Overcoming Regulatory and Technological Challenges to Bring Internet Access to a Sparsely Populated, Remote Area: A Case Study

Ronel SMITH <ronel.smith@mikom.csir.co.za>
CSIR Mikomtek
South Africa


The South African Government has launched a drive to provide Telecentres to communities and Internet access to schools. The Telecentres are normally centrally located with respect to clusters of schools and other community services. In the context of this drive, a Telecentre was established in Manguzi, a remote town in the KwaZulu Natal province in South Africa. The surrounding schools did not benefit from this centre due to the inappropriate distance between the schools and Telecentre. In addition, the schools could not be connected to Internet directly due to the absence of telephones. In this case study we will show that existing "off-the-shelf" technologies were not applicable to the specific situation and hence there was a need for a new solution.

There are unusual challenges in providing Internet connectivity to a "sparsely" populated rural community separated by vast distances from the nearest urban development. This case study details how we combined existing Internet access technologies to overcome various obstacles such as the lack of existing telecommunications infrastructure and remoteness of area, as well as political and economic issues. Furthermore, the solution implemented had to be cheap, suited to the specific regulatory and geographic environment, robust and suitable for a particular application, namely Web browsing and e-mail.

We used the asymmetric nature of the data requirements of the specific applications to our advantage, using radio links and satellite broadcast technology to provide the required connectivity. We will discuss the expected merits of the new solution and its implementation. We will also present our practical findings and discuss how they compared to our expectations.

Similar needs and situations exist in other parts of the world, especially those that have a lack of telecommunications infrastructure and very remote rural areas that are very sparsely populated. We hope that the outputs of this paper can contribute to the technology decisions of people responsible for rolling out Internet infrastructure in similar environments.


1 Introduction

Providing a remote rural community with Internet access can be a challenge at the best of times. If the intended target audience does not have access to telephones or any of the other traditional telecommunications infrastructures, the challenge becomes even greater. The Information and Communications Unit of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) (Mikomtek) supplied Internet access in a project in Manguzi, a rural community in South Africa's KwaZulu Natal province. The initial part of the project consisted of the establishment of a Telecentre in the center of town. The community's desire was that the facilities offered at the Telecentre should be available to the largest possible audience, including the students. However, walking (cars are an extreme luxury, there is no public transport such as busses and trains, most people don't even own a bicycle) the 5km to the Telecentre on a regular basis was not practical. At a community workshop we were approached by one of the headmasters with a request to connect his school to the Telecentre, in order for his students to have access to the facilities from his school, eliminating the need to walk to the Telecentre. In this paper I hope to show why the "normal" solutions weren't appropriate in this situation. The challenge lay in devising a cheap, robust and legal solution.

2 Background

2.1 Manguzi

Manguzi is a rural community in the Maputaland region of the KwaZulu Natal province of South Africa. It is situated about 15km south of the Mozambique border en route to the Ponto Do Ouro border post.

Figure 1: Map of Manguzi and environments

The area is 60 square kilometers in size with about 100,000 inhabitants. The people are very poor -- most are subsistence farmers. Maputaland offers subtropical and tropical climate zones, and embraces an ecological diversity -- both terrestrial and marine -- that makes it one of the most popular ecotourism destinations in South Africa. It has a largely pristine coastline with coral reefs, estuaries, lake systems, forests and rugged mountains. In the past it has been sheltered from major human intrusion by the tsetse fly and malaria and has therefore remained relatively sparsely populated and unknown (and underdeveloped). The biggest tourist attraction is the Kosi Bay nature reserve, which is renowned for its remoteness and unspoiled beauty. During the last couple of years, ecocultural tourism has become an important means of sustainable rural development in the area. A number of projects are under way in the area to promote ecotourism among which is the introduction of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) in the form of a Telecentre.

2.2 Telecentre

The community runs various projects, one of which is the Telecentre. The Telecentre was established with the help of the CSIR's Information and Communications Technology Unit (Mikomtek) and has been operational since September 1998. A big problem in the area is the near complete absence of a communications infrastructure. Most homes and businesses don't have telephones; an Internet café is unheard of. The Telecentre is situated in the center of town and its purpose is to address this lack of telecommunications infrastructure by providing information technology (IT) and telecomm services to the community. It consists of two parts:

Since the Telecentre's establishment, the community has actively used the services it has offered.

