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The digital divide is the result of inequities that exceed technical matters and digital technologies. These important non-technical factors are addressed in other chapters in this volume. In this section, we will focus on technical issues relating to the divide, particularly regarding computer equipment and connectivity. The lack of these elements in developing communities has given rise to some of the most apparent disparities of the digital divide. This discussion of “appropriate” ICTs will look at three groups of digital technologies that offer promising solutions to some of these technical issues. They are wireless technologies, VoIP and low-cost devices.
For a long time, telecommunications services were delivered solely via copper wires to the offices and homes of subscribers. Stringing the wires was expensive and time-consuming. In the case of many isolated communities, the high installation costs could not be justified against the low revenue generated from the small number of subscribers at the end of the line. The economic arguments against running wires to communities living in difficult swampy or mountainous terrain were the strongest, since not only was installation expensive it was also very difficult. And as the people living in these isolated communities also tended to have the least financial resources, it was unlikely they could afford the services even if the wires reached them. This combination of daunting factors kept telephony out of reach of many rural communities for the past decades. So the people who needed the telephone the most because they were isolated never got connected.
The advent of wireless technologies is presenting these isolated communities with alternative means of access that may finally see telecommunications services overcoming terrestrial obstacles and severing their copper-bound tethers. These technologies are also a boon to urban residents. In monopolistic markets, where telecommunications companies once had a stranglehold on access because they owned the land lines, their stifling grip has been broken by wireless connections. Wireless technologies have also met the needs of the new generation of users, who are constantly on the move and do not always have ready access to fixed-line services. The meteoric rise of wireless technologies is now evident in the presence of cellular phones almost everywhere in Asia Pacific. The wireless revolution of the cellular phone was made possible by the advent of three wireless standards: GSM, CDMA and TDMA.
The advent of the cellular phone has made telephony accessible to hundreds of millions of people in the region who had previously waited, sometimes up to decades, for fixed lines. The competition which in most of the markets in Asia Pacific accompanied the launch of mobile phones has made services affordable to more users while at the same time delivering a level of service that often exceeds that of fixed lines. Mobile phones also provide the perfect match to the lifestyles of many: from slum dwellers without a permanent or legal address to vendors and migrant workers who are always on the move.
SMS (short message service) is a service available on most digital mobile phones that enables users to send short text messages to other mobile phones, handheld devices and computers connected to the Internet. SMS was designed as part of the GSM standard, the most popular standard for mobile phones in the world. It has become one of the most used ICT services in the region after voice telephony. It has completely replaced paging services, which were once ubiquitous in many Asian cities. In the Philippines, the “texting capital” of the world, 14–16 million of its citizens own mobile phones generating 150–200 million text messages a day. Filipinos use SMS for a wide variety of purposes: from sending love messages to tipping off the Civil Service Commission about instances of corruption and poor service by bureaucrats, and from downloading passages from the Bible to mobilising protesters onto the streets in 2001 to press for the removal of the then president Joseph Estrada. The popularity of SMS services in the Philippines is often attributed to their low price. A number of “free” messages are usually included in prepaid telephone cards and extra messages cost about 1 Php (about US$0.02) per message (Conde, 2003).
Educational and development organisations in the Philippines are now exploring ways of using mobile phones and SMS services to support development efforts. The University of the Philippines Open University has developed an mLearning programme for “learners on the go”, or mobile learners who wish to use idle time to improve their knowledge on topics as diverse as spelling, mathematics, dieting, smoking and physical exercises. The programme is free; learners need only purchase thin pocket-sized booklets as learning guides. Learners receive tests on lessons via SMS. They may also apply to sit for a certification examination by texting a special number of the university. Meanwhile, Filipino researchers have embarked on a joint project with researchers in Mongolia to test the feasibility and acceptability of SMS for delivering non-formal distance education modules to different socioeconomic, cultural and gender groups, as well as to determine the motivation of learners for enrolling on such modules.
The Philippines Rice Research Institute, with support from a Pan Asia ICT R&D grant, is developing an SMS database system to enable rice seed growers and seed centres in the country to access a national seed stock inventory in real time. The system will process data contributed by growers and the staff of seed centres and will answer queries sent in by them, all via SMS. Farmers will also eventually be able to place orders for rice seeds via SMS.
