The emergence of the internet in the early nineties brought about the “knowledge economy”. Economists and governments have focused on extending the use of knowledge to all sections of the society as a means of improving economic well being.
Global growth consulting company Frost & Sullivan believes that the biggest and most important component of the knowledge economy is a well connected communications network. Communications networks are essential for the transfer and receipt of knowledge-based services and products in a global economy. The internet has been seen as a force for good and as a means of empowerment for communities in the developing world and rural areas of the developed world.
At the base of the global communications infrastructure lies the wired telecommunications networks deployed by various phone companies all over the world. A good majority of these are legacy copper-based systems, which provide basic voice and low-speed data.
Frost & Sullivan has however seen how the emergence of wireless communications, such as cellular networks, has since seen a growth in per capita availability of communications services globally. Mature technologies such as GSM and code division multiple access (CDMA) have been responsible for this phenomenal growth in availability. Areas such as remote locations and sparsely populated regions deemed unprofitable for traditional communications providers are being served by these cellular operators.
While basic communications have reached more users, internet and data services are still being seen as a luxury for majority of the global population. This divide known as the digital divide is seen as stumbling block in the path toward progress in the knowledge-based economy.
New technologies such as WiMAX and 3G evolution paths from the GSM and CDMA groups show some promise in bridging this gap. WiMAX is seen as a disruptive technology, which offers a great deal of promise to digital empowerment in less developed markets and countries. This theory is becoming more credible with the announcements about deployment contracts in areas such as India, Vietnam, and sub-Saharan Africa from tier one made by equipment manufacturers and integrators.
WiMAX base stations and infrastructure have a smaller foot print compared to existing and planned cellular technologies. This gives it an edge in terms of the required support infrastructure.
Leading chip makers such as Intel are also developing cheap semiconductor for WiMAX devices and cards, which will make them affordable for developing markets. WiMAX has enabled operators such as Wateen in Pakistan to offer broadband in nine cities within a year of operations. This quick to deploy advantage is seen as one of the key differentiators in the competitive wireless landscape.
WiMAX deployments in the developing markets currently outnumber those in developed markets. Fixed WiMAX offers greater coverage at lower complexity when compared to the mobile version making it better suited to bringing broadband to the masses.
Cellular technologies such as 3G and CDMA 2000 are not far behind in terms offering cost effective solutions to rural markets. Ericsson has begun a pilot rural initiative in India to offer high-speed wireless access to villages using its wideband code division multiple access (WCDMA)/high speed packet access (HSPA) offering. HSPA+ and 3GPP's CDMA EV-DO solutions have the advantage of using existing cellular communications infrastructure to provide high-speed services. This is important when compared to WiMAX, which requires new infrastructure.
Frost & Sullivan believes that technologies such as peer to peer telephony offered by Swedish start up TerraNet AB will be seen as low-cost alternatives to cellular and fixed line services in unconnected areas. While some may view such technologies as threats to existing models, they are most likely to be seen as complimentary to incumbent efforts to extend their coverage without effecting their bottom lines.
The bottom line is that no single technology offers a silver bullet approach to bridging the digital divide. Frost & Sullivan sees a mix of different solutions complimenting each other as the way forward. Initiatives such as making spectrum policy reform and better management are also essential for wireless technologies to deliver on promises.