Impact of Unlicensed Spectrum on Rural Broadband and Mass Media

Community wireless networks using unlicensed frequencies have the potential to provide marginalized communities with low cost and accessible sources of local information, as well as connection to the rest of the world at an affordable cost. Such networks can facilitate initiatives like telemedicine, e-governance, e-commerce, e-learning, and telephony service through Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) at a much lower cost.

Digital Empowerment Foundation

The Digital Empowerment Foundation (DEF) is a not-for-profit organization in India that seeks to create sustainable solutions for economic and commercial growth using ICTs and bridging the digital divide. As Ritu Srivastava, the Programme Manager and Research Executive of DEF explains: “Starting 2010, DEF has implemented projects using wireless mesh networks on unlicensed 2.4 GHz and 5.8 GHz spectrum to provide Internet connectivity in remote areas. The first project, „Wireless for Communities‟ was implemented in Chanderi, Madhya Pradesh. For this project, DEF decided to make the CWIRC centre as base, covering 20-30 km of the region. Through this setup, DEF covered 30 schools of the region and more than 50 panchayats to provide the connectivity. The network also serves two madrasas (religious education centres), a government health centre, a local radio station, shops, and a cybercafé. Following the success of the pilot project, DEF created networks in other states, including Tura (Meghalaya), Sonapur (Assam), Baran & Tilonia (Rajasthan). And Tehri (Uttarakhand). It is also expanding the network to Dhaka, Bangladesh. The Net usage charges for all networks are free, since the project is supported by funding from the ISOC Internet Society.”

AirJaldi (Dharamsala Community Wireless Network)

AirJaldi is a social enterprise established in Dharamsala, Himachal Pradesh. It began the Dharamsala Community Wireless Network in 2005. By mid 2007, the network covered a radius of some 70 km around the city and was a mix of point-to-point, point-to-multipoint and mesh topologies. The network links several villages, the Tibetan Children‟s Village, and numerous establishments of the Tibetan community. Michael Ginguld, the CEO and co-founder of AirJaldi, explains:

“The company presently operates four networks in Dharamsala, Garhwal, Ranchi, and Kumaon, and serves a variety of clients such as large institutions, not-for-profit organizations, hospitals, schools, monasteries, private users, and businesses. Throughout the network, about 400 institutional and private clients, which together amount to approximately 10,000 users, are served. However, when taking into account that large institutions that are connected to the net also provide connectivity to its multiple employees and visitors, this number might reach as high as 410,000 individuals. It is in the plans to set up new networks in Bihar and potentially in Orissa, as well as extend the networks in the three states that the company already works in.”

Village Telco

Another effective use of unlicensed spectrum in the 2.4 GHz range for low cost communication in rural and remote communities is the Village Telco wireless network. It operates on a Mesh Potato, which is a simple Wi-Fi device that connects to other such devices forming a network. It lets the users make free calls to anyone else in the network using any phone, and provides both voice and data services. The Mesh Potatoes can also be connected to any internet or telecom provider. Through access to the web, users can make cheap, long distance calls. Stephen Song, the founder of Village Telco, explains:

“The current price of a single device is USD 100, but this can potentially be cut by half. There are no other costs associated with setting up the Village Telco network, but extra costs are involved if the Mesh Potato is connected to the internet or the public switched telephone network. Each mesh potato has a range of about 300-400 m, but every device acts as a repeater for other Mesh Potatoes. As long as the next user of the device is within the specified range, the network can be expanded. Village Telco is used in countries such as East Timor, Brazil, Nigeria, Cameroon, and others.”

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