3 Problem and requirement specification

Recognizing the potential of the Internet as an information source, Mikomtek was requested by a headmaster of one of the schools in the area to connect his school to the Telecentre to enable his students to utilize the facilities there, specifically the Internet.

In a well-developed telecommunications infrastructure the solution would have been trivial: install a modem, open an account with an Internet service provider and you're connected. In a remote rural area, far removed from urban development and telecommunications infrastructure, this request was not so simple, for the following reasons:

  1. Underdeveloped telecommunications infrastructure:
  2. Of the 71 schools in the vicinity of Manguzi, only three have electricity and none have telephones available to connect to either the Internet or the Telecentre.
  3. The funds available for installation of the required infrastructure were extremely limited. The reasons for this were that unemployment stands at 85% and the area is predominantly agriculturally-based and under a tribal authority.
  4. The solution, therefore, had to be cheap and preferably not involve recurring monthly costs.
  5. For a variety of reasons, which will be explained later, none of the traditional telecommunications infrastructures were suitable.
  6. Telco (Telkom) monopoly.
  7. In South Africa, rural tribal authority politics combined with our particular legislation and historical inequalities in access provision makes for an interesting and risky mix.

4 Methodology

1. Obtain community buy-in and cooperation

Even more important than choosing the most appropriate technology is the cooperation with and buy-in from the community. Together with the community a pilot project was launched with the aim of exploring the various options available to provide Internet access to the schools.

2. Identify schools to participate in project

Two of the schools -- Shayina Secondary School with 1002 students and Maputa Senior Primary School with 450 students -- were nominated to participate. These two schools were ideal for a couple of reasons:

3. Identify possible solutions and test suitability

In deciding how to connect the schools to the Internet, we explored the various traditional methods available (see section 7 for more detail) and came to the conclusion that none of these were suitable. First choice would have been to install access technology directly at the schools. This was not possible either because of limited financial resources or because the technology was unavailable. The Telecentre had a dial-up link to the Internet and the required infrastructure (account with an ISP, modem, fileserver, trained manager capable of providing the necessary support) and it was decided that the easiest option would be to utilize this link to provide Internet connectivity to the schools. We then had to find a way to connect the schools to the Telecentre network. This is described in detail in section 8.

4. Establish relationships with relevant partners

This was largely dictated by the technology chosen.

5 Technology options and considerations

We investigated various options to connect the two schools to the Telecentre. These options with associated comments are given in Table 1.

Table 1: Link options investigated to provide Internet connectivity
Option Comment
Telephone lines Not available
Cellular telephone Coverage not ubiquitous. Reception very unreliable
Two-way VSAT Installation and monthly costs too expensive
Spread-spectrum radio solutions Requires line-of-sight but the two schools are not visible from the Telecentre. License required
ISDN Not available
Satellite Internet Broadcast High-speed Internet downloads via satellite uses telephone line for the back channel to the Internet. No license required
Low-Frequency Radios Normally used for Telemetry -- are limited to very low bit-rates. Attractive option because a partner company had a license and line-of-sight isn't a problem

An important consideration to keep in mind in the choice of solution was that in South Africa, the Telco (Telkom) has a monopoly on fixed telephony until 2003. This results in most independent and innovative solutions (especially wireless solutions) running foul of legislation.

6 Implementation

As explained above, the Telecentre's dial-up analog connection was the only available "entry point" into the Internet. The schools had to be connected to the Telecentre in such a way that they could access the Internet on demand. The solution we implemented combined a variety of "off-the-shelf" solutions, which on their own were not suitable.

6.1 Radio-only solution

Mikomtek has a relationship with a black empowerment company with a South African Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (SATRA)-approved license to operate a mobile data network in the 420 MHz frequency band. We decided to investigate the feasibility of using their radios to connect the schools to the Telecentre. If anybody at the schools wants to browse the Web or read e-mail, the Unix server at the Telecentre should dial on demand. We provided each school with a personal computer (PC), radio and antenna (Yagi). At the Telecentre one of the Windows PCs acted as router. This PC was connected to the Telecentre LAN and also to a radio. Figure 2 provides a diagrammatic representation of the network. The radios emulate a network card, enabling us to run Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol (TCP/IP) over the link. We managed to connect the schools to the Telecentre and also access the Internet.

