October 18, 2010
Recent advances, open standards and economies of scale driving surprising adoption of Wi-Fi as last mile option for bringing broadband to rural areas worldwide
A technology known as long-range Wi-Fi has become a surprising ally to the “social enterprise” Inveneo and other communications service providers worldwide that are extending the scope of affordable broadband communications.
Long-range Wi-Fi, however, is nothing new. For more than a decade, people have been beaming the Wi-Fi standard – typically used for “hotspots” and wireless home networks – over dozens of miles, says Andris Bjornson, a project engineer for Inveneo, a San Francisco-based non-profit that brings networks and computing resources to off-the-grid areas in the developing world.
“It’s all about the antenna and focusing the radio signal,” he says. “You can make a decent antenna out of a Pringles can or a plastic water bottle.”
But what has changed, he says, is the development of a much better selection of sophisticated gear that is far more durable and easier to manage than what comes with a snack food container.
“Long-range Wi-Fi networks have always been possible, but until recently you had to be a real geek to do it,” says Kristin Peterson, the chief executive for Inveneo.
The Power of Standards
And critically, the most recent Wi-Fi standard, 802.11.n, has given long-range, or “outdoor,” Wi-Fi far greater broadband capacity, signal quality and reliability than previous generations of the technology, says Ben Moore, the vice president of business development with Ubiquiti, the main supplier of Wi-Fi gear for Inveneo’s networks.
“In the past three years, long-range Wi-Fi’s bandwidth capabilities have increased five to 10 times,” Moore says. “That definitely helps with the combination of voice, video and data now common on the Internet.”
He says with such improvements long-range Wi-Fi now offers a high-quality and cost-effective alternative to fiber or other wired connections. “Installing fiber house-to-house, especially in less densely populated areas, requires years and years for a return on investment. Our products do that in only a month or two.”
As they have done for Ethernet and Internet protocol (IP) technologies, economies of scale and the interoperability provided by an open standard are making Wi-Fi an increasingly attractive networking technology by driving down prices and fueling new products and advances.
For much of the early histories of Ethernet and IP, religious debates raged about the inadequacies of these technologies for taking on bigger tasks. But because of an already established base of users, vendors, and experts, Ethernet and IP continued to expand their scope of uses. Other new technologies, while theoretically better for certain tasks, simply could not match the profound advantages that came with such adoption momentum.
Now history seems to be repeating itself with Wi-Fi. Moore says Wi-Fi’s popularity and improved standards have made it an attractive option for last mile Internet access and have put it “head-to-head” with a long-touted answer for wireless broadband buildouts: WiMax. “We believe our products deliver on the WiMax promise,” he says.
Bjornson says alternatives like WiMax, satellites or proprietary wireless systems are either too expensive, too hard to use or just don’t work as well as new long-range Wi-Fi gear. Also, because Wi-Fi is an open, unlicensed standard, Inveneo and other operators can easily set up and run mixed gear networks, such as using Cisco Linksys hotspot wireless routers with Ubiquiti’s long-distance Wi-Fi equipment.
Making the Connection
Inveneo has most dramatically demonstrated the effectiveness of long-range Wi-Fi in its recent work in Haiti. There it has been able to quickly and cheaply set up a robust, ad hoc broadband network for a cadre of international relief agencies helping the country rebuild from its massive earthquake.
Crucial to the non-profit Inveneo, Ubiquiti’s products are about 10 times less expensive than other options, Bjornson says. Ubiquiti’s products also typically have relatively low-power demands, another plus for Inveneo’s installations in areas with spotty electrical supplies, he says.
Moore says most of Ubiquiti’s customers are larger telecommunications companies and “WISPs,” or wireless Internet service providers. WISPs are usually small and serve 1,000 to 10,000 subscribers in rural communities where wired access from DSL, fiber optics or cable struggle to reach.
He says demand for outdoor Wi-Fi products is “accelerating” around the world, from Uruguay and Australia to Moldova and Mexico, where governments and entrepreneurs are turning to the familiar technology to speed broadband buildouts.
Moore says many of his customers are also in the United States, where Wi-Fi is helping address that country’s own digital divide. According to the United States Federal Communications Commission, 14 to 24 million Americans (5 to 8 percent of the population) – typically living in poor or rural areas – don’t have access to broadband connections.
While the new Wi-Fi standard has greatly improved most of the technology’s previous shortcomings, some limitations remain. Most significantly, long-range Wi-Fi generally needs a clear line of sight from antenna to antenna. Also, environmental and electrical interference can degrade signals, though Moore says new techniques are successfully addressing these challenges.
And as Inveneo has discovered, the new generation of Wi-Fi gear is proving more than capable of expanding broadband to areas once thought out of its reach. “Our unofficial motto is: Get Stuff Done,” Bjornson says. “We’ve found that long-range Wi-Fi lets us do just that.”
Charles Waltner is a freelance writer in Piedmont, Calif.
Building Networks for Communities on the Digital Fringe
Inveneo, a non-profit “social enterprise,” creates technologies and training programs for people overlooked by the Information Age
“What should we do about the monkey?” the email asked.
Not your typical troubleshooting request for a network support services team. But for Inveneo, a San Francisco-based non-profit that is bridging the digital divide through a unique blend of philanthropy and Silicon Valley sensibilities, it’s just part of the job.
“In Nepal, a monkey had climbed a tower and moved the Wi-Fi antenna,” says Kristin Peterson, the chief executive for Inveneo. “Then there were the bees that infested a router and another time something nibbled through a cable. I’m not sure what that was.”
