| SINGAPORE, April 28
SINGAPORE, April 28 The Internet may feel like
it's everywhere, but large pockets of sky, swathes of land and
most of the oceans are still beyond a signal's reach.
Three decades after the first cellphone went on sale - the
$4,000 Motorola DynaTAC 8000X "Brick" - half the world remains
unconnected. For some it costs too much, but up to a fifth of
the population, or some 1.4 billion people, live where "the
basic network infrastructure has yet to be built," according to
a Facebook white paper last month.
Even these figures, says Kurtis Heimerl, whose
Berkeley-based start-up Endaga has helped build one of the
world's smallest telecoms networks in an eastern Indonesian
village, ignore the many people who have a cellphone but have to
travel hours to make a call or send a message. "Everyone in our
community has a phone and a SIM card," he says. "But they're not
Heimerl reckons up to 2 billion people live most of their
lives without easy access to cellular coverage. "It's not
getting better at the dramatic rate you think."
The challenge is to find a way to connect those people, at
an attractive cost.
And then there's the frontier beyond that: the oceans.
Improving the range and speed of communications beneath the
seas that cover more than two-thirds of the planet is a must for
environmental monitoring - climate recording, pollution control,
predicting natural disasters like tsunami, monitoring oil and
gas fields, and protecting harbours.
There is also interest from oceanographers looking to map
the sea bed, marine biologists, deep-sea archaeologists and
those hunting for natural resources, or even searching for lost
vessels or aircraft. Canadian miner Nautilus Minerals Inc
said last week it came to an agreement with Papua New
Guinea, allowing it to start work on the world's first undersea
metal mining project, digging for copper, gold and silver 1,500
metres (4,921 feet) beneath the Bismark Sea.
And there's politics: China recently joined other major
powers in deep-sea exploration, partly driven by a need to
exploit oil, gas and mineral reserves. This year, Beijing plans
to sink a 6-person 'workstation' to the sea bed, a potential
precursor to a deep-sea 'space station' which, researchers say,
could be inhabited.
"Our ability to communicate in water is limited," says Jay
Nagarajan, whose Singapore start-up Subnero builds underwater
modems. "It's a blue ocean space - if you'll forgive the
BALLOONS, DRONES, SATELLITES
Back on land, the challenge is being taken up by a range of
players - from high-minded academics wanting to help lift rural
populations out of poverty to internet giants keen to add them
to their social networks.
Google, for example, is buying Titan Aerospace, a
maker of drones that can stay airborne for years, while Facebook
has bought UK-based drone maker Ascenta. CEO Mark
Zuckerburg has said Facebook is working on drones and satellites
to help bring the Internet to the nearly two thirds of the world
that doesn't yet have it. As part of its Project Loon, Google
last year launched a balloon 20 km (12.4 miles) into the skies
above New Zealand, providing wireless speeds of up to 3G quality
to an area twice the size of New York City.
But these are experimental technologies, unlikely to be
commercially viable for a decade, says Christian Patouraux, CEO
of another Singapore start-up, Kacific. Its solution is a
satellite network that aims to bring affordable internet to 40
million people in the so-called 'Blue Continent' - from eastern
Indonesia to the Pacific islands.
A mix of technologies will prevail, says Patouraux - from
fiber optic cables, 3G and LTE mobile technologies to satellites
like his HTS Ku-band, which he hopes to launch by end-2016. "No
single technology will ever solve everything," he said.
Indeed, satellite technology - the main method of
connectivity until submarine cables became faster and cheaper -
is enjoying a comeback. While Kacific, O3b and others aim at
hard-to-reach markets, satellite internet is having success even
in some developed markets. Last year, ViaSat topped a
benchmarking study of broadband speeds by the U.S. Federal
And today's airline passengers increasingly expect to be
able to go online while flying, with around 40 percent of U.S.
jetliners now offering some Wi-Fi. The number of commercial
planes worldwide with wireless internet or cellphone service, or
both, will triple in the next decade, says research firm IHS.
