Indoor 802.11b to be delicensed in India
By Arun Mehta, Published: Spider, August 2002,


On June 21, the Financial Express carried a statement from India’s IT Minister, Mr. Pramod Mahajan, that the indoor use of 802.11b and Bluetooth had been delicensed. Given our wily “Yes, Minister” bureaucrats, the devil is always found in the detail, so it may be premature to rejoice until the necessary guidelines by the Department of Telecommunications are issued, and ten days later, http://www.dotindia.com is still silent on the subject. But rejoice I shall.

Firstly I rejoice, because this announcement potentially removes two exciting wireless technologies from the clutches of government. Wireless, as everyone knows, is the fastest deployed, scalable, robust technology for bringing broadband communications access to people, particularly when they are mobile. Yet all over South Asia, wireless has been only very grudgingly made available for any kind of community use, much like the space in the tent for the nose of the camel. With this announcement, the camel has definitely brought in his foot, and I rejoice even more, that there is no stopping it now.

Free outdoor broadband wireless

So far, the announcement only speaks of indoor use of these technologies, but on India-gii, which is a mailing list that critically tracks India’s bumpy progress on the information highway, people feel that the delicensing of outdoor usage is only months away. While Bluetooth isn’t really powerful enough for outdoor use, 802 technologies work at distances of several kilometers. This ability of 802 is what makes this announcement a significant step for the camel: once people start bringing in and deploying 802 technology for indoor use, of course they will use it outdoors too. But what will they do with it? Several things.

The most common means of accessing the Internet, dial-up, is a fragile, fixed, low-bandwidth (~20Kbits/sec effective) connection, for which the user pays local call charges on an ongoing basis, in addition to the ISP's charges for international bandwidth. Even for the single user, dial-up isn't fast enough when it comes to modern Internet services such as streaming audio and video. For large users, such as educational institutions, NGOs, banks and corporates, dial-up is hopelessly inadequate. In addition, dial-up requires the availability of a good quality phone line, which is a serious limiting factor when connectivity is to be brought to rural areas.

It is now possible and legal in India to use 802 for wireless connectivity. This provides bandwidth in the tens of megabits-per-second range, at a one-time cost in the tens of thousands of rupees per node. Of course, prices are rapidly falling. Now, how does this help? For one, people can share bandwidth. This is how Devdas Bhagat explained the matter on india-gii:
"If residents get together, they can get broadband access pretty cheap... Assuming that about 750 have computers, if the societies invest in the piping for a local Ethernet LAN (which comes to Rs 5000 to 7000 per head), then the cost for getting 2Mbps+2Mbps redundant connections, a box capable of running full BGP, a couple of proxies, mail, DNS and static public ip addresses comes to about Rs 3500/head/yr. " The whole group has excellent Internet access round the clock for peanuts.

Far more potentially significant is the fact that once the number of people using 802 outdoors increases beyond the hundreds, we can build a cloud of high-bandwidth, free of cost communications in any populated area. Just imagine – free of cost video conferencing within every city. A slum kid could, walking into a kiosk or school, show his rash to a specialist doctor, or seek legal or psychological help. If a teacher were absent, someone from a nearby school could take his class in addition to her own.

Compatibility

You might ask how 802 fits in with 2.5 and 3G, wireless technologies both? My response would be to argue that I don’t care how bandwidth reaches me, I definitely want to take more than a close look at whichever reaches me first. 3G promises me, “next year,” less bandwidth than what 802 delivers today. Another important criterion for me would be compatibility – I certainly don’t want a plethora of incompatible standards in use. The US wireless industry suffered because of the higher level of standardization available to European competitors.


This is also the time when the next generation of wireless networks is being rolled out, and according to me, a winner is clearly emerging in the 802 family. Why? Because it is already here, and the technology is simply Ethernet in the air, so it is totally compatible with the Internet.

But will this camel throw out everyone else from under the wireless tent?


For now, the others cannot be counted out. Big companies have heavily promoted both Bluetooth and 3G. While Bluetooth was supposed to cater to the low-cost, short-range market, 3G sought to bring video-level capabilities to the mobile phone. Neither have been deployed in any significant numbers, though both are showing signs of finally arriving.


Bluetooth needed numbers to attain the economies of scale to become a low-cost technology. Those numbers are coming too slow and possibly too late. Both, Bluetooth and 3G took long to come to market, because the companies controlling the standard chose to write software afresh for these new systems, instead of simply adopting the suite of robust software that effortlessly runs the Internet.

Completely unsung, following the grapevine of the Internet, a new communications paradigm began to take hold. It wasn't even properly christened. Much too late, marketing came up with Wi-Fi, but long before then, the engineers had cheerfully been using the IEEE number that defined the standard - 802.11b.


Such interconnectivity costs less than a hundred dollars a node, routinely carries traffic in excess of six megabits per second, traverses kilometers with line of sight, uses off-the-shelf hardware and software. Because it simply transports TCP-IP and the Internet into the air, it doesn't need a central server. In the event of a disaster, the surviving nodes automatically reconnect, unlike conventional telecommunications networks, which have consistently let us down in natural disasters such as Latur, Orissa and Bhuj.


In 802.11b, the individual invests one-time in the networking hardware, which depending on distance and the presence of other 802.11b nodes, costs between $40 and $1000. Networks as small as 2 nodes are commonplace. Often these are within a room, for the economies of scale that Bluetooth didn't find, 802.11b reached by simply extending the wired Ethernet LAN into the air. It also, significantly, allowed cost-effective broadband connectivity over distances. Single hops in the range of several kilometers are easily attainable, with multiple hops extending the range without limit. Through this ability, 802.11b delivers today what 3G promises in a few years.
nocat.net/faq.txt is an excellent beginners' guide to 802.11b (the numbers they mention are behind the times, though).

Rapid deployment of telecom is a high priority in South Asia. Much optic fiber has been deployed, but of these rivers of bandwidth, very little reaches even the large end-user. We now have a tried and tested technical solution to this problem. Managers who take funding decisions will find it much more attractive to fund low, one-time costs, than the high running expenses the current model entails. The emergence of a standard allows them to focus limited resources in capital and training.

Models of deployment


One way of analyzing the ways in which 802.11b has been deployed around the world, is to divide them into Intranet and Internet models. In the Intranet model, a hospital, hotel, school, airport might use it as a means of providing connectivity to its clients or employees. Multiple nearby offices of a large organization may use it to cut down interconnection charges, or share a fat pipe to the Internet.


There is, however, the far more exciting community model. In  New York (http://www.nycwireless.net), London (http://consume.net/), Chicago (http://chicago.freenets.org/), Prague (http://czfree.net/) and many other cities (www.freenetworks.org, www.wirelessanarchy.com, http://www.sputnik.com/), anyone in the given geographical area can share communication bandwidth by simply procuring a little networking hardware. Besides working well in cities, this model is ideally suited to interconnecting villages.

While at the time of writing, 802.11b devices seem to be more economical, and available in greater variety, 802.11a is making rapid strides, and because of its higher bandwidth, may be considered instead, at the time you purchase.

Where an NGO, local self-help group or panchayat is interested in a low-cost means of bringing a village into the global electronic mainstream, one that will bring it telemedicine and distance learning, along with other ways of improving the quality of life of the people, broadband wireless networks based on 802 technology seem like a good starting point. Organisations and individuals, that have been driven mad by the limitations of dial-up, will like it too.

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