April 2004

Wireless bridge to close digital divide

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Humans are sociable beings and given an opportunity, they would start communicate with their fellow beings. Though every zoological species has its own language, humans have made up their own multiple languages and the ways to express through them. Robinson Crusoe created his own language to communicate with Friday at the lonely island.

History as well as folktales has numerous instances of pigeons that were fussed over and trained to send messages across great distances. Similarly, messengers traveled great distances to carry the messages of the royals. Scriptures were memorized and spread literally through the word of the mouth.

Telegraph, Telephones, Radio, TV, mobile and Internet have been some of the major innovations in the past two centuries. On one hand modern technology brought progress, on the other it created further distances between the people who wanted or needed to communicate.

However, the availability, accessibility and affordability of these have not been uniform. About half of the human population on this planet is yet to have the first telephonic conversation while only about one-tenth have actually used the Internet. Situation is more acute in the developing countries due to poor telecom infrastructure, low GDP per capita and high levels of illiteracy.

National priorities have become more complex such that the focus is on ICT (Information & Communication Technology) access and not just on the telephones. For example, India’s National Telcom Policy, 1994 (NTP 1994) talked more about phones whereas the New Telecom Policy, 1999 (NTP 1999) expands the scope to include affordable information access as well.

India‘s telecom infrastructure is fifth largest in the world if one considers the number of telephone line capacity installed. However, when we consider the sheer size of one billinon plus population the penetration level is quite low. When we include the low level of Internet subscriber base and the high cost of access with respect to the purchasing power parity (PPP) as well as other aspects, ITU places India at 117th rank in its recently published figures for Digital Access
Index (DAI).

The real challenge today is not to take the tele-density to 15 (as mentioned in the NTP 1999) in the country but rather to include the large population and make a
significant impact on their quality of life and levels of education, thereby utilizing their innate capabilities towards socio-economic growth.

Much of the recent telecom growth in the country has happened out of thin air. Of course, this is no magic. It is the era of wireless communication enabled by radio spectrum and guided by robust forward-looking policy and regulatory framework.

Earlier, to make a telephone line available at a home in urban area through copper laid underground, one required a capital expenditure of more than US$ 800 whereas now it costs just around US $ 200 per line through wireless.

Radio spectrum is a natural resource and its usage is controlled and regulated by governments or bodies set up by the governments while at international levels, ITU (International Telecommunications Union) a specialized body under the United Nations (UN) carries out this function.

Due to strategic nature of spectrum and the high potential of harmful interference to other users, the system of licensing was begun such that not only a radio that would talk (like a broadcast station) but also a receiver that could only listen (e.g. TV or transistor sets) required licenses. Till about two decades back, one required a license to even own a transistor set in India! In 1995, the Supreme Court had held that the airwaves (radio frequencies) are actually public properties and hence, must be used optimally in the larger public interest.

Technology has evolved such that the same wire (or, for that matter, wireless channel) coming into a home is capable of carrying the triple play of voice, video and data. In this context, it is important to assess the issues related to spectrum usage for the larger public interest.

The prevailing system of piece-by-piece licensing just would not work at a large scale, given the enormous paper-work, slow decision-making and high administered costs.

Considering that the spectrum is an economic resource, one would tend to place a value thereon. However, in the absence of any market mechanism such valuations are more often than not arbitrary. At the same time, due to the ‘first come, first served’ processes for spectrum assignments, there is little scope or incentive for new technologies to survive, let alone thrive.

In the US, FCC (Federal Communications Commission) de-licensed usage of 2.4-2.4835 GHz band in the early eighties through Part 15 rules. WPC did impose some limits on power emission. This seemingly simple but revolutionary step attracted attention of many a technologist and innovator.

Microwave ovens, cordless phones, security alarms, remote car locks and many other usages appeared. However, Wi-Fi is probably the most significant of these for the discussion subject. Wi-fi is a shortened version for the term ‘wireless fidelity’ and is based on the 802.11 series of standards set up under the aegis of Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE).

Though Wi-Fi may operate in the 2.4 GHz band as well as in the 5 GHz band, it is more popular in the former as this band has been de-licensed in many other countries and resulting in the continuous lowering of the equipment cost over the years.

Though Wi-Fi was developed as a wireless LAN (Local Area Network) technology, with slight tweaking and innovative thinking it can be adopted for long-distance outdoor usage as well. For example, IIT, Kanpur deployed such a network in its neighbourhood, aptly titled ‘Digital Gangetic Plains’ (DGP).

Though indoor usage of Wi-Fi had been de-licensed in April 2003, it is highly desirable that certain frequency bands (to start with, 2.4-2.4835 GHz) are totally de-licensed, with some operative parametric limitations only.

IEEE has recently standardized 802.16 (Wimax) technology which makes it possible to deploy wireless networks in a point to multipoint networks upto 25 kilometers (kms). Major semiconductor manufacturers have joined the initiative for development of chips, which can work across a range of spectrum so that the systems can be tuned to the particular frequencies authorized in different geographies. By combining the radio on the CPU (Central Processing Unit) of the upcoming devices, not only the cost would come down but also the systems will be simpler to design and operate. As the National Frequency Allocation Plan is currently under revision, suitable provisions must be made for Wimax – both for outdoor and indoor usage, in line with the WRC-03 (World Radio Conference – 2003) resolutions. Eminent economist Arvind Virmani has also suggested differential pricing of spectrum in urban areas and rural areas rather than the prevailing system of uniform pricing. Per capita GDP of the local geography could be another variable for consideration. Of course, wireless alone cannot work. Going forward, we shall have enormous bandwidth in the core networks made largely of optical fiber cables. We shall continue to have cellular networks based on technologies like GSM and CDMA. We shall have Optical Fibre Cable or Wireless point-to-point links going to the rural areas. Beyond that, in the local vicinity it might be a point-to-point or mesh network, using Wimax. Again, inside a home, it might be a Wi-Fi network connecting various devices across the rooms while an Internet-enabled slate (tablet computer!) and speech-synthesised system is connected via Bluetooth. In 2002, when Wimax had not yet been standardized, Kofi Annan, the Secretary General of UN, urged the crème’ de le crème’ of the Silcon Valley to use Wi-Fi to make Internet access to the deprived in the developing countries using innovative solutions like Wi-Fi!

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