Rural areas must connect to survive

Paul Vecchiatto
By Paul Vecchiatto, ITWeb Cape Town correspondent
Cape Town, 26 Nov 2010

African rural populations will decline if connectivity is not rolled out, as young people go to where they have access to telecoms, says a visiting academic.

Karl Jonas, a director at the Fraunhofer Competence Centre Network Research Institute, visited SA to attend the Africa Com 2010 conference, in Cape Town.

The Fraunhofer Institute is a public and privately funded organisation. It has 54 separate units that conduct applied research on behalf of governmental agencies and companies to develop solutions for specific problems. However, it does not resell these solutions itself.

Jonas says Europe has already experienced a similar trend, with young people leaving the countryside in search of better and more connected lifestyles in large urban areas.

“The problem is rolling out connectivity to these areas. Rural Africa has many of the similar problems to rural areas in other countries - long distances and sparse populations make building standard infrastructure economically unviable,” he says.

The Fraunhofer Institute has been testing a prototype of a carrier-grade mesh network in the deep rural Zambia, which is an extension of a project that has been under development for more than three years.

“We were originally asked by the European Commission to develop a portable carrier-grade network that can be rapidly set up and then taken down for events when a large number of people descend on a location and the local network can become overwhelmed,” Jonas explains.

He says the institute noticed there were some common characteristics of what is required for a portable and rurally deployed network. These are that carrier-grade capacity must be provided, the systems must be robust, and these must be able to seamlessly plug-in to an established telecommunications network. Further requirements are that the network must be energy-efficient, must be self-managed with faults being detected before failure occurs, and - if a fault occurs - it must reconfigure dynamically.

Regulatory conditions are the biggest obstacle to rolling out small mesh-type networks in rural areas, Jonas notes.

“Very often a network operator that has a specific licence for an area will not roll out a network, because of economies of scale; however, it will also prevent someone else with a solution from doing so,” he says.

The Fraunhofer network is called NET4DC (Network for Developing Countries) and is built using commercial off-the-self components to keep costs down. It consists of router boxes that are connected to an established telecoms network, such as GSM or satellite. It can consist of any number of repeaters that can transmit the signal to the end point where there is another router to link into computers at a village.

“The system is totally open so that any frequency or components can be used,” Jonas says.