Digital Divide: Mix, Match and Serve

VoicenData Bureau
New Update

Even as disparate economies are making rapid strides towards sustained

economic and social developments, a phenomenon that is quite observable is that

the gap between developing and developed countries is growing even more rapidly.

The disparity in the pace of infrastructural development, the mercurial pattern

of growth in communications, etc, are among various reasons contributing to this

gap. It is also noticeable that the development of communications infrastructure

of a country is quite vital for the development of any economy. The

inconsistency in the manner of growth of communications infrastructure

contributes a lot towards this gap.


The phenomenon commonly termed as the ‘digital divide’ is further

supported by an observation made by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU),

which says, "the digital divide exists between countries at different

levels of development and within a country separating cities from rural areas,

the rich from the poor, those with a higher-education from those without one,

men from women, and the young from the elderly", and "the relation

between wealth and access to information and communication technologies (ICT)

appears obvious."


Fixed telephony may not make much sense to people in the rural areas who are away from home for long periods
GSM can be used to provide limited mobility to such subscribers
When a fixed GSM is packaged with fixed GPRS, the benefits can be even greater

During a time when the advances in telecommunications technologies are making

significant leaps, it is difficult to swallow such a perspective. But

nevertheless, a careful observation concludes that it is technology that is

helping the ‘digital divide’. It is quite noticeable that the need for IT

technologies is growing steadily within the developing countries whose cities

are home to both large and small corporations. This translates to the fact that

all members of the service chain, from customers to suppliers have an obvious

need for enhanced voice and data communications. But the big question is which

is the appropriate technology to serve the growing data and voice transmission

needs? While there are numerous technologies that serve the purpose, we can’t

but ignore the commercial viabilities of such technologies in disparate economic

and infrastructure conditions. Take the example of asymmetric digital subscriber

line (ADSL), which is assumed to service all potential broadband access users.

However, copper lines are always not available and even if they were available,

they often lack the required length and quality in order to take full advantage

of the technology. Furthermore, leased lines used to extend capacity are

expensive and the prices are not seen decreasing. This consequently contributes

to the ‘digital divide’ as broadband capacity solutions for local companies

are often limited to the developing countries.


Look for Affordable Options

Realizing the need for developing technologies that can put developing

countries in the fast track, vendors who invest significantly in R&D have

come up with affordable and commercially viable solutions. Take local multipoint

distribution service (LMDS), for instance. This technology allows multiple voice

and data services to be mixed and matched in order to provide a wide variety of

narrowband and broadband services. Apart from this, LMDS manages to provide a

wireless in local loop infrastructure, using line-of-sight radio links over

distances typically reaching 5 km. This eliminates the need to use copper for

availing broadband services. Going a step further, specific solutions have been

designed to extend this distance, thereby helping SMEs and SOHOs meet their

communications requirements, especially in the urban and sub-urban areas. It is

also quite profitable from the operator’s perspective, as it is easy to

install and operate it. Further, it also allows a graduated build-out that in

turn allows incremental investments to be made in order to capture new

subscribers as a business case evolves. The scalability offered by LMDS

solutions perfectly takes care of constraints faced by local operators, helping

them minimize their capital expenditure (CAPEX) and operating expenditure (OPEX).

Beyond the economies that LMDS delivers, it is also easy to install and

operate. Technologies like LMDS turn out to be perfect examples of advanced

wireless technology meant for countries that lack the proper telecommunications

infrastructure to enable SMEs and SOHOs meet their communications needs.

Further, apart from providing wireless access to broadband data and voice

services, it also allows operators to interconnect with all types of network

elements. It can connect backhaul mobile base stations to base-station

controllers and connect local switches for remote subscriber units, besides

interconnecting wireless LAN access points. In all, an LMDS solution allows

universal access while addressing the needs of large corporations along with

smaller corporations in a very practical manner.


Similarly in the developing countries, fixed telephony may not be the most

well adapted communication tool for people in rural communities who often work

away from home for long periods of time. As a result, subscription to a fixed

telephone service is often not cost-effective based on their usage. GSM, which

is a proven technology standard for wireless communication, can be used to

provide limited mobility to subscribers in rural areas. Nevertheless, care

should be taken

as most solutions die an early death unless they have proven commercial
viabilities. Therefore, the use of GSM to allow restricted mobility should be

adequately tailor-made to allow limited mobility coverage over one cell, a group

of cells or a given area. Such a tailor-made solution would also enable mobile

operators to adapt their sales packages more specifically to the needs of the

rural users.

When such a restricted mobility is complemented by fixed GSM offer that takes

into account access to voice service and the Internet, the digital divide is

further bridged. In rural areas, this can be achieved through wireless phone

shops and cyber-cafés to fully meet the needs of regional centers of local

development. When a fixed GSM is packaged with fixed GPRS, the benefits are even

greater. This type of a solution allows all users, community members and

cyber-café customers to gain access to all GSM and GPRS voice services from a

PC or a GSM terminal used as a fixed phone.

With this technology, local community centers are ideally positioned to

contribute to the launch of data services in the developing countries. This can

be achieved by extending fixed GSM into a fixed GPRS infrastructure. In

addition, there are solutions available that allow seamless integration apart

from extending the power of GPRS to include enhanced data rate for GSM evolution



But all the solutions described here require adoption of the GSM frequency

(850, 900, 1,800 and 1,900 MHz), and as one goes a step further, a powerful

wireless IP solution working in the 3.5 GHz range can provide voice and data

access in rural areas. A wireless solution provides a wireless access

infrastructure using line-of-sight radio links, allowing extended coverage

reaching 15 km. In a geographical landscape, which is predominantly rural or has

widely spread residential population in sub-urban areas, a single radio hub can

handle two-way communications of hundreds of end users. Apart from this, the

solution also provides true broadband capacity, reaching up to 3 Mbps for end

users, enabling high-speed Ethernet services and VoIP. A small equipment

footprint also facilitates installation directly at the user premises. Easy and

rapid deployment of the wireless IP solution gives a faster time to market

advantage to operators for broadband services. This is especially good news for

emerging operators who are looking for faster returns on investment by offering

Internet access services. This wireless IP solution enables operators to offer

corporate customers a last mile, broadband access solution that includes voice

and data services along with LAN interconnections, IP services and virtual

leased-line services, in whatever combination suits their market needs best.

Therefore, not surprisingly, this solution is of particular interest in areas

where access to the Internet is currently limited owing to lack of copper lines.

Such proven and economical solutions are ideally suited to bridge the digital

divide to a great extent.

But another perspective reveals that it is not just technology that helps to

bridge the digital divide, it is what you do with the technology really matters.

It amounts to vendors collaborating with partners to work closely towards

delivering value to the developing countries. For example, a vendor operating in

a developing country could tie up with other partners like content providers to

set up service platforms that would enable the content provider’s staff to get

regular update on, say, vegetable prices, prices of pulses and essential goods,

etc. And then the vendor could provide WAP-enabled handsets at subsidized rates

to the rural workers whose essential occupation is farming, so that they can

access information in terms of real-time market prices. This would not only keep

them updated on the information that they require but would also help them

negotiate prices with wholesale buyers. This type of a service would enable them

regulate their production, so that it aligns with the best market prices which

would contribute to the development of such rural economies.

Therefore, it is important that you have the best combination of technologies

that are commercially viable, besides finding out means to add value to the life

of subscribers. These are the bare essentials that are required to bridge the

‘Digital Divide’ effectively.

Jerome Albert, V-P (marketing and communication), Alcatel Mobile Networks