|Issue:||Asia-Pacific III 2001|
|Topic:||Wireless Technologies: Broadening Communities’ Access to Next Generation Telecom|
|Title:||Vice-President of Technology|
A high density of telecoms users results in a healthy, well-educated and ultimately richer society. Fraser Clayton, Vice-President of Technology, Littlefeet, presents an informed picture of the economic and developmental importance of telecoms network access in the Asia-Pacific region. New technological generations assist in the development scenario because they offer less obtrusive and more effective solutions. Flexible, low-cost and easily-deployed systems networks allow information-poor nations to leap across the telecommunications divide and improve the welfare of their communities.
It is for good reason that tele-density, or the number of telephone lines per capita, is included among the indicators used to assess a nation’s economic well being. In a virtuous circle, nations that put financial resources into building up their stock of telecommunications infrastructure reap the benefits of having a more educated, healthier, and ultimately, richer population. Many countries are now enjoying the rewards that access to telecommunications infrastructure brings. A well-known benefit of access is the opportunity to look through the ‘global window’ that is the Internet and the World Wide Web. Broader access to next-generation telecommunications provides numerous other benefits as well, as outlined in the chart. Compelling examples abound of the community empowerment that results from telecommunications access. Landless tribal labourers in India are given a new economic lease on life through government-funded rural cyber kiosks. In remote villages in Bangladesh, electronic access to critical market, crop, and weather information helps farmers gain entry to a larger regional customer base that in turn leads to better prices. In Australia’s Outback, the Alice Springs School of the Air has been using telecommunications technologies to provide primary education for students that would otherwise need to go to extreme measures for their schooling. And in Vietnam, tele-medicine has been instrumental in saving the lives of rural inhabitants. Telecommunications infrastructure can help power societies to heights that were unimaginable only a decade ago. The correlation between telecommunications infrastructure and GDP is so widely accepted-indeed it is almost a truism-that many governments have made universal access to telecommunications an official domestic policy goal. Still, whereas many information-rich nations appear close to meeting this objective, most poor countries continue to face a telecommunications gap that seems to widen year after year. Historically, the telecommunications divide has been linked to the expense of deploying traditional wireline networks. Deploying phone lines across vast rural expanses is a daunting proposition, particularly for a nation in which other, more basic requirements such as food, clothing, and shelter for its residents are yet unmet. For these nations, unless a more cost-effective approach is used, the goal of achieving broad telecommunications access will remain an unlikely prospect. Fortunately, this target may be elusive but it is wholly attainable. Many of the obstacles faced by conventional wireline networks may be overcome by newer wireless technologies. Over the last ten years, wireless networks have proliferated as a result of several technological advances. In the early 1990s, first-generation (1G) analogue cellular wireless networks began to be replaced in much of the world by second-generation (2G) digital networks. Key to this transition was the advent of international 2G standards such as the Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) that enabled seamless roaming among different wireless networks. For many potential subscribers, it was this near-universal network coverage, in conjunction with the improved feature set available in 2G wireless phones that finally made the acquisition of a wireless phone worthwhile. And as demand for wireless services increased, infrastructure manufacturers were able to take advantage of rising economies of scale, leading to lower operator costs and even greater available coverage for consumers. More recently, network operators have begun to deploy wireless technologies known as 2.5G. The advent of 2.5G technologies is particularly good news for developing countries. 2.5G technologies such as general packet radio service (GPRS) and enhanced data rates for global evolution (EDGE), both rooted in the GSM standard, as well as 1xRTT, based on CDMA, will make mobile data products far more accessible than ever before. Relative to circuit-switched 2G technologies, packet-based 2.5G wireless solutions offer faster data throughputs and a connection that is ‘always on,’ much like a DSL or cable modem provides to the wired world. While data throughputs for 2.5G solutions are generally not fast enough to permit mobile web browsing at vehicular speeds, they are sufficiently quick to allow for fixed or ambulatory mobile wireless activities. Many of us have heard about the approach of an even more advanced generation of wireless technologies known as 3G. This crop of solutions, which includes WCDMA and CDMA 2000 3xRTT, is slated to provide users with lightning-fast data throughputs that will provide the catalyst for innumerable ‘killer’ applications. Why, then, get so excited over 2.5G technologies that are by definition merely stepping-stones to products with even greater functionality? The answer is simple: 2.5G technologies will be available far sooner than 3G solutions, they do not require new network buildouts, and, particularly for developing countries, they provide a level of functionality that better corresponds to the needs of most consumers. These factors have combined to lead many operators, even those building greenfield networks, to regard 2.5G technologies as a stand-alone solution. Of course, the faster data throughputs and ‘always-on’ connections available in 2.5G wireless technologies are only useful to developing countries if they can be deployed in a cost-effective manner. Conventional 2G wireless networks, as well as terrestrial mobile radio and satellite solutions, can indeed broaden available telecommunications coverage yet they continue to suffer from high capital and operating costs. For example, typical wireless systems require a base station in every targeted service area, wireline-based backhaul equipment connected to the network operating centre, and possibly a large (and unsightly) tower to broadcast and receive signals. In areas of low user density or that lack sufficient supporting infrastructure, the return on investment (ROI) associated with conventional wireless systems may still be too low to justify a deployment. Recently, a number of innovative distributed wireless architectures have been developed that are capable of delivering high bandwidth to locations where the use of wireline is impractical or where other wireless options are not cost-effective. These architectures, known as w-DAS networks (for wireless distributed antenna system), achieve cost reductions by riding piggy-back atop existing base station infrastructure, reducing the number of required cell sites and utilising wireless equipment to provide backhaul. w-DAS equipment is also small in size, which allows for inconspicuous placement on the sides of buildings or into the surrounding landscape, helping to avoid zoning and siting issues and shorten deployment time. Conclusion In summary, access to telecommunications infrastructure is a key element in enabling meaningful economic growth. For developing countries, telecommunications access historically has meant inflexible terrestrial or expensive satellite systems. Fortunately, new developments in telecommunications access are driving down costs and lowering the risks of deploying telecommunications infrastructure in these regions. Flexible, low-cost and easily-deployed systems such as w-DAS networks allow information-poor nations around the globe to leap across the telecommunications divide and improve the welfare for their communities.