“The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed.” – William Gibson
David Witkowski, Chair of IEEE Future Networks Initiative’s (FNI) Deployment Working Group, referenced this quote while speaking about his group’s mission to improve the deployment of cellular technology. “Even in Silicon Valley, not everyone is connected. In San Jose, 10 percent of the population does not have broadband at home,” says Witkowski.
COVID-19 brought the digital divide into the spotlight. In August, students in underserved areas of California sat outside of a Taco Bell to use its public Wi-Fi. Use of telehealth services is encouraged as a way to limit possible exposure, but what about patients who don’t have an internet connection at home?
FNI is addressing these challenges with its mission to develop and deploy 5G and beyond.
Connecting the Unconnected (and Under-connected)
FNI’s Connecting the Unconnected (CTU) Working Group strives to make connectivity for all a fundamental priority like clean water and electricity. However, it’s not just about the unconnected, it’s also about the under-connected.
“More people get left behind with each new generation of mobile technology,” says Sudhir Dixit, CTU Chair. “Over 50 percent of subscribers worldwide are still connected to 2G. As we release new generations of cellular technology, we need to take everybody along. IEEE is about advancing technology for humanity. That’s what we’re doing.”
So far, the CTU working group has produced a white paper to be included in the FNI’s International Network Generations Roadmap project (INGR). The INGR consists of 15 working groups that look 10 years into the future of a specific technical or topical area and then work backwards to determine how the technology needs to evolve and what roadblocks industry will face at three- and five-year timeframes.
As part of INGR, FNI’s Energy Efficiency working group released its first white paper. This group is also looking into under-connected populations and developed a concept it calls the “5G Equality Gap.” The group explains in its white paper, “the 5G Equality Gap (5GEqG) is a hypothetical representation of the socioeconomic disparity between those that will be able to adapt their infrastructure and end use cases to unanticipated underperformance due to energy-limited (5GEG) and/or economically-limited (5GEcG) factors, and those that will not have the resources to be flexible enough to do so.”
The Energy Efficiency working group aims to help industry and government understand the impact of energy on the diversity of 5G rollouts.
Another effort to improve connectivity is the CTU working group’s CTU Challenge competition. This open competition seeks solutions to important use-cases with local relevance where people, businesses, or institutions do not have easy access to broadband.
The IEEE New Initiatives Committee (NIC) funded the competition which will highlight initiatives happening around the world. CTU will survey the initiatives to determine their key objectives, such as motivation, target population, use cases, business models, key success indicators, and why and how they are funded. Then, they will pick some of the best projects that deploy solutions with real impact.
The goals of the initial stage of the challenge are to:
- Raise awareness of IEEE’s efforts in CTU;
- Convene experts from initiatives around the world on a single platform to discuss what needs to be done, share best practices, and collaborate on global projects; and
- Help the winner take their project further by providing expert support from IEEE.
CTU is planning to extend the challenge and encourage companies, universities, and local groups to participate.
In addition to CTU, FNI has other groups working toward improving connectivity for all, such as INGR’s Deployment Working Group, chaired by David Witkowski.
When Witkowski attended the IEEE 5G World Forum in Santa Clara, he noticed that there was little discussion about real-world deployment challenges.
“There was a presumption that deployment would happen, but no in-depth discussion about it. Successful deployment is often a complex process, from securing local government approvals, to protecting the technology from the elements, weather, and animals. It’s a challenge. Even if the technology is well designed, it’s not helpful unless we can deploy it,” says Witkowski.
Through the Deployment Working Group, which recently published its own white paper and started a podcast series, Witkowski is raising awareness of these challenges with both engineers and governments.
“Traditionally, IEEE is good at helping engineers talk to engineers. We need to connect engineers with politicians and become a resource for local governments and even the general public. These conversations are crucial because without a permit from local government, nothing can be deployed,” says Witkowski.