B2bpricenow.com is an award-winning e-marketplace for agricultural products that enables Filipino farmers, members of cooperatives and small entrepreneurs to do online trading via their mobile phones. It allows both buyers and sellers to access information and perform transactions via SMS. Through the Internet or mobile phone, farmers can upload information regarding their products and buyers can post notices about the items they are sourcing online. Farmers registered with this service can monitor the prices of produce such as rice in the market without travelling to the nearest trading centre.
The 26 December 2004 tsunami that devastated various places around the Indian Ocean moved mobile phone companies throughout Asia to launch services that allowed subscribers to make donations to tsunami relief funds by dialling special numbers or sending SMS messages with keywords. Each call or text message resulted in the caller being charged a specified amount which was then paid into relief funds by the telephone companies.
Mobile phones are also being used to bring telemedicine services to rural areas in Haryana, India, via a technology called TeleDoc(http://www.jiva.org/health/teledoc.asp). Field workers conducting medical examinations use mobile phones equipped with structured data entry software to guide them through the consultation procedure. Information from each examination is forwarded via the same phone to doctors in a central clinic, who then make the diagnosis and prescribe medicines. Patient information is stored in a database for future reference and for demographic purposes.
A set of IEEE technical standards promises to do for Internet access what cellular phones did for voice telephony. This group of standards is popularly known in the industry as WiFi (wireless fidelity), a trade name of the WiFi Alliance (formerly the Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance or WECA). There are currently three variations of the WiFi standard: IEEE 802.11a, 802.11b and 802.11g. The most popularly used at present is 802.11b, which operates at 11 Mbps; 802.11a and 802.11g, which allow faster data transfer by operating at 54 Mbps, are still not as widely deployed. IEEE 802.11g is preferred to 802.11a because it is compatible with 802.11b. WiFi networks operate in the 2.4- and 5-GHz radio bands. Computers fitted with WiFi-enabled networking equipment can connect to the Internet when they are within the areas covered by WiFi signals without having to plug into any copper wire. Areas covered by WiFi signals are commonly called hotspots. The range of coverage of most hotspots is rather limited, usually extending a radius of about 150 metres from the antennae. As described below in the case of Indonesia, this limited range can be extended with clever tweaking of hardware and by mounting antennae on high towers. IEEE has now released a new standard, 802.16, that extends the range of such wireless networks up to a radius of 25 km. This new standard is popularly referred to as WiMAX. It will take a while for equipment manufacturers to sort out the compatibility issues before they can supply hardware for its deployment, but its potential for connecting the disconnected looks very promising.
Indonesia offers an interesting case of how civil society has utilised WiFi to make broadband Internet access more affordable and accessible. As described in a sidebar in the chapter on Indonesia, one such solution is to take off-the¬shelf WiFi hardware and adapt it to increase its range from 100–200 metres to 1–8 km using home-made antennae, high-gain flat panels or parabolic antennae. The equipment is mounted on a tall tower to reduce signal loss. A LAN cable is then extended from the back of the WiFi equipment on the tower to the neighbourhood network.
Using this method, and with an initial US$100–$300 investment, users are able to obtain broadband connections with ISPs within a range of 5–10 km. Moreover, a cluster of users in a neighbourhood is able to share 24-hour access to the Internet at 11 Mbps at an average cost of about US$15– $30 per month. Such low-cost access would not be possible without the existence of neighbourhood networks. Schools, offices and other clusters of users have set up their own neighbourhood networks. More than 5,000 outdoor WiFi nodes of this type have been installed in Indonesia, and 200– 300 new nodes are added each month.
Unlike community telecentres and cyber cafés, which connect several computers within a room or a house, neighbourhood networks extend LAN cables to adjacent houses and buildings. Indonesian neighbourhood networks basically deploy WANs based on Ethernet LAN. As more houses in the neighbourhood are connected to the network, the installation cost can drop to around US$50–$80 per house.
Although WiFi hardware and expertise are now readily available in Indonesia, until early 2005 large-scale WiFi deployment was banned because the 2.4- and 5-GHz radio bands on which the technology operates had not been unlicensed by the government. It was therefore previously illegal to operate WiFi equipment in the country without a licence. The Philippines, however, continues to enforce restrictions on the use of the 2.4-GHz band. The WiFi Community Base Network in the Philippines reported that the threat by the authorities to confiscate unlicensed WiFi equipment had reduced its membership from 50 to 2 within a year. The restrictions run counter to the trend to unlicense the 2.4- and 5-GHz radio bands.
