Can white space technology bridge the digital divide?

A small computer chip designed in India might hold the answer to bridging the digital divide in remote rural areas of developing countries.

Many of us take the Internet for granted, but there are still huge swathes of the global population that remain unconnected.  At the end of last year, the United Nations estimated that only 3 billion people had Internet access.  This shockingly means that 60% (4.2 billion) still don’t have access to the internet and around 90% of these are in developing countries.

Saankhya Labs, based in Bengaluru (Bangalore), believes the chip it has developed, dubbed Pruthvi, can help to digitize India’s rural areas and has the potential to close the global digital divide. It uses the “white space” in the unlicensed TV spectrum that TV networks leave between channels for buffering purposes. A white space connection can travel a distance of 10 km, including through buildings. To put this into perspective home Wi-Fi routers have around a 20 meter range. 

The Pruthvi chip allows the Saankhya Labs’ base station to beam low-cost, high-speed internet to remote areas where wired infrastructure is too expensive to deploy and vegetation makes line-of-sight wireless solutions unreliable. A single 8 MHz channel between the base station and end-user equipment can provide a data rate of 30 Mbps, which can be shared by about 15 users (2 Mbps bandwidth per user) simultaneously. One base station can serve a maximum of 512 client devices.

Standardization is key

The base station is compliant with the Wi-FAR standard, making it compatible for use in other countries. Saankhya Labs is currently in discussions to use its device in the US, Singapore and the Philippines.

“International standards approval for Wi-FAR technology is a key step in promoting adoption of whitespace solutions throughout the world,” explained Dr. Apurva Mody, Chairman of the White Space Alliance (WSA). “Adherence to standards encourages solution providers to provide interoperable products. In addition, nations with large rural and remote populations who currently have little or no Internet access can confidently deploy Wi-FAR technology to deliver a wide range of broadband, Internet of Things (IoT), health, security and government services.”

Saankhya Labs isn’t the first to experiment with white space. Back in 2013, West Virginia University became the educational establishment in the US to use white space to provide the campus and nearby areas with wireless broadband internet services.

The university uses white space frequencies that were left empty when local TV stations moved to digital broadcasting.

Technology giants have also been looking into white space to bring wireless broadband access to underserved and rural areas. Google and Microsoft have both invested in the technology. Google has trialed white space to bring broadband to a group of schools in Cape Town, South Africa. Microsoft is looking at using white space to bring low cost broadband access to 500,000 villages in India as part of the Indian Government’s Digital India program, launched in July this year by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to connect rural areas with high speed networks.

The WSA has already announced India’s first whitespace pilot in partnership with the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay at Mumbai (IIT Bombay).

The pilot program, using standards-based products and services, covers seven villages in India’s Palghar district over a 30 square kilometer radius. It uses white space to connect multiple local Wi-Fi clusters, providing “middle mile” backhaul connectivity to a fiber point of presence. Kiosks have also been set up to test the feasibility of applications such as eGovernment services and deploying ATM teller machine (ATM) services.

“We are already seeing exciting early results from our deployment,” said Professor Abhay Karandikar of IIT Bombay. “Broadband performance is clearly achievable, and even non-line-of-sight throughput looks very promising.”

Orange Business has established its Center of Excellence in India, which provides best-in-class solutions and services in the areas of unified communications, remote infrastructure management, application management and consulting. To find out more about technology innovation in India read the Orange Business and PWC report on Taking the Leap into Digital India.