Witkowski shared this critical information during the 2019 IEEE Future Networks Workshop on Digital Inclusion. “We discussed the day-to-day politics of deployment. Some cities have 130-page guidelines for how cellular sites must be designed and built. IEEE members have great ideas, but we’re working to educate engineers about what a city will or won’t allow, and to explain why. It provides a grounded reality that is often eye-opening for members,” says Witkowski.
“For example, engineers who design semiconductors need to know that energy efficiency is critical because chips that run hot may cause a base station vendor to design equipment that requires a cooling fan – but most cities do not allow active cooling. So, engineers need to design efficient semiconductors. If this is communicated to project managers early in the process, it can save time and cost and avoid wasted effort and failed products. We are also having conversations with local governments to explain that if they want 5G in their city, they need to understand what is – and what is not – practical from an engineering perspective. I’ve actually been in a meeting with a city where I was asked if cellular sites and antennas could be located underground! Obviously, this isn’t possible, so sometimes we have to ask that they adjust their requirements,” says Witkowski.
In his role as executive director of the Wireless Communications Initiative (WCI) at Joint Venture Silicon Valley, a regional non-profit think tank, Witkowski does similar work promoting the advancement and deployment of cellular technology in the Northern California region.
“The WCI was launched in the early days of cellular because sites weren’t being deployed fast enough and it was felt that Silicon Valley should have the best wireless networks in the world. So, we convened the public and private sector to break down barriers between the wireless industry and our local governments. We humanized the process by putting faces to the names on each side, which helped them to better understand each other’s needs and concerns and work toward a mutual solution. This allowed Silicon Valley to move forward and improve our region’s economic development,” says Witkowski.
“When I speak at conferences about the Joint Venture model, I always get requests to implement it in other regions or to scale it nationally. That’s what we’re doing through IEEE, and the Deployment Working Group is the model. We are convening, sharing information and tools, and sharing best practices so cities around the world can implement them,” says Witkowski.
Impact of COVID-19
The COVID-19 pandemic, and the shelter-in-place orders implemented to slow the spread of infection, quickly made people aware of their lack of connectivity at home – and the problems that presents. When the shelter-in-place orders closed schools in California, some students were unable to attend their online classes, and schools turned to Joint Venture Silicon Valley for help.
“We started talking to carriers about augmenting coverage in residential areas. We advised the schools and districts to buy and distribute hotspots – which unfortunately were unavailable at the time, so the districts bought smartphones and showed the students how to use them as hotspots. We encouraged carriers to remove data caps and provide discounted SIM card plans to schools and districts. We asked people to donate Chromebooks, collected them, and turned the donations over to schools and districts for refurbishing and distribution. Hotspots were a good solution given the circumstances and the need to move quickly. Now we’re looking at how to build networks that will continue to serve students after the pandemic,” says Witkowski.
Bringing down costs is critical to large-scale deployment and adoption. CTU is taking on that challenge by sharing best practices and standards.
“If we convene all initiatives on a single forum, different countries and projects can share their strategies. We can create a critical mass and bring down cost,” says Dixit.
Dixit notes that there are additional challenges, “People in under-connected areas may not be technically literate. Not all teachers are familiar with Zoom, WebEx, and computers. We need to create highly-secure systems that are both easy to use and affordable. Additionally, educational content is not always available in digital forms and in all languages. We need to resolve this.”
“We always knew digital inclusion was an issue, but COVID-19 brought those challenges into focus and gave them urgency. Now we have more opportunities to educate leaders and show them the value of building robust communication networks. Some school districts are now saying that providing broadband to students may need to be part of education infrastructure, with direct financial investment such as teachers, books, and classrooms. Some are saying that if they can’t rely on the private sector, they’ll have to do it themselves. It’s a complex problem legally, economically, and technologically,” says Witkowski.
Witkowski believes that IEEE members can help solve these issues by getting involved in the local community. “Our members are often brilliant engineers with deep experience, and local governments need that type of expertise and access to technical resources. IEEE members can volunteer time at local schools, speak at council meetings, or serve on citizens’ commissions. A better-connected population is going to be more educated and productive, and that’s good for everyone.”