Figure 2: Configuration with radios only

We ran into a problem, however. The radios used were telemetry radios, with a maximum bandwidth of 4200 baud. This configuration was suitable for e-mails, but not for Web browsing. We had to find another way of downloading the Web pages to the PCs at the schools.

6.2 Radio combined with satellite broadcast

The asymmetric communications requirements of Internet applications could be used to solve the problem. The eventual solution deployed combined Satellite Internet Broadcasting with the radio network. The radio link via the Telecentre is used for the uplink path (in place of a telephone line) and the satellite is used to download Web content directly to the PC at the school. Figure 3 provides a diagrammatic representation of the network combining the two technologies. Satellite receivers are usually capable of receiving data at much higher rates than what is possible via normal telephone lines. Siyanda was selected as the Satellite ISP. Siyanda makes use of the PAS-7 satellite whose Ku-band footprint covers the whole of Southern Africa. Their data receiver is compliant with MPEG-2 DVB digital TV. The ordinary 90 cm Digital Satellite Broadcasting (DSB) satellite dishes are used for reception. Requests from clients are sent to Siyanda via Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) over MWeb's (a local ISP) terrestrial infrastructure. Distribution of data is this fashion is permitted under the Broadcasting Act of 1999.

6.2.1 Equipment required

The equipment required at each site is as follows:


Figure 3 depicts the equipment used and provides a short description of each.

Figure 3: Equipment used

Figure 4: Combined radio and satellite broadcast network

6.2.2 Explanation of system operation

Following is an explanation of how the system operates. Refer to figure 4 above

  1. A pupil at Shayina Secondary School wants to access a Web page.
  2. The PC forwards the request to the PC acting as radio base and router at the Telecentre, using the low-speed radio link.
  3. The radio base and router forwards the request to the Unix file server.
  4. Unix server makes a dial-up connection to the closest ISP point of presence (POP): Siyanda makes use of VPNs to tunnel their private network's traffic across the public network of MWeb (a local ISP).
  5. The Unix files server forwards the request to a VPN server on the Siyanda network. At the same time it loads a virtual adapter that connects to the VPN server on the Siyanda network. (The Unix file server needs to become part of the Siyanda network before it can forward data requests to the Siyanda network.)
  6. The VPN server receives the request from the Unix server and forwards the request to the Siyanda proxy server.
  7. The proxy server requests the Web page, somewhere in the Internet, on behalf of the PC at Shayina.
  8. The Siyanda proxy server receives a response from the Web server, and forwards the response to the requesting PC at the school. The response is delivered, using the high-speed satellite link, directly to the PC.

6.2.3 Costs associated with combined solution

The total cost including PCs is estimated at $2300 for the Telecentre and $3000 per rural site. Refer to table 3 for a breakdown of costs. The advantage of this solution is the fact that the bulk of the costs are first-time only. The recurring monthly cost is minimal ($40). In the case of Manguzi, an arrangement was made between the schools and the Telecentre that these costs will be funded from the profit made by the Telecentre.

Table 2: Cost of installation
Item Unit Cost Comment
DSB Dish $200 At least one required per site
Usage cost (100 Mbytes download) $40 / month  
Radio modem $900 One required per remote site and a shared one for the Telecentre. (Adding more sites does not require additional equipment at the Telecentre.)
Installation $400 - $1200 1 - 3 work-days per site needed to determine suitable sites for antennas, positioning and fixtures, etc. Variable "rural" surprises may also occur.

7 Findings

8 Conclusions and further work

This project proved to be a bigger challenge than initially expected. The team learned a lot about innovative use of technology, but even more about the social and cultural aspects that accompany the introduction of ICTs in rural South Africa. We also saw the difference that access to information can make in people's lives. This project was limited to one PC at each of two schools. The schools are also quite close to the Internet access point. Developments are under way to increase the number of PCs supported at the remote site, the distances that can be covered and performance. Rollout will be in a cellular fashion with "base stations" -- which will serve as the Internet access point -- each with its own "outstation."