This paper outlines a migration path towards Universal Broadband Connectivity, motivated byhighlighting the advantages of and policy implications for a novel asynchronous wireless communications network.
We argue that the cost of real-time, circuit-switched communications is sufficiently high that it may be the wrong starting point for rural connectivity. Based on market data for information and communication technology (ICT) services in rural India, we propose a combination of wireless technology with an asynchronous mode of communications that offers a means of introducing ICTs with:
• affordability and practicality for end users;
• a sustainable cost structure for operators and investors;
• a smooth migration path to Universal Broadband Connectivity.
A summary of results and data are given for an operational pilot test of this wireless network in Karnataka, India, beginning in March 2003.
UNIVERSAL BROADBAND CONNECTIVITY
The Digital Divide is just as much about a gap in understanding as it is a gap in connectivity. There are often clear fundamental differences between what wireless spectrum has been de-licensed, it is reasonable to consider the use of this wireless technology in developing countries as well. The forces driving the standardization and proliferation of WiFi in the developed world could also stimulate the communications market dynamic in the developing world, namely: its ease of set-up, use, and maintenance, and, most importantly, its relatively low cost for both providers and users.
Standard WiFi wireless connectivity (the IEEE 802.11b standard) provides up to 11Mb/sec digital connectivity, and operates in a band near 2.4Ghz that is generally unlicensed. Newer versions of WiFi provide 22Mb/sec in this band, and versions that operate at higher frequencies provide up to 54Mb/sec. Tests in rural settings show that a standard WiFi PCMCIA card can provide good connectivity within a ½ kilometer radius. With the addition of antennas and repeaters, it is possible to achieve point-to-point connectivity at distances of up to 20 kilometers. As noted in a presentation by rural telecommunication pioneer Dr. Ashok Jhunjhunwala from the Indian Institute of Technology – Chennai, the 802.11b spectrum is most effective as a Local Area Network (LAN), but less so as Wide Area Network (WAN). According to Jhunjhunwala, the spectrum becomes increasingly inefficient as the distance between each node increases, reducing throughput to under 10% of its capacity. The chief advantage of the WiFi standard is its cost-effectiveness as a LAN. WiFi access points currently retail for US$120, and WiFi transceiver cards in the PCMCIA form factor retail for under US$70. Note that a WiFi access point typically consists of an x86 embedded processor (often running Linux) and a WiFi transceiver.