Solar-powered wireless internet for informal South African schools

November 19, 2021 // By Nick Flaherty
Solar-powered wireless internet for informal South African schools
Two UK universities are testing solar-powered, wireless broadband internet access for South African schoolkids living in informal settlements

The two year ‘Fibre Before the Fibre Project’ involves research and development into low-cost, long-range, high-speed wireless optical communication technologies for communities that don’t have an existing fibre infrastructure. 

A 3D-printed wireless communication system developed at the University of Glasgow uses off-the-shelf components to link to anchor sites, such as schools, via a wireless optical line-of-site signal to nearby fibre-sources in the affluent suburbs which are just a few kilometres from these sites.

The collaboration is being run by lead investigator Dr Mitchell Cox at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, alongside co-investigators Professor Martin Lavery at the University of Glasgow and Professor Andrew Ellis from Aston University and Professor Andrew Forbes, also from the University of the Witwatersrand, who came up with the concept around five years ago.

Researchers from the Witswatersrand’s School of Electrical and Information Engineering have developed an off-grid energy system which has the potential to power whole villages using multiple sources such as solar panels and batteries.

Joined together, these elements will be able to provide connectivity for the informal settlements and will first be trialled within the next six months at two sites near Johannesburg.

“The remarkable digital revolution of the last 30 years wouldn’t have been possible without the optical fibre technologies that help us send and receive data around the world,” said Professor Lavery, of the University of Glasgow’s James Watt School of Engineering.

“Despite those advances, however, fibre optic cables themselves remain stubbornly expensive to install and to maintain, particularly in remote or disadvantaged communities. That’s particularly true across the continent of Africa, where optical fibre access is restricted mainly to more affluent areas, and 16% of the world’s population has access to just 4% of its internet access. 

“What we’re aiming to do with this project is build upon new advances in photonics to take the expensive cable infrastructure out of the equation altogether and create more affordable, high-speed broadband links across free space. We hope that Fibre before Fibre will provide real and lasting benefits to the children in our partner school, and that it will help kickstart similar projects in many other places around the world where broadband access is limited,” he said.

“In parts of South Africa where there is a huge peri-urban (where there is a mix of rural and urban areas) digital divide where children don’t even have the basics, and so for them it’s not just a few weeks without an education supported by the internet, but it’s months and years. We will therefore be looking at the 12 months after the installation of the products to the schools and being able to see what benefits it will have,” said Professor Ellis, deputy director of the Aston Institute of Photonics Technology (AiPT).

The UK Royal Academy of Engineering has provided £80,000 towards the project, with the majority being used in South Africa as the project rolls out in phases.

“This is enough money for us to build a demonstrator system, fund a few postgraduate students and to evaluate the opportunities and challenges of our idea. Rolling out telecommunications infrastructure is an enormous and expensive exercise, and our intention is not to replace what the service providers do, but rather to try leverage what’s existing for maximum impact,” said Cox.

Design and construction of a suitable prototype is now underway, and in 2022 the team hopes to deploy the prototype linking a currently unconnected school to nearby conventional fibre infrastructure.

www.glasgow.ac.uk; www.aston.ac.uk

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Picture: 
Optical Communications Laboratory | WITS UNIVERSITY

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