Over in Thailand, in 2003 the National Electronics and Computer Technology Centre (NECTEC) initiated the Rural Wireless Broadband Access (RWBA) project, which aims to use wireless technology to overcome the lack of telecommunications and Internet access in rural areas (Koanantakool et al., 2004). As part of the project, a low-cost wireless access architecture will be designed and developed to provide digital voice and high-speed Internet access services in rural areas. A pilot programme will be conducted to identify key success factors for sustainable services, and an optimum solution for fulfilling universal service obligation in rural areas will be identified and established.
RWBA is designed for a wide range of users. The service scenarios adopted by the project helped the project team to define the basic engineering requirements and necessary protocol capabilities of the system units to be deployed. The scenarios are grouped into five categories: basic voice services, optional voice services, basic Internet access and data services, optional Internet access and data services, and other supplemental services.
The system architecture consists of a central facility (router to the Internet, media gateway to the PSTN, firewall, layer-3 switch, and a cluster of web, email, virus filtering, proxy cache, and voicemail servers), a community-level facility (antenna tower, community router and community broadcast unit) for each community or village, and customer access devices (fixed-terminal adapter, multi-terminal adapter, PC and handset).
A field trial was set up at NECTEC in the Thailand Science Park, Pathumthani, to test the performance of equipment prototypes. The base station equipment was located on the roof of the NECTEC head office. Multiple point-to-multipoint fixed terminal units were installed within a 5-km radius of the building. Another single point-to-point fixed terminal unit was installed 20 km away from the building. The trial showed that it is possible to provide broadband access for telephony and Internet services at low costs for a small number of access points using existing WiFi equipment. Emerging technologies such as WiMAX and Smart Antenna can expand the capacity of RWBA. However, in its present form, RWBA is a promising solution that can speed up the process of bridging the digital divide.
Thai researchers have recommended that a portion of the unused 700-MHz UHF television channels be allocated for rural wireless broadband applications. However, in order to obtain a broader coverage range from these frequencies, sufficient spectrum bandwidth must be allocated. Cells deployed in rural areas should take full advantage of the longer reach offered by the 700-MHz spectrum. The exact amount of spectrum needed to satisfy this requirement depends on the distribution and usage of subscribers and will be specific to each service area. The researchers have also suggested that at least 25 MHz of spectrum should be allocated for rural deployment and 50–75 MHz for implementation covering the whole country.
The wireless LAN solutions based on early standards such as 802.11a and 802.11b were not originally designed for use as the infrastructure for rural telephone networks. However, the technology can be adapted for use in sparsely populated areas for both Internet access and VoIP. There has not been any large-scale deployment of the technology for public broadband access, except for hotspot services in cities where the operating range and power are limited to make sure that interference is kept to a minimum.
One of the problems encountered in Thailand is the lack of frequency spectrum for wireless LAN, as parts of the radio spectrum in the 2.4- and 5-GHz ranges have been licensed for other uses. Thus, wireless LAN devices must operate with limited bandwidth. There are a number of other challenges for rural application. These include the lack of reliable power supply, VoIP licensing issues, and the charging of interconnection fees by incumbent gateways for connections to foreign telephone operators and ISPs
WLL (wireless local loop) is a system that connects subscribers to the PSTN using radio signals to replace copper
In India, researchers from the Telecommunications and Computer Networks Group of the Indian Institute of Technology developed the widely adopted corDECT WLL system that provides 35/70 Kbps of Internet access and simultaneous voice communication to subscribers. It costs Rs 13,000–17,000 (US$295–$386) per installation. The system is usually set up to cover a small radius in urban areas to maximise frequency resources. However, in rural areas it has a range of about 10 km. The range can be extended to 25 km through the use of relay base stations. The system has been installed in the Kuppam area of the state of Andhra Pradesh providing connections to about 65 villages. The Department of Telecommunications has approved deployment of the system in the cities Bhopal, Panipat, Rajkot and Mumbai. Basic services operators and several ISPs are installing the system in many areas. The system has also been adopted in other developing countries, including Argentina, Brazil, Madagascar, Kenya, Nigeria, Angola, Tunisia, Yemen, Fiji and Iran (Jhunjhunwala & Ramamurthi, n.d.).
