Mobile information options

Corinna ‘Elektra’ Aichele

Small, portable devices, such as netbooks and smartphones, are becoming increasingly popular. Will this type of equipment be useful in rural communities?

Mobile phones are basically small, networked computers, designed for a specific application. But there is a big difference between the simplest mobile handset available and the more expensive smartphones, for example the Apple iPhone. These are gradually getting technologically closer to small netbook computers and include an increasing amount of features.

Which device will be useful depends on the information required. The farmer, or anyone, has to ask: is the information I need available on the web? If the answer is yes, and you want to access the web from a phone, then you need a smartphone. Personally, I don’t find them comfortable to work on, but they are robust (usually) and use little power. Netbooks, on the other hand, have driven down the price and power consumption of small laptop computers, which is great news.

However, if the information is available from a simple text-to-speech service, then a cheaper mobile phone handset would be good enough.

Could more be done to make information available on mobile phones?

Sure. But we need to have affordable call rates first. I just came back from South Africa, where I thought the tariffs were insanely expensive. They were similar to the call rates being charged by network providers a few years ago in Europe. Being a mobile network provider seems to be a license to print money and rip off the poor in some countries.

There are also many different ways to provide connectivity: broadband cables, 3G, GSM. Will we always use a combination of technologies, or will one become dominant?

The voice quality over GSM, the standard mobile network, is quite low and delivers slow modem data speeds, but the networks are, more or less, ubiquitous and cover a long range. It is also an outdated and usually overpriced service. 3G (third generation mobile network) has more capacity, but is too expensive, plus, if everybody accesses broadband 3G in a densely populated area, the network becomes painfully slow.

3G mobile networks are currently the expensive option for truly mobile access. Mesh networks (where an internet signal is relayed between a series of access points) haven’t developed far enough. They can be used for distributing mobile data and VoIP (voice over internet protocol) applications, but mesh networks are still too power-hungry. The ideal method to provide connectivity, considering the technology available today, is to develop fibre optic cable access to every home.

If an underdeveloped country, starting from zero, wants to establish a communication infrastructure quickly, I'd recommend the following: arrange access to at least one undersea cable, distribute that with fibre optic cables as far as possible, then link the major cities to create a network backbone. In the places where it’s not possible to lay fibre optic cables, set up high-speed wireless data links by building high towers and fitting them with powerful wireless point-to-point links. Distribution to outlying rural areas could then be achieved using wireless mesh technology.

Can rural communities develop their own internet and telephone networks?

If the community has a few technologically interested individuals, who have access to hardware and an information source like the internet, then yes.

Mesh networks can be built based on relatively cheap hardware, for less than US$ 60 per access point, also known as a node. But this figure doesn’t include non-interruptible power supplies, solar panels, poles, network cables, mounting brackets, lightning protection, and so on.

Depending on the environment, a broomstick or bamboo pole, two cable ties, a few metres of networking cable, and the wall plug shipped with the device, is all you need to set up a node. But it could be much more complicated if there is no reliable power source, or if you need to set up a high mast to get decent line-of-sight between nodes.

Regulations, a lack of hardware, lack of reliable power, and a lack of skills are other common barriers to setting up a local network.

How will the Seacom and EASSy cables, which provide high bandwidth telecommunications to East Africa, change how people there access the internet?

Internet access is currently very expensive in East Africa. Even more so if access is via VSAT (two-way data transfer using a small satellite antenna), as this can cost up to US$ 1500 a month, and will still only deliver slow data transfer speeds. The sea cables will reduce the cost. It means that East African nations now have to establish an infrastructure to distribute the bandwidth that the cables can deliver.

Wireless networks will help to provide access quickly and cheaply where fibre optic cables are not yet an option. But, if a cable system is not affordable, then wireless is the next best option. And in that case, I would prefer to see cheap and unregulated technology, such as Wi-Fi, being used rather than licensed technology like WiMAX and 3G, in order to bring the cost down and avoid monopolies.

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Corinna ‘Elektra’ Aichele is co-author of the book ‘Wireless Networking in the Developing World’ and currently works with Wireless Africa ( http://wirelessafrica.meraka.org.za).

28 October 2009

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