Experts study socioeconomics and low-cost technologies to bring connectivity to rural towns and villages that currently lack internet access.
With so many smartphones around, it’s hard to believe that more than half the world’s population still has no broadband connection. As 5G, the next generation wireless network, becomes available in 2020, some experts are exploring how it can connect billions of people who currently can’t get internet access.
By researching unconnected locations in the world and applying new approaches to technology, experts can help 5G reach rural communities for the first time.
“As social scientists focusing on 5G, our core objective is to understand what kinds of changes are possible and likely from a social standpoint,” says Maria Bezaitis, a senior principal engineer on Intel’s Market Pathfinding team, which is part of Next Generation Standards.
She and her research team study social and economic aspects of places that remain unconnected. Their work could help 5G network technology developers and service providers figure out the best way to initially connect these communities.
“It’s important to frame this as a question, rather than assuming 5G would be a good thing in all cases,” Bezaitis said.
Of course, most people don’t think about their network, just whether it works or not.
Bezaitis said 5G developers are still working through requirements such as speed, latency, efficiency and reliability, but her team wants to understand if and how these characteristics matter to people who are presently unconnected.
“We need to know the qualities or characteristics what would make 5G relevant to people who are supposed to benefit from it,” she said.
Connecting the Unconnected
Where 4G was about moving data faster wirelessly, 5G is poised to bring more powerful internet connections to personal devices and machines that use cloud computing services.
While it may be economically unfeasible for telecommunication companies to build new broadband towers for every rural village around the world, some see the roll out of 5G as an opportunity to find innovative ways for connecting the unconnected.
Bezaitis’ team is looking at wireless internet service providers emerging in Western markets that rely on low-cost network technologies that can be quickly and easily deployed.
“These technologies may not yet qualify as 5G in terms of speed, for example, but they are setting up infrastructures that are capable of delivering compelling service levels to end-users at a lower-cost than usual,” Bezaitis said. “As we think about poorly connected or unconnected populations and regions, these models may provide an effective starting point.”
Unconnected populations in the U.S. are offering clues on how people learn, adapt and use internet services, she said.
“The question we want to ask is how will people survive and thrive within networks?”
With more of those questions answered through field research, developers of 5G technologies will have a better sense on how to approach connecting new areas.
Only 15.9 percent of Americans lack access to the internet, while other places in the world have very high offline populations, including 93.2 percent in Bangladesh, 71.6 percent in Thailand and 54.2 percent in China. A study by McKinsey & Company stated that poor infrastructure in rural areas and other factors impede internet adoption in these places.
Approximately 76 percent of India’s population lives in small rural villages across the country, and they remain without broadband internet connections, according to Sundararajan Srinivasan, senior director of Intel’s Next Generation and Standards in India.
He is working with the India Institute of Technology Bombay (ITT) on a project that builds a wireless broadband infrastructure using a low-cost or frugal approach.
Approximately 750 million people live in 650,000 villages, each of which has a population of 1,200 or fewer. The goal of the project is to help villagers understand the advantages of advanced connectivity, said Srinivasan.
The power grid in many areas is unreliable, so infrastructure and end devices must use low power. What’s more, he said, the broadband network must be extremely low cost, since much of the population lives beneath the poverty line.
“The distances are very long, and building all those towers to keep repeating the signal gets very costly,” he said.
To overcome some of these barriers and lay the groundwork for full 5G service, the project will use what he calls “frugal 5G,” an enhancement of 4G wireless technology that is not as fast but meets internet broadband connectivity needs, costs less and provides a path toward 5G.
“We still call it 5G because it pushes the boundary of communications into these areas which have no, or very little, connectivity,” Srinivasan said.
He said that 5G is designed to connect devices that compute and communicate, including smartphones as well as machines that autonomously operate with other machines. However, most places connecting to the internet for the first time will require only basic services, and could evolve later to use 5G’s Internet of Things (IoT) capabilities.
The frugal 5G project aims to identify services that are practical for local people. The hope is that the more villagers learn about broadband, the more they will push for services — eventually forming a market to pique the interest of telecom companies.
“Once villagers experience broadband, it can stimulate a virtuous cycle of growth and opportunity,” he said.
Currently, villagers must take a bus to the utility’s regional office to pay in person, a trip that can take an entire day. The project, started by ITT Bombay in 2016, set up a computer kiosk in the village of Bahadoli with a wireless broadband connection, enabling customers to pay their electricity bills online without leaving their village. Srinivasan said it’s something that could benefit more villages across India.
“They don’t trust paying by mail,” he said. “Checks to utilities sent by post may not get promptly acknowledged. Even in urban areas, people prefer paying in person and getting an immediate receipt for the payment.”
Although initial networks may be set up with enhanced 4G or frugal 5G, telecom vendors could eventually roll out full-scale 5G networks, enabling more and better services.
Access to reliable internet connections could benefit the education system in India. The ability to affordably view video could enable a teacher in a distant city to teach students in a small village. Today, many students must walk miles to the nearest school, a hardship that leads to a high drop-out rate, said Srinivasan.
Improving Rural Economies
Looking back at the 2010 roll out of existing 4G networks helps these network experts in studying how to connect more areas to the internet.
For example, as Indonesia’s 4G network continues to expand, the price of 4G phones are dropping, creating a huge surge in internet use and ecommerce. As of 2016, 30 percent of the population had internet access, compared to only 11 percent in 2010, according to Pew Research Center.
Internet access can benefit micro entrepreneurship in rural areas, according to Susan Faulkner, senior research scientist on Intel’s Market Pathfinding team, which is part of Next Generation Standards.
“In developing countries, people often have lots of little jobs,” Faulkner said. “They are trying to earn money any way they can. More access to the internet can lead to more opportunities to sell their goods or services to more people.”
As 5G development continues, experts like Bezaitis, Faulkner and Srinivasan are applying curiosity and new approaches to connecting parts of the world for the first time.
Bezaitis said it’s important to keep an open mind.
“We’re not sure exactly how this plays out,” she said. But it is intriguing and she’s excited to play a part.