VSAT (very small aperture terminal) technology is a wireless solution that has helped to bring access to isolated communities. However, it is meant for deployment by local ISPs and telecommunications companies rather than individual users. VSAT has led to impressive cost savings for ISPs in Nepal, with bandwidth costing 20 times less than before VSAT links were approved. As a result, the cost of Internet access to users tumbled 30–40 times (Chin, 2002). This remarkable achievement was made possible by the opening up of the VSAT sector to private sector ISPs.
Independent researchers in Asia Pacific frustrated with the lack of resources to extend telecommunications services to the masses have been working on developing low-cost technologies that use hybrid media. Some of these efforts have been successful. The goal is to develop new, nextgeneration technologies that combine the usage of radio, copper and fibre optic transmission media for deployment with new software and hardware applications to produce low-cost ICTs that can deliver multiple telecommunications services over large areas to a sizeable number of users in ways that make them superior to existing telecommuni¬cations networks.
Researchers of the Telecommunications and Computer Networks Group (http://www.tenet.res.in) of the Indian Institute of Technology, Chennai, are among those working on this front. The group is well known for their contribution to corDECT WLL technology as well as switching and transmission technologies. Researchers at its sister organisation, the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur, have established a lead in deploying low-cost Internet connections for rural areas using commercial wireless LAN technology in the Digital Gangetic Plains project undertaken as part of their Media Lab Asia initiative (http://www. iitk.ac.in/mladgp). The technology deployed is similar to the core technology adopted by the Jhai Foundation’s (http:// www.jhai.org) wireless network project in remote areas of Laos (Liddell, 2002) but on a much larger scale.
A researcher in Bangladesh has developed the Broadband Multi-service Switching Transmission and Distribution Architecture (BMSTDA) for deployment in projects where wireless, satellite, fibre optic and copper networks need to be integrated to make a fault-tolerant and cheap-to-deploy multi-service telecommunications backbone. Designed for developing countries, it uses common PC components to deliver, in a unique way, all the layers of networking needed for PSTNs and Internet data networks. The network architecture has matured to a point where the same hardware can be reused as a mast-mounted router unit, a network switch, a telecommunications switch, an FM radio station, a television station, an audioconferencing system, or a multimedia terminal, in addition to its basic role as a local computer terminal. BMSTDA has been in development since 1998 and is in commercial use in the networks of PraDeshta and other Internet and Internet telephony service providers in Bangladesh. Software suitable for use as controllers for BMSTDA nodes may be sourced from http://www. mikrotik.com.
The current generation of products in use that are based on these new networking concepts build upon old ideas to deliver better results through the deployment of innovative new software applications running on old hardware. This is obvious in the new generation of telephone and telecommunications switches that can be built out of standard computer technology using low-cost telecommunications interface hardware running the open source Asterisk PBX software (http://www.asterisk.org). These switches can also operate via open source operating systems such as BSD and Linux. Using this solution, an operator can set up 120 analogue telephone lines with Internet connectivity in a remote village with an investment of about US$17,000, a fraction of the US$120,000 required for installing the same number of lines in the traditional way. The cost of building these new networks is expected to drop even further as the price of hardware such as servers, interfaces, channel banks, transceivers and routers is lowered through mass production and further refinement.
VoIP (voice over Internet protocol) allows telephone calls to be made using the same data transmission technologies that run the Internet. When a call is made, voice signals are digitised and sent across the Internet as packets of data and then converted back into voice messages at the other end of the line. Long-distance VoIP calls are significantly cheaper than normal telephone calls because they are not priced according to the higher tariff scales of telephone companies. The calls are “free” in many instances, as users do not need to pay any charges other than the cost of Internet access.
VoIP is the most appropriate technology for the millions of illiterate people in the region who have so far not benefited from the advent of the Internet. The voice-based technology offers a good match with communities that rely mainly on oral communication. It is particularly appropriate for keeping the vast numbers of migrant workers in the region in touch with their families. It also offers the promise of enabling illiterate people to access online information that is in the form of audio files.