And there’s always the dust, monsoon rains, windowless rooms, brutal temperatures, lack of electricity, and, most challenging of all, the shortage of local technical knowledge and resources.
By Inveneo’s estimates, more than two billion people in rural and remote areas in developing countries lack access to basic information and communications technologies that can significantly improve quality of life through better healthcare, education and economic opportunities.
Though only six years old, Inveneo has brought the benefits of computers and high-speed Internet connections to one million of these people in partnership with more than 60 local companies in 25 countries ranging from Uganda and Haiti to Nepal and Nigeria.
“For a young organization, Inveneo has come a long way in such a short period of time,” says Charu Adesnik, a program manager in Cisco Systems’ public benefit investment program. “They’ve really run with the support we’ve given them.”
Tech Experts for NGOs
Peterson, along with Mark Summer and Bob Marsh (founding member of the fabled Homebrew Computer Club), started Inveneo in 2004. The three, all with deep backgrounds in communications technology and international markets, met while working for another non-profit.
From their experiences volunteering, they realized that non-profits, relief agencies and other non-governmental organizations (NGOs) needed more help with technology. It simply wasn’t viable for each group to have its own expert technology staff. Instead, Inveneo’s founders reasoned, they could be that support team so each philanthropic organization could focus on what it does best.
For help in launching their idea, the trio garnered crucial early support from Cisco with both money ($2.5 million to date in program, project and product grants) and insights in how to develop a non-profit, something the networking giant has gained from many years of working with dozens of charitable organizations.
“We knew we didn’t want to just donate equipment because that would greatly limit how many people we could help,” Peterson says. “Instead, we wanted to create some sort of sustainable model, but at the time we didn’t know exactly what that was.”
What developed was an approach that looks a lot like the ones used by other technology companies: Inveneo applies its technical and market expertise to create a portfolio of interoperable products fine-tuned to a customer segment and then cultivates and trains a network of “channel partners” that can sell, install and manage them.
“We found the technology existed but it wasn’t put together in a way that would work in the kinds of environments where we go.”
— Kristin Peterson, chief executive for Inveneo
But in this case, Inveneo’s goals are a bit different than its for-profit cousins. To be clear, Inveneo does get paid for its equipment and services, but it directs that money back into reaching its goal of bringing information and communications technologies to those areas that need it most.
As part of its process, Inveneo provides both technical and business training and consultation to local entrepreneurs, while also serving as a facilitator to link these businesses with non-governmental organizations, governmental entities and other local businesses.
Inveneo’s partners help the organization multiply its efforts for building social and economic benefits, while the local partners increase their business prospects and serve as catalysts for economic development in their communities, completing a classic “virtuous cycle.”
Systems Integrators for the Rest of the World
Like any technology company, Inveneo’s operational model starts with its products. When Peterson, Summer and Marsh first looked into their idea for a “social enterprise,” they quickly recognized that mainstream computing equipment was virtually useless for those areas on the fringes of the digital grid.
“We found the technology existed but it wasn’t put together in a way that would work in the kinds of environments where we go,” Peterson says.
To address this, Inveneo searches the tech universe for the right parts: a low-power computer, an inexpensive Wi-Fi radio, rugged routers, durable printers, simple management tools, or a portable solar panel; whatever is necessary to ensure easy to install and dependable computer and communications systems for the most austere settings.
Inveneo goes the next step by methodically testing all equipment at “Inveneo Labs.” Gear that meets durability, power, and other parameters gets the “Inveneo Certified” stamp of approval.
Inveneo also gathers together clever and inexpensive software to integrate its different hardware components into simple to deploy and manage systems. The organization, for example, has built its own brand of Linux-based server – the Inveneo Hub Server – custom-made for developing markets.
“We focus on making things usable,” says Andris Bjornson, a project engineer for Inveneo. “Our clients don’t have the resources or experience to find and fit all of the necessary pieces together. We do that for them.”
Extending the Inveneo Network
Thanks to its early success, the scope and diversity of Inveneo’s work is quickly expanding. Through its partnership with Cisco, it has become a key contributor to the Clinton Global Initiative for sub-Saharan Africa, working in conjunction with other non-profits to establish a series of community centers for spurring economic development.
Also, in Haiti Inveneo has stepped in to set up a broadband, long-distance Wi-Fi network in support of the many relief agencies now working to help the country rebuild from its devastating earthquake. And through another partnership with Cisco in the Middle East, Inveneo is now designing a large-scale Wi-Fi broadband network in Palestine.
As a social enterprise, Inveneo contrasts with many non-profits that avoid any sort of commercial activities. Though the concept of bringing business management techniques into the non-profit world has had checkered results and a mixed response from philanthropy veterans, Inveneo stands as a clear example of how such an approach can be applied with impressive results.
Inveneo’s biggest challenge now, Peterson says, is in building awareness that improvements and price drops in long-range Wi-Fi, low-power computing equipment and solar technology have made it possible to quickly and cost-effectively bring broadband networks to areas that seemed out of the Internet’s reach just a few years ago.
Far too often in the past, she says, technology products were donated with little understanding of the profound technical, logistical and human limitations facing rural communities in developing countries. She’s seen all kinds of computing and networking gear left dead and dusty from a myriad of problems unanticipated by engineers sitting in air-conditioned offices on the other side of the world.
“There are monuments to this all over the place,” she says. “But it doesn’t have to be this way if you approach it by addressing both the unique technology demands and the skills requirements of each community.”
Now, if they just can figure out how to get that monkey off the antenna.
Charles Waltner is a freelance writer in Piedmont, Calif.