TECH TALK: Technology’s Next Markets: Last-Mile Connectivity via WiFi

Tech Talk: Youve talked about using recycled computers to build a diskless terminals as thin clients thick server and use Linux and other open-source software on a thick server to build out a low-cost computing infrastructure. Let us move now to the next challenge facing the emerging markets: that of connectivity. How we do connect the computers to the Internet?

Deviant Entrepreneur: The disruptive innovation we need to use is WiFi (802.11). WiFi stands for Wireless Fidelity. It uses unlicenced spectrum in the 2.4 Ghz and 5 Ghz bands to provide connectivity at speeds ranging from11-54 Mbps. The current distance limitation is about 100 metres. The technology is developing very rapidly and prices are falling rapidly. In the developed markets, WiFi is being used as a Wireless LAN solution. The wireless access points cost about USD 140 (Rs 7,000) while the 802.11b cards cost less than USD 70 (Rs 3,500).

An article in McKinsey Quarterly on elaborates on WiFi:

Wi-Fi is an alternative means of Internet access: Simply hook up an inexpensive Wi-Fi base station (a chip plus a transceiver) to a high-speed Internet connection such as DSL, a cable modem, or a T1 line and place this base station within a couple of hundred feet of a house. All people in the vicinity who have a very inexpensive Wi-Fi device in their PCs or PDAs can then share low-cost, high-speed access to the Internet without having to pay individually for more expensive dedicated DSL or cable modem service.

Even better, with exciting new technologies such as mesh and ad hoc networks, improved Wi-Fi devices could create overlapping Wi-Fi networks in hotels, airports, office buildings and malls. Strings of linked Wi-Fi networks can stretch through apartment buildings, campuses and neighborhoods. Forget about digging up streets for fiber to every building or about erecting forests of towers. Wi-Fi can stretch the fabric of Internet connectivity, cheaply and painlessly, over any community to points where traffic is aggregated onto high-speed fiber backbone networks.

Wi-Fi exploits the spectrum used by gadgets such as cordless telephones and microwave ovens–airwaves that havent been auctioned or allocated to an exclusive user. This is the proverbial free lunch of spectrum. At last, Internet access can be easy, cheap, always on, everywhere. And Wi-Fi access is fast: Indeed, with a fiber rather than a DSL or cable modem connection from the backbone network to the Wi-Fi base station, the transfer speed of Wi-Fi can be faster than the typical speeds of those technologies.

In the emerging markets, we need to use the 802.11 technologies to solve the last-mile problem and build out wireless community networks. The thick servers in buildings, schools and corporates can be connected to wireless hubs in a neighbourhood. With directional antennae, it is possible to have the WiFi range go beyond 100 metres. [In fact, a recent announcement by Proxim says that they have created a solution that can be used over a range of 12 miles.] The hubs can be at community places like post offices, banks, telephone booths or the tech 7-11s that we talked of earlier.

While the WiFi solution can be used for LANs in places where it is difficult to do the network wiring, Ethernet cabling still remains the cheaper alternative. In due course of time as costs fall even further, it is going to possible to use for setting up the LAN. But I see the initial value coming in its use for building neighbourhood area networks, or NANs as they are called.

Tomorrow: Why WiFi

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Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.