Wi-Fi Delivers For Developing Countries - Page 2

By Craig Liddell

May 01, 2003

Amir Alexander Hasson, business development manager at Media Lab Asia, helped to initiate DakNet while studying for a Masters in the Management of Technology at the MIT Sloan School of Management.

He explains, "we are using IEEE 802.11b equipment at 2.4Ghz. We don't use base stations, but rather our custom DakNet Mobile Access Point (MAP) that is mounted on and powered by a vehicle. The current implementation uses a public government bus that transports the data to and from computers enabled with WiFi cards."

Data is transported through the access point, which automatically and wirelessly collects and delivers data from each 'kiosk' on the network. The patent-pending hybrid network architecture combines both physical and wireless data transport to enable high-bandwidth intranet and Internet connectivity among kiosks of public computers and between kiosks and hubs. In other words, places with a reliable Internet connection.

In the most recent deployment in rural Karnataka, the DakNet-enabled vehicle drives past a village kiosk where it picks up and drops off land record queries and responses. Each day, this is synchronised with a central database.

"The network layer is ad-hoc peer-to-peer mode," Hasson explains, "not infrastructure mode. Therefore, these are short point-to-point links that get established whenever the MAP comes within range of a kiosk or hub."

Omnidirectional antennas are used on the bus and either directional or omnidirectional antennas are located at each of the kiosks or hubs. Amplifiers are used to boost the signal and range for higher bandwidth applications.

The speed of the connection between the access point and the kiosk or hub varies in each case. But on average, they can move about 21Mb or 42Mb bi-directionally per session. This is the period of time where the access point is within range of the kiosk or hub. The average goodput or actual throughput is 2.3Mbps.

Hasson says the location of the Karnataka deployment presented several challenges.

The first is a lack of access to the required equipment. He says, "it took us two months to receive some equipment from the United States, combined with a forty percent custom duties surcharge." However, some of that equipment is becoming available locally.

"Dearth of existing revenue-generating end-user applications and services that require data connectivity," Hasson highlights as the second challenge.

Thirdly, power. "We've had to get back-ups for our power back-ups," he quips. "We figured out how to power the access point from the bus battery. But the villages don't have power much of the time, which is critical for when the bus drives by."

Hasson says the fourth major challenge is finding the required talent. "Not too many people understand how to deploy, let alone customize, WiFi networks outside of Europe, United States and," he concedes, Australia.

He has "had a tough time getting a team together here in India to develop DakNet, and have had to build the capacity internally. Combine this with the lack of people who know how to turn a computer on/off in a village and you sometimes wonder if this is all premature."

For the rest of the year, the team plan to make DakNet more robust. The complete 'connectivity package' includes wireless hardware, networking software, server and cache software. Custom applications such as browsing, audio and video messaging are also provided.

Such is the interest in WiFi for developing countries that the United Nations (UN) established a Wireless Internet Institute (W2i) under the auspices of the United Nations Information and Communications Technologies (ICT) Task Force. A New York conference on the topic is planned for June this year.

The UN explains, "pilot projects around the world are fast proving that WiFi technologies can bring broadband access to underserved populations at a fraction of the cost of alternative wired or wireless technologies. But even as technological hurdles are rapidly falling, rigid spectrum policies, protective regulatory environments and lack of sustainable business models remain big obstacles to faster and broader deployment."

Kofi Annan, Secretary-General of the UN, concludes, "information technology is not a magic formula that is going to solve all our problems. But it is a powerful force that can and must be harnessed to our global mission of peace and development. This is a matter of both ethics and economics; over the long term, the new economy can only be productive and sustainable if it spreads worldwide and responds to the needs and demands of all people."

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