Internet of People – Connecting the unconnected

In 2020 we’re supposed to live in a world with 25, 50 or even 75 Billion connected devices by some estimates. This is a fascinating vision, which no doubt will offer many new possibilities and more than likely have a great impact on a wide range of industries. However, before we dream up the next gazillion number of connected devices, let’s for a moment consider not the yet to be connected devices, but the yet to be connected people.

The digital divide

There has been unparalleled growth globally the last ten years of people gaining access to Internet and/or mobile cellular subscriptions, but the growth of this connectivity is not evenly distributed. Even though great progress has been achieved in connecting populations of developing countries, there still is a considerable difference of connectivity between rural and urban areas. There are on average 97 connections per 100 citizens globally, but that does not mean that 97 out of every 100 person on earth have access to a mobile phone or Internet. China has seen an increase of 63 to 89 connections per 100 citizens the last five years, but 630 million Chinese mobile subscribers, less than half of China’s total population, account for all of the country’s 1.25 Billion connections according to GSMA Intelligence. The majority of the Chinese population with no mobile subscription is found in the rural parts of the country.

This scenario is to some extent also present in western countries, but even more so in developing countries where a large part of the population still lives in rural areas. According to ITU (International Telecommunication Union) an estimated 451 million people are living in rural areas not covered by a mobile cellular signal, and half of the world’s population have no access to the Internet.

Got the phone, but where’s the signal?

To bring connectivity to people in areas that currently have none, two things are needed: a mobile phone and a mobile cellular network.

Production cost, and thus in turn consumer price, of both feature phones and smartphones have dropped significantly the last years, making mobile phones ever cheaper. Fully functioning feature phones can be found in China for $7 or even less, and with Microsoft’s Nokia 215 smartphone for $29, owning a mobile phone is possible for many, if not most, people in developing countries.

The barrier to connecting everyone is thus not the cost a person needs to bear of buying a mobile phone, but that a network infrastructure needs to be in place. Traditional network investments in remote rural areas do not make financial sense in most cases for operators. It’s difficult to make the business case work considering the capital expenditure and operational cost for installing and maintaining a cellular network in areas with potential subscriber volumes of less than 10 000 and none or limited infrastructure, such as roads and electricity.

Also, considering that the average subscriber in developing rural areas might only have funds available to generate half the ARPU compared to urban mobile subscribers in developing countries makes it even more difficult for operators to produce a viable investment case.

Thus, new network solutions and ways of bringing cellular connectivity to these remote rural areas are needed.

New ways of connecting people

In January 2015, Qualcomm and Virgin Space made significant investments in OneWeb, a company working on wirelessly connecting remote areas by launching 648 micro satellites. This would offer currently unconnected areas an ability to connect using Wi-Fi, LTE, 3G or 2G using an operator’s licensed spectrum, or through LTE and Wi-Fi using unlicensed spectrum.

Led by Facebook, the organization internet.org is working on an intriguing project where the ambition is to connect the entire world from the sky with solar driven drones, satellites and lasers.

More small scale and maybe not as ambitious, but perhaps more realistic to be implemented in the near future, are solutions utilizing community based GSM networks. One example of this is Nokia Siemens Network’s “Village Connection”, where a village in an unconnected remote area creates their own GSM access point (GAP). All that is needed for this solution is a PC running GAP software and having the PC connected to a GSM transmitter with an Omni-antenna located in the village. The village GAP is in turn connected to an Access Center (AC) that aggregates traffic from various GAPs, i.e. other villages using this solution. The GAP is operated and maintained by an entrepreneurial villager and the AC by a GSM operator. The village entrepreneur collects monthly fees from village subscribers and in turn pays a franchising fee to the GSM operator for use of the AC. This network setup may relatively easily be expanded to include Internet services, as there is an IP link between the GAP and AC. The CAPEX and OPEX needed for this is significantly less compared to traditional cellular network investments and thus enable affordable mobile coverage to remote rural areas, as well as new business opportunities.

The benefits of connecting everyone

Whatever network solution deployed to offer coverage, mobile and Internet services offer unprecedented opportunities to underdeveloped communities. Mobile services such as M-Pesa in Kenya have successfully connected millions of previously “unbanked” people to banking facilities, and fishermen in the Kerala region of India now use their mobile phones to track weather conditions and compare wholesale prices, which led to a significant increase of their profits. Perhaps even more important than economic benefits, mobile services also offer healthcare and education to those who previously had none through m-health solutions and access to online educational programs.

Enabling connectivity to remote rural areas is a sure way to promote economic and social development.

And so, when all the fanfare and passionate discussions of IoT and 5G have simmered down at the 2016 Barcelona World Mobile Congress, my hope is that someone will ask, “So, how and when will we finish the 2G/3G/4G coverage?”

/Fredrik

Fredrik is a Consultant at Northstream

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