Densely populated Singapore is experimenting with so-called
'white space', using those parts of the wireless spectrum
previously set aside for television signals. This year, it has
quietly started offering what it calls SuperWifi to deliver
wireless signals over 5 km or more to beaches and tourist spots.
This is not just a first-world solution. Endaga"s Heimerl is
working with co-founder Shaddi Hasan to use parts of the GSM
spectrum to build his village-level telco in the hills of Papua.
That means an ordinary GSM cellphone can connect without any
tweaks or hardware. Users can phone anyone on the same network
and send SMS messages to the outside world through a deal with a
Such communities, says Heimerl, will have to come up with
such solutions because major telecoms firms just aren't
interested. "The problem is that these communities are small,"
says Heimerl, "and even with the price of hardware falling the
carriers would rather install 4G in cities than equipment in
The notion of breaking free of telecoms companies isn't just
a pipe dream.
Part of the answer lies in mesh networks, where devices
themselves serve as nodes connecting users - not unlike a
trucker's CB radio, says Paul Gardner-Stephen, Rural, Remote &
Humanitarian Telecommunications Fellow at Flinders University in
Gardner-Stephen has developed a mesh technology called
Serval that has been used by activists lobbying against the
demolition of slums in Nigeria, and is being tested by the New
Zealand Red Cross.
Mesh networks aren't necessarily small, rural and poor:
Athens, Berlin and Vienna have them, too. And Google Chairman
Eric Schmidt has called them "the most essential form of digital
communication and the cheapest to deploy."
Even without a balloon and Google's heft, mesh networks
offer a bright future, says Gardner-Stephen. If handset makers
were to open up their chips to tweaks so their radios could
communicate over long distances, it would be possible to relay
messages more than a kilometre.
In any case, he says, the Internet is no longer about
instantaneous communication. As long as we know our data will
arrive at some point, the possibilities open up to thinking of
our devices more as data couriers, storing messages on behalf of
one community until they are carried by a villager to another
node they can connect to, passing those messages on several
times a day.
It's not our present vision of a network where messages are
transmitted in an instant, but more like a digital postal
service, which might well be enough for some.
"Is the Internet going to be what it looks like today? The
answer is no," said Gardner-Stephen.
As the Internet changes, so will its boundaries.
As more devices communicate with other devices - Cisco
Systems Inc estimates there will be 2 billion such
connections by 2018 - so is interest increasing in connecting
those harder-to-reach devices, including those underwater, that
are beyond the reach of satellites, balloons and base stations.
Using the same overground wireless methods for underwater
communications isn't possible, because light travels badly in
water. Although technologies have improved greatly in recent
years, underwater modems still rely on acoustic technologies
that limit speeds to a fraction of what we're now used to.
That's partly because there are no agreed standards, says
Subnero's Nagarajan, who likens it to the early days of the
Internet. Subnero offers underwater modems that look like small
torpedoes which, he says, can incorporate competing standards
and allow users to configure them.
This is a significant plus, says Mandar Chitre, an academic
from the National University of Singapore, who said that
off-the-shelf modems don't work in the region's shallow waters.
The problem: a crackling noise that sailors have variously
attributed to rolling pebbles, surf, volcanoes, and, according
to a U.S. submarine commander off Indonesia in 1942, the
Japanese navy dropping some "newfangled gadget" into the water.
The actual culprit has since been identified - the so-called
pistol shrimp, whose oversized claw snaps a bubble of hot air at
its prey. Only recently has Chitre been able to filter out the
shrimp's noise from the sonic pulses an underwater modem sends.
His technology is now licensed to Subnero.
There are still problems speeding up transmission and
filtering out noise, he says. But the world is opening up to the
idea that to understand the ocean means deploying permanent
sensors and modems to communicate their data to shore.
And laying submarine cables would cost too much.
"The only way to do this is if you have communications
technology. You can't be wiring the whole ocean," he told
Reuters. "It's got to be wireless."
(Editing by Ian Geoghegan)