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Wireless Wramblings

Changing the World with Cell Phones?

Deciding what to write about for EEJournal is difficult. It is not that there is a lack of stories, but picking just one topic out of the many that are competing for my attention every day is sometimes close to impossible. But occasionally there are signals that just cannot be ignored. In the last few days these signals have all been pointing at wireless.

The biggest single signal was the Cambridge Wireless “Future of Wireless” conference. Cambridge Wireless is a community (its word – not mine) of “nearly 400 companies across the globe interested in the development and application of wireless and mobile technologies to solve business problems”. Within the community, there is an active programme of events, many organised by one or more of the twenty Special Interest Groups (SIGs).

The flagship event is the “Future of Wireless” conference, and, this year, it was looking at “Changing the World with Wireless”.

In talking about changing the world, the speakers were not talking about just the first world – effectively North America, Europe and Australia, but changing things for people living in countries across the entire planet. While there were nods to the Internet of Things and other connectivity issues, the focus for much of the second day – the only day I attended – was on the use of mobile telephony. The number of mobile phones in the world is scary. Start from an important baseline (or data point, to use one of this year’s buzz-words): there are, in round numbers, 6 billion people on the planet. There are also around 5.2 billion handsets in use. As we know, in many advanced societies, there are more mobile phones than there are people (in Hong Kong there are a staggering 17 million phones for 7 million people), while other countries have far fewer. Leaving aside North Korea, where, presumably, political forces mean that there are only 2 million phones for nearly 15 million people, there are many countries like Ethiopia, where appalling social conditions, mean that there is fewer than one phone for every four people.

Most of these phones are not smartphones, although their penetration is growing, particularly in countries like India where there is an emerging middle class. (India’s fixed line system was notorious, with waiting times measured in years. With the start of mobile phone services, fixed line quickly became irrelevant.)

There was a lot of complementary material in the presentations, and for the rest of this article I will be drawing on multiple presentations.

First to look at is China. While we normally think of China as a manufacturing source for companies like Apple and Samsung, it has an enormous local market of 1.3 billion consumers. In China, there are more than ten Application Processor companies, including companies such as Qualcomm and Broadcom and other, less well-known (at least to me), companies such as Allwinner Technology and Rockchip. They are serving what Pete Hutton of ARM described as thousands of OEMs making cell phones and tablets with a wide range of form factors and features (and prices). China is currently the world’s biggest market for smartphones and tablets, and, while Samsung and Apple are selling there, the bulk of the sales come from local manufacturers.

These volumes are driving down prices, and not just in China. In 2010, a smartphone had an entry price of around $400 and sold only in the mature markets. By 2013 the price was down to less than $50, and phones were selling in the BRIC countries (Brazil, India, Russia & China). By 2018, Hutton predicts the entry price will be down to under $25, and this opens up many more markets. Smartphones still have only a small share of the installed base – in 2013 they were only just over 1 billion of the 5.2 billion subscriptions. Less well-featured phones are expected to emerge in other markets, for prices that are going to be even lower.

The problem is that, for many emerging countries, smartphones are not feasible, as the infrastructure is not in place. One example is Sri Lanka, where 2G phone coverage is relatively widespread but 3G is much less developed. One speaker, talking about a project to roll out mobile telephony in one area in Africa, said that the biggest headache was how to power the base stations at a reasonable price.

Moving to Africa, the story there is much more complex. If you look at a conventional projection map, it is easy to overlook how big the continent is. It is 20% of the world’s land area, which means that you can drop the whole of North America and India into Africa and still have space to spare. 1.1 billion people, of whom half are 19 or under, speak around 2,000 languages. This population is generally thinly spread in, depending on how you count (there are border issues), 54 or 56 separate countries. Most of the country boundaries were drawn as the European colonising countries withdrew, and they in themselves are sources of inter-communal violence. This, coupled with endemic corruption and an often hostile climate, means that many people are desperately poor.

Yet, within this turmoil, there are some amazing success stories where the technology of mobile communications is changing lives. The first is the staggering story of M-Pesa, in Kenya. Many people in Kenya have moved to cities for work and want to send some of their earnings to their families in their home village. They are not bank account holders, and, even if they were, there are few bank branches in rural Kenya. Today, they can take their mobile phone with an ID card to a local shop and hand over cash. Their phone is credited, and they can then send, using an SMS text, some or all of the money to another mobile phone. The recipient can forward it on again, or he can take his phone to an M-Pesa counter, usually in the small village general shop run by a local family, to withdraw cash. This has been wildly successful and has been taken up by, for example, market traders to pay suppliers, parents to pay school fees, small companies to pay their staff, and bigger companies for many aspects of their business. Currently, somewhere around 40% of Kenya’s Gross Domestic Product flows through M-Pesa. The system has been implemented in Tanzania, South Africa, and other African countries as well as Afghanistan, India, and, since March this year, Romania.

