrastructure we have in cities and towns to remote areas—because of the difficulties posed by weather and geographical terrains, the sheer cost of setting up cable or mobile networks across hundreds of kilometres, learning curves involved in using the infrastructure, poor economy of scale, slow returns on the investment and more of such risks.
As a result, governments, researchers and socially responsible corporates have started exploring alternate methods to connect remote areas across the world. From hoisting mobile infrastructure on hot-air balloons and drones, to using vacant television bandwidth for connectivity, a lot of mind-boggling ideas are being explored.
The Indian government is also working towards similar goals with its Digital India campaign. Although progress seemed slow initially, it has taken conscious efforts last year to speed up the related infrastructure development. Connectivity to Indian villages was one of the key focus areas of Budget 2017. Last year, Minister of Communications, Manoj Sinha announced that all 250,000 Gram Panchayats in India will be connected to the Internet by December 2018 under the BharatNet project. Earlier known as the National Optic Fibre Network or NOFN, this project will cost ₹ 100 billion. Along with optical fibre networks, Wi-Fi hotspots are also being set up in every village.
Realising the potential of a connected population, Internet majors such as Facebook, Microsoft and Google are all eager to pitch in with their innovative technologies to connect rural India. But, the Indian government is being selective and careful in accepting proposals. For example, Facebook’s initial attempt to connect rural India through the Free Basics program was stopped by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) as it allowed access only to certain content, in contrast with the principles of net neutrality.
Recently, Microsoft’s attempt to use whitespace (unused television bandwidth) for connectivity in Maharashtra also ran into rough weather because national security agencies thought it was risky to use an unregulated band for last-mile connectivity.
However, enthusiasm has not ebbed and we see these and other companies coming up with fresh ideas! Let us have a look at the many options that are being considered in India and globally to connect remote areas affordably.
Satellites to the rescue
Satellite communication is one of the most effective methods of connecting remote areas. Why? Patricia Cooper, vice president of satellite government affairs at SpaceX, probably explained it best while addressing a US Senate Committee last year. She told that use of a space-based network meant companies didn’t need to install, rip up and reinstall cabling in order to provide a service.
“In other words, the common challenges associated with siting, digging trenches, laying fibre and dealing with property rights are materially alleviated through a space-based broadband network,” Cooper said. This improves reach and reduces cost in the long run, even though the initial setup cost might seem high.
Companies like O3b Networks, OneWeb, SpaceX and Boeing are working towards placing satellite constellations in the low-Earth and medium-Earth orbits so as to reach hitherto unconnected regions in a cost-effective and efficient way.
Recently, Boeing Satellite Systems International entered into a deal to build seven communication satellites for Luxembourg-based SES’ O3b Networks—a project that aims to connect the other three billion people in the world to the Internet. Currently, the O3b constellation has 12 first-generation satellites in the medium-Earth orbit, around 8000km above the Earth. The new satellites being built by Boeing are expected to launch in 2021, and bring 1-terabit Internet connectivity through the O3b network. The entire constellation is expected to cover four-fifths of the Earth’s surface.
Boeing is also working towards a 1000+ satellite constellation that will operate in the low-Earth orbit. Though there has been no official confirmation, it is rumoured that Apple will be a potential investor-partner in this venture.