In emerging markets, high-speed and low-cost bandwidth, which the developed world can take for granted, is still almost non-existent. 64-128 Kbps is what one can get for reasonable sums of money in India. It is almost like the bandwidth revolution has passed the emerging markets by, even as the LANs have kept pace with the rest of the world. This is not to say that things aren’t changing: DSL, Fibre, Fixed Wireless and Cable solutions are promising to usher in broadband. But it will be a few years before they come ubiquitous, thanks to the need for upgrading networks, laying cables and getting government licences.
At the same time, the communications infrastructure is perhaps the biggest dampener on progress. Not being able to cost-effectively connect multiple offices and branches leads to delayed relay of information, which in turn impacts decision-making. In today’s world, the mantra needs to “real-time”. In the case of emerging markets, this can be modified to “near real-time” (or as close to real-time as one can get given the infrastructure). Reducing the time-delay for information becomes the key challenge. (Cost is important here: it is possible to set up VSATs for example everywhere but that can get prohibitively expensive.)
As outlined by Kevin Werbach in his article on Open Spectrum (see yesterday’s Tech Talk), in countries like India, one solution to solve the bandwidth problem is to use the free spectrum with 802.11 protocols to create bottom-up community networks. This was a point reinforced by Nicholas Negroponte of MIT’s Media Lab in a recent talk in Mumbai on telecom. The answer for countries like India, he said, was not going from 2G to 2.5G or 3G, but use the unlicenced spectrum and the Ethernet protocols in a bottoms-up approach. [He also said that the telecom industry was built to bill on miles (distance), minutes (time) and bits (packets) – none of which are really billable. This means the industry has to look for newer business models like subscriptions, advertising and value-added services.]
Kevin Werbach takes this further, proposing a framework for government agencies that allocate spectrum:
- Designate significant spectrum blocks for “unlicensed” use, meaning that anyone can transmit.
- Create equipment-certification rules to ensure transmitters in the new unlicensed bands cooperate intelligently for maximum efficiency.
- Allow low-power ultra-wideband services to “overlay” on licensed bands.
- Promulgate an “intelligent radio bill of rights” to define the privileges and responsibilities of smart devices communicating over the airwaves.
Entrepreneurs should be allowed to build and operate wireless data networks based on “open spectrum”, much like how the cable operators did in the early 1990s. Over time, there was consolidation in the industry, as will happen in the wireless industry. Aggregators will also come in. An example of this happening in the US is Boingo Wireless launched by Sky Dayton, the founder of Earthlink. Wrote Scott Thurm recently in the Wall Street Journal:
Boingo, won’t build wireless networks, but hopes to attract users by offering an easy way to detect wireless networks and to move from one network to another. Mr. Dayton calls Boingo “a handset for the wireless Internet.”
Boingo is trying to capitalize on the growth in wireless networks using the 802.11, or Wi-Fi, standard. Wi-Fi was designed for wireless computer networks inside offices. But entrepreneurs are using Wi-Fi equipment to offer Internet access in crowded public places such as airports, and a growing band of “wireless guerrillas” use Wi-Fi to offer free, public access in city neighborhoods.
The Open Patent regime helped the emergence of Indian pharmaceuticals, many of whom are now ready to take on the global majors. Open Source can help emerging markets reduce the cost of software and thus increase the penetration of computing. Open Spectrum is what is needed to revolutionise communications in emerging markets.