Indonesia has one of the most complex countrywide Internet telephony infrastructures ever established. It is operated largely free of charge. The VoIP Maverick Network is a community-based network operating on the Indonesian Internet infrastructure. Its architecture is described in the chapter on Indonesia. This free VoIP network is made possible by 24-hour Internet connections to numerous networks belonging to communities, neighbourhoods, offices and schools. WiFi (IEEE 802.11b) technology is the preferred method for establishing these Internet connections.VoIP technology may not be legally deployed across half of the region. Telecommunications companies operating in the countries where the technology is banned have lobbied strenuously to preserve their proprietary rights to provide long-distance calls. Cambodia is one of these countries, where a sudden and harsh crackdown on Internet cafés providing VoIP services resulted in the closure of some of them. These cafés had been providing international telephone calls at US$0.05–$0.08 per minute for some years. The government has since licensed a company to run an exclusive VoIP gateway. The company has announced that its new service will cost 25 percent less than normal telephone calls to Europe and the USA, which cost about US$1 per minute. That means its rates will be many times higher than what the Internet cafés were previously charging.
Affordable Internet access is just a part of the challenge of providing appropriate ICT to developing communities in the region. The other part lies in affordable hardware. Closely related to this challenge is finding equipment that can operate using power supply available locally to users. Electricity supply is often just as absent in isolated communities as are telephone services.
PCs costing about US$250 have been on sale in Thailand since 2002. The price includes the cost of a regular monitor and tax. The PCs are intended for general use in offices, homes and schools. This low-cost PC is the result of an initiative led by the private sector to manufacture computers for the masses. The initiative started with a cluster of PC manufacturers formed by NECTEC in 2001, as part of its Quality PC Certification programme, to produce a computer that could be sold at less than US$500. This target price was reduced by half a year later. The low pricing was made possible by the availability of the Thai versions of the Linux operating system (Linux TLE) and the OpenOffice suite (OpenOffice TLE), which were released free of charge. More than 160,000 budget PCs have been sold in Thailand since the beginning of the project.
India’s Simputer (http://www.simputer.org) is probably the best-known appropriate ICT developed. Its concept is similar to that of the globally popular PDA. It connects to the Internet using an optional external dial-up modem and a regular telephone line or a CDMA cellular phone. It provides a web browser and email software for sending handwritten text and graphics. It also comes with a built-in voice recorder as well as facilities to play back CD-quality music and to store photographs transferred from digital cameras and data from computers. The device has 18 features altogether, including a calendar, an address book, a movie player, and games.
It also has what the manufacturer calls a “flip-flop motion sensor” that allows the pages of an ebook to be turned with a flick of the user’s wrist and photographs to be rotated following the rotation of the device. The Simputer is built with 64 Mb of RAM and a 206-MHz processor and runs on four 2-volt lithium-ion batteries that last for about eight hours of usage. The batteries are recharged using a built-in charger. The operating system is Linux Kernel 2.4.18. Although designed and manufactured expressly for users in developing countries, the Simputer costs far too much for its intended market. The three models were priced at US$240, $300 and $480 in 2004. The cost of shipping is extra. Another limitation may be the recharging of the batteries, as rural communities will probably not have ready access to a power source suitable for this purpose.
This lesser-known portable device was designed to very attractive specifications but never reached the marketplace. The company that was going to manufacture it went bankrupt in 2003. Its legacy may be its specifications, which hopefully will be realised one day. The village PDA was designed to provide real-time access to email, contacts, calendar and messaging functions at a fraction of the cost of a PC, using only one-twentieth of the bandwidth that a PC needs for Internet access. It was to be built with Bluetooth wireless technology, and seven village PDAs would share a single telephone line using this technology. The device was going to retail for US$25–$50 each. Prototypes of the PDA were to be tested in selected villages in the North-Western Province of Sri Lanka and in Kenya. They never were.
VoIP box and handset
Devices that allow users to make VoIP calls without a computer are now available in stores. The Malaysian company MoBif (http://www.mobif.com.my) had already shipped 10,000 units of its VoIP box in the last quarter of 2004. They were sold at US$75 each. The company is now developing a WiFi VoIP phone that will converge the benefits of WiFi and VoIP technologies. This sector is quickly evolving. Hopefully, it will meet some of the needs of developing communities. It will be particularly useful to illiterate Internet users.