Narrowing the digital gap is possibly the greatest challenge we must face as a region in the coming years, mainly to ensure effective access to the Internet for all citizens, especially those living in a rural area with low population density, low digital literacy and difficult geographical areas, creating opportunities to access information and communication technologies (ICT) for society.
But while there is clarity and policies by governments, civil society organizations and multilateral entities face a great challenge, because in traditional Internet provisioning schemes for rural areas, the numbers do not match, not only because of the low purchasing power of this population, but also because of the high investments demanded by traditional network designs and the slow return on investment.
Some Latin American governments have implemented initiatives to finance fiber optic backbone networks in remote regions, but clearly these initiatives have fallen short and have failed to meet the objective, since they have not guaranteed final user connectivity due to the lack of last mile providers and financial viability schemes.
How are WISPs succeeding in narrowing the digital gap?
The term WISP refers to Wireless Internet Service Provider (WISP), which provides Internet connectivity services through wireless networks, generally p2p focused Wi-Fi, that have been massively deployed as a solution for small providers in rural areas, thanks to the consolidation of these technologies and the reduction in equipment costs.
It is for this reason that rural wireless service operators are now known as WISPs, since they provide low-cost rural wireless internet, which have managed to massively increase access for citizens living in the most remote regions of the continent, thanks to point-to-point and point-to-multipoint technologies. Due to these technologies, the traditional form of connecting to the Internet is changing and WISPs are gaining a greater percentage of the market day by day, without the need to install a wiring system in an area outside the big cities to provide a good service.
WISPs have spontaneously developed a successful model at a global level, their presence is focused especially on developing countries, both in Asia, Africa and South America, becoming the most effective formula (known so far) for the narrowing of the digital gap, evidencing more concrete results of connectivity, than government and multilateral plans, including the appropriation of ICTs, because they have proven to be able to explain and demonstrate the benefits offered by the Internet in their communities, teaching their own neighbors how to take advantage of technological tools in everyday life.
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For the large telecommunications operators, especially multinationals, rural areas far from urban centers and with low population density are not part of their business model and they seek to avoid their presence in these remote places, since it is not financially sustainable. However, this situation has become a great opportunity for small entrepreneurs, since most of them cannot compete in urban areas with a multinational, and many do not even try. Precisely, the areas that the big companies did not want to attend, became a potential market niche for the WISPs, which have allowed them to find an economically viable commercial strategy thanks to new low-cost technologies that have emerged in the market in recent years, providing a stable service, bringing the Internet to very vulnerable populations, in a business scheme that has managed to become sustainable over time, where everyone wins and there is a great social contribution.
Great challenges to be solved
Although WISPs have achieved viability in their business model, there are great challenges to be solved, and the main one is the lack of caching systems, since most operate with capacities of less than 10GB, which is why none of the CDN companies are willing to deliver servers, in addition to the fact that in many cases WISP installations do not meet minimum international engineering and security standards.
Under this scenario, the entire WISP traffic is charged to the international channels that they buy from their providers, greatly increasing costs and overloading their cloud access networks, which results in a very limited and slow Internet for users, as well as an excessive and parasitic demand for traffic to wholesale providers.
We explain in the article: “CDN oxygen for TELCOs” what CDNs are and why they are important
While a traditional Internet provider has the luxury of having a real cache (Data in house) of local traffic equivalent to 60%, that is, only 40% of the traffic flows out to its providers, 100% of the WISP traffic is outbound and 0% is local, thus losing the opportunity to reduce the outbound traffic load and without being able to dilute the cost of the international channel, as the large TELCOS do, precisely in the population segment where it is most needed.
For this reason, it is urgent that the large content providers (Google, Facebook and Amazon) support the WISPs in reducing the international data load and allow them to implement local “caches” (CDN) that serve to make network traffic viable and continue to increase capacity while reducing costs.
One of the great strengths of the WISPs is that they have begun to form associations to represent them in most Latin American countries, joining efforts and seeking to identify and document their needs, with the aim of working together in the search for solutions.
From Andinalink (Costa Rica 2018 meeting), we have offered our support to the associations, seeking to serve as a communication channel between large content providers, technology providers, governments and WISP, to collaborate and promote a design that allows the massive implementation in Latin America of a local data storage solution for WISP, seeking to create equality conditions, by promoting cost reduction, increase speed and thus helping them to continue fulfilling their role of bridging the digital gap effectively throughout the region.
As an organization with more than 25 years of experience, the work of Andinalink has historically been a bridge between the telecommunications industry, governments, entrepreneurs, citizens and technology providers, which is why we believe it is necessary to support WISPs at this historic moment, as they are succeeding in bringing the Internet to the farthest corners of our continent through an unprecedented effort, making it easier for thousands of people to enter the wonderful world of the information society for the first time.
Gabriel E. Levy B.