Lessons learned from bringing wireless communications technologies to remote areas, from the Arctic to the Andes, could help expand global access to the benefits of the information age.
An international team of researchers led by scientists from University of Glasgow, have published new recommendations on how governments can overcome the multifaceted challenges which are locking out billions of people from regular internet access.
In a new Early Access paper published in the journal Proceedings of the IEEE, the team examine seven case studies of successful projects which have brought connectivity to remote and extreme environments. They also look at how the examples set in those communities could provide templates for others around the world, and how governments and industry can help support their success.
The case studies focus on innovative connectivity-boosting projects undertaken on four continents. Each case study demonstrates clever solutions tailored to the unique challenges of their locations.
One project in the Swedish Arctic helped establish an off-grid cellular network for the indigenous Sami community, using renewable power and fuel cells to provide 4G coverage in an area with no roads or power grid.
On Scotland’s Orkney Islands, the 5G New Thinking project tested the technical and business feasibility of 5G networks deployed in the remote community, which combined shared spectrum technology and the support of local communications operators.
In the American state of Iowa, the Agriculture and Rural Communities (ARA) wireless living lab created rural broadband networks, combining multiple technologies to bring connectivity to farms and small towns.
In South America, an ambitious project in the Peruvian Andes used long-distance wi-fi links to bridge network access between research stations and schools for a record-breaking 380km. Another project in Brazil created a custom 5G-Range network to provide digital access to rural and remote regions using technologies which functioned in an area of the spectrum reserved for TV white space, the unused band between television channels.
In South Africa, community-owned and operated networks using off-the-shelf wifi helped residential areas adjacent to cities establish digital access. In Malawi, a university and hospital built an alternative to expensive fibre connections by using solar-powered wifi repeaters and custom software to create an affordable and reliable alternative.
Professor Muhammad Imran, who leads the University of Glasgow’s Communications, Sensing and Imaging Hub, is first author of the paper. He said: “Although wireless communications have made huge inroads in societies around the globe in recent years, half the world’s population still remains offline.
“That means that billions of people are cut off from the opportunities for education, employment, healthcare and more that only access to high-quality communications can provide. Connecting the unconnected is vitally important to spurring economic and social development.
“We’ve worked closely with partners around the world to put together these case studies, which showcase challenges overcome and opportunities created by bringing wireless access to remote and extreme locations. This paper offers evidence and insights that we hope will help expand digital access for the benefit of all.”
The recommendations drawn from the case studies offer a broad base of suggestions on how governments, industry, and communities can work together to overcome political, economic, social and technological challenges to widening digital access.
In the political sphere, the paper’s authors recommend governments develop more flexible spectrum licensing policies, allowing underutilised portions of the broadcast spectrum like TV white space to be used for communications instead – an approach which underpinned the Orkney case study. The Brazilian and South African projects involved government backing, highlighting that engaged political leadership can be critically important to projects’ success. Governments can also play a role in developing supportive regulatory frameworks to expand connectivity, as the ARA wireless living lab did.
Economically, the authors suggest that innovative public-private partnerships, like those which helped establish the community-operated networks in South Africa, could help make connectivity projects more viable in poorer areas. Public funding and tax incentives are another potentially useful avenue to establishing projects, which helped support the ARA project and the 5-G Range project in Brazil.
The authors stress that the kinds of community engagement and local ownership which were features of the Venezualan long-range wifi and Malawi projects are key to the social success of future programmes. Government investment in digital literacy and community-based skill and knowledge-sharing initiatives can also help create lasting public engagement with technologies.
Finally, the technologies deployed to widen digital access need to be carefully chosen to account for the individual challenges of remote and extreme locations. Technologies like massive MIMO antennas, intelligent automation and edge computing were key to the success of the ARA Living Lab and Brazilian 5G-Range projects and could help underpin future projects in similar locations.
Dr Olaoluwa Popoola, of the University of Glasgow’s James Watt School of Engineering, is the corresponding author of the paper. He said: “In the future, internet access should be a universal right, viewed as being just as important to the wellbeing of the people of every country as fresh water, roads and education. Countries including Finland have already established digital access as a legal right, available to every citizen no matter where they live.
“Our hope is that this paper will help governments, industry, legislators and other decisionmakers to take a more informed view of expanding the spread of wireless communications into areas which are currently under-served.”
Researchers from the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics and the University of Rome Tor Vergata & CNIT in Italy; Iowa State University in the USA; Universitat Politecnica de Valencia in Spain; Lulea ̊University of Technology in Sweden; the University of Strathclyde in the UK; the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa and the National Institute of Telecommunications in Brazil also contributed to the paper.
The team’s paper, titled ‘Exploring the Boundaries of Connected Systems: Communications for Hard-to-Reach Areas and Extreme Conditions’, is published in Proceedings of the IEEE.