In a world where you can make a Skype call to other countries via a watch on your wrist; where it’s possible to create a prosthetic hand by printing it; and where self-driving cars are starting to roam our streets, it seems bizarre that so many of the world’s population have never experienced the internet or been able to make a phone call.
We typically see the technological divide as the gap between the developed and the emerging world. With this view, one expects that everyone in the US and Europe has access to the most advanced technologies the world can offer, while their counterparts in the so-called Third World are restricted by very limited access. While there are certainly some patterns that endorse this view, it’s not entirely true. For instance, 23 million people in rural America do not have access to broadband, and almost half of US students fall short of government standards for internet download speeds at school. In a leading city like New York, about 2 million residents lack internet access at home, which has significant consequence for education and for people’s ability to access jobs.
In parts of Africa and Asia, the picture is also far from positive. In fact, over 40% of the world’s population has no way of using the internet because the services needed for connectivity have not been rolled out everywhere – in fact, the more rural the environment, the worse the situation.
This has huge implications for the divide between rich and poor, and it’s a gulf that too often exacerbates the racial divide. In the US, for instance, statistics put together by digitalresponsibility.org reveal that only 49% of African Americans and 51% of Hispanics have high-speed internet at home, compared to 66% of Caucasians.
Since we live in a knowledge economy today, this situation implies that a large proportion of the world’s people will never be able to participate meaningfully in the world’s economic activity.
This situation has come about because the costs of rural coverage are greater than the revenue. The costs to reach, say, one million users are far less when the people are in an environment with high population density, as opposed to spread-out populations typical of rural areas. In addition, revenue derived from services is generally lower in rural environments, where people have smaller incomes and so cannot afford to pay the same as wealthier populations in the urban world. This makes it unattractive to service-providers to move into rural areas. In addition, most of the unconnected people in the world live in areas that also don’t have power. Cell sites in these areas typically run off diesel which is cost prohibitive.
Finding solutions to these issues has been a major focus for people involved in The Next Three Billion, an initiative to bring the whole world online.
We have found a solution to the rural cost problem by changing the model for rural coverage in three ways: eliminating the need for diesel; operating a wholesale network that provides coverage for all carriers; and deploying a small cell model. The newly developed small-cell sites run on solar power, and are positioned in places where people live, work and commute. Capital input for this infrastructure is far lower than with conventional equipment. As for the operating costs, all service-providers in a particular country share the infrastructure that’s been installed, so the network operating cost is amortised across multiple subscriber bases. Solar operation was enabled by re-engineering the site design and equipment to lower the total site power consumption to 90W.
This unique approach – a combination of technical and business model innovation – is currently being rolled out in Rwanda, where about one million rural people will soon benefit from the 376 small-cell sites being installed. This will propel the country into being the leading African nation in terms of both voice and data connectivity.
The solution is also now in place in rural Vermont in the US, where nine carriers – both American and Canadian – share the wholesale network, making it particularly cost-effective. With 150 sites live in areas otherwise completely lacking cellular voice and data connectivity, the roll-out plan targets 500 sites.
This approach has the potential to change lives in many parts of the globe – the US, India, as well as large parts of Africa and Latin America.
Dr Vanu Bose is CEO of Vanu Inc.