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OPINION: It's possible enable broadband for everyone at zero cost

By , ITWeb
13 Aug 2015

OPINION: It's possible enable broadband for everyone at zero cost

The positive impact broadband access services can have on individuals, communities and countries are well-published and debated. Broadband access is even considered to be a vital human right and mission critical element for education environments.

The challenge to deploy large scale Wi-Fi access networks and to make 'Wi-Fi for all' a reality lies in finding the business models that can be used to deploy infrastructure networks and provide the services.

While some project initiatives are highly successful, and different grant and subsidising schemes can also work, the real goal is to implement these networks and provide 'Wi-Fi for all' in a sustainable and long-term manner.

In addition to this, the general user expectation is that Wi-Fi broadband services should be free to the end-user and that access to national networks must be available to everyone for free.

This expectation is generally driven from our current experience where Wi-Fi services are offered without any costs in some public and hospitality areas, education campuses, airports, etc.

The challenges

Infrastructure networks can't be built with any investment and networks can't be operated at zero cost, therefore a free 'Wi-Fi for all' initiative is clearly not so simple.

What does 'free' mean in this context? In general, 'free' means that no payment is expected for an item or service. When you make a reservation at a hotel, they specify that Wi-Fi is free. Yet we all know that no service can really be for free which means the Wi-Fi is not free, but actually it is 'included' in the hotel room rates.

'Free Wi-Fi' at coffee shops, or at airports, etc., work in a similar way: the Wi-Fi is offered at no extra cost provided the user is also a client of the facility and pays for another "anchor" service. The anchor service is the "pay for services" i.e lunch, hotel accommodation, etc. and which forms the business anchor in the transaction.

We can therefore begin to explore models to provide 'Wi-Fi for free' when it is possible to provide another anchor or 'pay for service'.

In today's economy consumers are already customers of a wide variety of possible 'anchor services'. Life insurance services, medical aid subscriptions, short term risk insurance, pension contributions, these are all services which consumers already pay for and which, within a specific scenario, can be leveraged as an 'anchor services' to be offered to the consumer including a "Wi-Fi for free" bundle.

Technical requirements

The next challenge is to build a large scale Wi-Fi network that can provide Wi-Fi services at many thousands of locations, and not just at the coffee shops or shopping malls. To build such a large scale network the first step will be to deploy Wi-Fi access points at homes, businesses and all general public areas. These Wi-Fi access points must then be connected to the internet.

To connect all these thousands of Wi-Fi access points will require a very high speed network with very large geographical coverage area. This network must be able to connect anywhere and at any time, and use affordable subscriber equipment with high-speed data rates.

Until recently the requirements for high speed, low cost internet access services at any location were simply too much of a challenge and could not be addressed. 3G data services over mobile networks is one previous option, yet the limitation in signal coverage and the operational costs of mobile networks make this option as backhaul for a 'Wi-Fi for free' service not feasible.

With the introduction of High Throughput Satellites (HTS), this situation is changing dramatically.

New HTS networks will provide broadband access services over very large areas at high speed and low cost. Using these HTS satellite networks it will be feasible to implement a HTS satellite network that will literally broadcast the Internet to all subscribers and provide instant access without any towers or other infrastructure needed.

Each subscriber will only need a two-way satellite terminal very similar in size as a DStv dish. The satellite terminals can be distributed and installed via the DStv industry to provide a cost-effective implementation environment to the market.

The HTS satellite terminals will be used to linked all the Wi-Fi access points to the internet thus creating a large scale rapid deployed broadband access solution. This combined Wi-Fi and satellite architecture provides the "best of both worlds" scenario.

The solution provides high-speed "ADSL-type" access to any location without the need for costly network deployments while it directly uses the existing subscriber mobile telephones, tablets and computing devices; therefore eliminating the need for special subscriber terminals.

The solution

The next challenge is to provide this service for free, or rather as previously explained, to provide the broadband services as 'included', and part of an anchor service. Current free Wi-Fi services tend to be location-oriented, and Wi-Fi services can then be included in the anchor services of the particular location, for example a hotel or coffee shop.

The perfect solution is to offer a similar model as mentioned above, which offers an anchor service and that is not limited to a location. Once this environment is developed we will have to technically implement the access, controls and normal billing processes required to enable a valuable deployment of Wi-Fi services.

We first have to identify a suitable 'anchor service', which could be researched within the specific country, province or region – for example what domestic services are used by the local population. Then, we might be able to identify a number of possible services such as life insurance, medical insurance, education, gym subscriptions, pension fund contributions, etc.

For example; it would be possible that medical insurance companies provide members an additional 10GB of broadband access for free... or rather included in the monthly medical insurance premium.

Another option is education institutions providing students and scholars 5GB of broadband access for 'free'; but which is really included in the annual subscription services. From this perspective all organisations will have the option to add broadband services as a value-add to their offer and to use this to increase market share.

The last facet of the solution is to implement the billing architecture that can execute such a subscription revenue model.

With the strong industry drive for Wi-Fi access services in all parts of society complex billing systems are used. The solution could be to enable Wi-Fi services, delivered in a controlled way by linking the service to a user number. This can be a medical insurance number, pension number or student number. Basically, if a user has a unique number from an institution, this number could be used to provide broadband access for free.

Requirements for implementation

In summary next generation satellite, Wi-Fi access points and services management solutions deployed by a specialist network provider are needed to implement the technical environment that can execute the 'free Wi-Fi for all' promise. But the most important factor that is needed for successful deployment, is the cooperation and integration of domestic service providers into this network to enable Wi-Fi services to be 'included' as part of an existing anchor service.

* Dr Dawie de Wet is the CEO of Q-KON Africa.

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