Wednesday, October 13, 2021
This article was published originally by The Marconi Society
While few dispute the existence of the digital divide, the true character of the divide is often masked by high-level information and false assumptions about exactly where the digital divide lives and the daily and systemic economic problems it creates.
The Marconi Society’s September 28 panel offered rich insights into the digital divide itself and some of the potential solutions for bridging it. Here are the top five takeaways.
1. Techno/Economic Solutions to Connect the Next Billion are Driven by Geography and Income
While a variety of factors determine the technical solutions and business models best suited for an area, most of these variables boil down to geography and income.
Affordable services in Least Developed Countries (LCDs) may be in the range of $1.50–$4.00/month and possibly even lower, according to Anton Monk. Service provider business models are driven by this average revenue per user (ARPU) and costs, one of the largest of which is spectrum availability (see below).
Geography is the other major determinant of the best techno/economic solution. This includes population density, distance from metro areas, topology, and altitude. Each of these factors dictates the most efficient and effective network alternatives.
Regardless of geography, we know that powering networks in LCDs is as critical as building them. We need smaller units, powered by alternative sources such as solar—which can be a very expensive power source, as well—bicycle, and other creative means.
2. There is No One-Size-Fits-All Solution
There are a number of technology options for serving unconnected areas and, as noted above, the best choices depend on geography and income.
Some technology, such as Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites, can provide critical coverage in areas that are difficult to reach with terrestrial services. According to Tom Choi, we must look critically at the economics. These services may be best suited for enterprises and higher-income consumers, as power and equipment costs are likely too high for lower-income areas.
Other technologies that can play a role include fixed wireless, high-altitude platform stations (HAPS) systems, wireless optical communications, and more. Detailed discussions of each of these technologies and their markets are in the on-demand replays for these sessions.
Bringing affordable and accessible connectivity to parts of the world where there is none might also mean starting with 4G, which could be a major improvement over the current options. It may mean providing service in living areas and common spaces of homes, rather than in every room or depending on solutions that have slightly less than 99.999% reliability, the gold standard in developed countries.
3. Uncontested and Uncongested Spectrum Drives Innovative Business Models
Spectrum is one of the top costs in building networks. There are several innovative approaches to making spectrum more readily available and less costly for network providers:
- Citizens Band Radio Service (CBRS) is available in the US and enables spectrum sharing with no license needed. This model is being used by wireless ISPs (WISPs) serving rural areas and is leading to innovative business models and service options. Panelists urged other countries to adopt CBRS to speed deployment.
- Partnering with operators who have spectrum and are not using it.
- Wireless optical systems have the potential to deliver high throughput, low power consumption, and good range. We will learn more as the technology is further deployed.
4. Serving Unconnected Areas Poses New Regulatory Challenges
Spectrum stands as the single biggest challenge for non-incumbents, while many incumbents – who own spectrum – do not prioritize serving remote or under-connected areas.
Satellite providers face their own regulatory hurdles, according to Ruth Pritchard-Kelly and Helka-Liina Määttäsen, as requirements from regulators can take a year or more to come down while companies are racing against the clock to build technology. In addition, we need to move to a place where users can buy satellite receivers without a license.
As Edward John Oughton reminds us, telecommunications is a cash cow in many countries, providing funding for housing, sanitation, and other basic services. Unless and until money goes back into the infrastructure if will be difficult to achieve network deployment and affordability goals.
5. Everyone Can Play
As Brian Barritt mentions, there are so many ways to get involved in connecting the rest of the world. There is a strong move toward democratization of connectivity and networks. One example is Magma, a community providing open-source software to build carrier-grade networks.
For those who want to pursue a career in the wireless industry, there are so many challenges to solve through wireless. This is the decade where the industry needs students’ ideas, technical expertise, and lived experiences.
Connecting the next billion will also require policy, communications, and boots on the ground to help consumers connect and become digitally literate. There are roles for all interests and skillsets.
Baris Erkmen provides a good overview of the future we look forward to in which affordable and effective connectivity will leverage many different access technologies and different connections through the network, in a way that is seamless to consumers. While we may think that the opportunity is for the unconnected themselves to get connected, Ken Riordan sums it up well when he says, “The opportunity is for all of us. We, the connected, will be better off when we can hear all voices.”
The Marconi Society envisions a world in which everyone can create opportunity through the benefits of connectivity. The organization celebrates, inspires, and connects individuals building tomorrow’s technologies in service of a digitally inclusive world. Marconi is hosting The Decade of Digital Inclusion, a conversation about the critical challenges of connecting the next billion people to the internet and developing innovative, practical solutions.