The coronavirus has recently drawn much attention to the digital divide, and is changing the perception of the Internet from a superfluous luxury to a crucial social necessity. It is now critically important to close the urban-rural digital divide very quickly with optical fibre.
Key to bringing 5G to hard-to-reach rural communities is the extension of wired networks; we must scale our communications infrastructure and lay lots (and lots) of fibre. Following the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic in early 2020, it has become increasingly clear how critical wireline networks are to telemedicine, distance learning and remote work. Yet the UN estimates 46% of the world’s population is not connected to the internet, with digital divides existing in better connected countries, too. The coronavirus pandemic has made the digital divide more dangerous than ever. In the USA, for example, it has exposed inequalities throughout the country, in particular between rural and urban citizens; and in Australia, it has highlighted the divide in access to meaningful online education The consequences are potentially very serious.
How to close the digital divide urgently
To close the urban-rural digital divide as soon as possible, broadband optical cable connectivity needs to be deployed widely in parallel. The key is for our global society to have a holistic point of view in implementing broadband infrastructure, where reducing the socio-public loss should be the central aim, rather than increasing the return on investment.
The biggest technical barrier is the high cost of optical-cable installation, which typically accounts for 70 to 80 per cent of the entire CAPEX of the network. The designs of conventional optical cables are specific to their installation environment with installation methods relying on specialized machinery and skilled labour. This challenge is made even greater by the low densities of remote rural communities.
To change this equation, the BIRD (Broadband Infrastructure for Remote-Area Digitalization) solution has been proposed by the author. It was built on the affordability-first concept, lightweight robust optical cable, and simple do-it-yourself (DIY) installation by non-skilled local people, that respectively followed ITU-T Recommendations L.1700 (2016), L.110 (2017) and L.163 (2018). The Recommendations are expressly aimed at closing the urban-rural digital divide.
BIRD enables easy and affordable route survey, installation, repair, upgrade, route change and disposal of the cable networks under difficult terrain, climate, and mammal attacks. ITU compliance is hoped for to reduce the CAPEX of BIRD from economy of scale toward mass deployment anywhere.
Practicability Confirmation in Rural Areas (as APT Category-II project)
In 2019, L.110-compatible ~12 km optical cable was installed in a mountain village in west Nepal connecting schools and a hospital, amongst others. The CAPEX reduction was estimated at half or more than with conventional cables. Figure 1 shows the cable installation in a DIY manner.
Figure 1 L.110 cable placed on the ground’s surface (jungle) and shallowly buried (roadside), Nepal
Another project installed a total of 22 km of L.110 cable in the coldest area and desert region in Mongolia in 2019.
The cable used was matured and proven enough based on the submarine-cable technologies, which have been commercially used in Japan for 20, 000 km for 25 years up to now.
The BIRD solution and new ITU-T standards are now confirmed as very affordable practicable tools enabling remote work, telemedicine and many other applications in every corner of the globe, helping us urgently to address the pandemic.. Further key information is available below.
WSIS Forum, 2019/04/12
“Pandemic” @ 3´28