With massive MIMO, it is possible to build antenna channels with 100, 200 or 500 elements. By putting together multiple antenna elements in a narrow beam, the energy can be focused accurately in the required direction. As a result, antennae that transmit energy in a 120-degree slice can focus their beam within less than 10 degrees, helping to increase the range and speed.

IEEE Fellow Gerhard Fettweis, co-chair of the IEEE 5G Initiative, explains how this works: “Current cell towers typically point their antennae in three directions. Cut the circle into three parts, and the energy in this one sector could be transmitted no matter how far away a cell phone is. It could receive calls in any place in this sector because only one dedicated antenna is needed to receive the signal. Instead of 10kbps or 100kbps speeds at a 100km radius, 100Mbps will be possible.”

Fettweis also feels that a massive MIMO powered terrestrial system will be less expensive and more effective than airborne systems such as those being built by Google and Facebook. He reminds that companies that built and launched billion-dollar Iridium and Teledesic satellites in the 1990s went bankrupt. Fettweis hopes that 100km radius cells will achieve at least 100Mbps before 2025—a speed that will be tough for an airborne system to achieve.

India on way to becoming truly connected

Considering the Internet as a tool for economic and social development, most developing nations across the world are giving a lot of importance to the Internet access for all. South Africa is one such example that we can readily relate to.

Some months ago, there was a lot of media coverage about a container box that improved the lives of people in remote areas including refugee camps! The so-called container was an innovation by the Computer Aid International. ZubaBox, which means solar-powered box in a local dialect, contains all the essential components for an Internet hub, including communication equipment, laptops and so on. Being solar-powered, the portable Internet hub could be used even in remote villages without power supply. When the ZubaBox arrived in a village, it heralded joy and development for the dwellers!

The South African government is also working with the World Economic Forum to implement Internet for All—a platform project to connect millions of South Africans to the Internet through public-private collaboration.

Connectivity—a prerequisite to achieve Digital India dream

Back home, the Digital India campaign received a lot of impetus in the last budget, and since then we have seen several attempts to not just improve digital literacy but also rural connectivity. Andhra Pradesh is one example. Kerala too has dived into the connectivity challenge headlong and hopes to become one of the most connected states. In fact, the state wants to make Internet connectivity a basic human right.

Developed countries like Sweden and Canada made broadband connectivity a legal right many years ago. In 2016, the United Nations declared that depriving people of Internet connectivity was a human rights violation running contrary to international law. So, Kerala, which is known for being the most literate state, is working on the right lines. It plans to set up a new high-speed optical fibre network called K:Fon, which will run parallel to the existing electricity board network. Using this network, the government will provide free, subsidised or normal tariff Internet connectivity to all people based on their economic stature. Starting with at least one person from each family, Internet access will be gradually extended to all.

Telcos and start-ups at work

Indian telecom operators and start-ups are busy innovating technologies and business models for remote connectivity.

Vihaan Networks Limited (VNL), for example, believes in connecting remote communities using a base engine that is truly optimised and simple enough to be assembled and used by anyone. Their solar-powered WorldGSM Rural Site deploys a cascading star network architecture that enables rural wireless telephony and Internet access in areas with low average revenue per user (ARPU). With minimal capital and operating expenditure, this system gives mobile operators a decent return on investment, thereby enabling even rural operators to venture into this space.

VNL uses a cascading star network architecture to enable rural wireless telephony and Internet connectivity
VNL uses a cascading star network architecture to enable rural wireless telephony and Internet connectivity (Source: VNL)

AirJaldi service by class-A ISP Rural Broadband provides high-quality broadband connectivity to rural areas at reasonable rates. You might have read about them providing Wi-Fi services in India’s first digital village Harisal. But, you will be in for a surprise if you look at the kind of remote regions they work in. It is difficult to even locate some of those regions in the Indian map.

Taking Internet connectivity—and progress—to remote Indian villages
Taking Internet connectivity—and progress—to remote Indian villages (Source: AirJaldi)

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