In Kenya, other projects have been built around M-Pesa. For example, people can use their credits to buy clean drinking water. This may be from a commercial supplier, but, in some cases, it is from the village well. After paying to have the well maintained, any excess is ploughed into community projects. A new venture from some of the same team that created M-Pesa is M-Kopa, a solar energy company. Customers pay a deposit (using M-Pesa) for a solar installation, and then they can pay the balance off over time, at a fixed, low rate. An alternative model is that the customer again pays a deposit and then buys energy in discrete amounts, as and when they need it. This replaces the use of kerosene or other fuels, and it is cheaper and less dangerous.

Other uses of mobile technology have been more focused. For example, a smartphone app has been developed to carry out eye examinations, with the phone’s screen replacing the classic eye chart. Adding an adapter that is 3D printed – for less than $5 – turns the phone into the equivalent of a retinal examination tool costing $25,000, yet it can be used by anyone. The results of the retinal scan are then transferred to specialists – who may be anywhere in the world – who carry out detailed evaluation and diagnosis. They can advise local surgical teams, who then work with the community to carry out low-cost surgery that can restore sight in many cases. Click here to see how this works.

Farmers in much of the developing world are on a knife’s-edge with only a small margin between surviving and starving. CABI, a world-wide organisation that helps farmers improve their productivity while protecting the environment, has been training Plant Doctors to diagnose plant diseases and advise farmers on what to do. They are backed by the Plantwise knowledge bank. However when the Plant Doctors are in the field, running their plant clinics, they don’t have immediate access to this knowledge, and so CABI has created a mobile app, “Factsheets Library”, which provides immediate access to the content from a tablet.

So far we have been looking at solutions that have come from the first world to the developing world. But what can the developing countries do for themselves? One obvious thing would be to develop apps. The vast app libraries that already exist are aimed at first-world users, and they are often in English (if we ignore the 1 million Chinese apps). Clearly an app in a local language would be valuable for the community and could provide a developer with income. But when our app developer has an idea, he finds some amazing barriers. There are only 150 countries where you can register as an Android developer, and, in 105 of these, you cannot register as an Android Merchant. PayPal is limited to 26 currencies. So much of the work of creating apps in the developing world consists of subcontracting for the first world.

Even worse yet is that there are still around 4 billion people, a group called by people working in this area “the bottom of the pyramid”, living in Africa, Asia and South America, whose poverty is so desperate that owning a cellphone is not even a dream. They were called by one speaker “the disconnected generation” – there is a need to find a way to reach out to them.

The take-away from the day for me was that we are barely beginning to understand what we can do to change the world with cellphone technology. The route to meeting these challenges is through deploying technology, but the biggest challenge in many cases is societal. Cheap money transfer systems, for example, are going to continue to be opposed in many countries by the banks and other financial institutions. China has become a world manufacturing power and an enormous consumer market because of a political system run by a small elite who were determined to change. The European wars of religion, between different interpreters of the Christian faith, were over several hundred years ago. Today, wars of religion are waged in many different societies, but their effect is often worst in those countries already in poverty. Other countries have absorbed billions in international aid, much of which has disappeared without trace.

Even in the best social environment, deploying wireless is not a simple task, especially with the continual evolution of standards.  This brings us to the technical signal for thinking about the topic: the announcement that FPGA giant Altera has entered a strategic agreement to jointly develop and market programmable RF and FPGA systems with Lime Microsystems, a British-based fab-less company. Altera has also made an investment in Lime.

Wireless systems for cell-phones, Wi-Fi, and other applications have a bewildering matrix of transmission standards and frequencies. Normally the transceiver is built to meet a single standard and perhaps a range of frequencies. Lime has developed what it calls Field Programmable Radio Frequency (FP-RF) devices, which can be programmed to match a standard and frequency. The latest version, the LS72002M, aims to provide MIMO functionality for “all cellular standards and frequencies, including 2G, 3G and 4G / LTE and their TDD / FDD variants amongst numerous other standards such as WiFi”. It also claims a continuous operational spectrum of 50MHz to 3.8GHz.

Within the chip are DSP functions, an 8051 microcontroller, multiple 12-bit ADCs and DACs, LNAs, filters, PLLs, and mixers, all of which can be accessed and used separately. Lime provides an open source development system, which  accesses registers that configure the device, both selecting the functions and setting the appropriate standards and frequencies for the implementation. This is intended to help people develop applications without having an RF expert in-house – since RF experts are even harder to find than analog designers.

Altera’s interest is presumably to ensure that it has a stake in wireless technology (the release mentions Altera-Lime optimized reference designs, boards, and software stacks and drivers). This is a trend that other companies are also taking a part in. For example Intel has, in the last few years, bought Infineon’s wireless business and the wireless elements of MindSpeed, including PicoChip, when MA/Com bought Mindspeed last year. This allows it to claim that it can provide the building blocks for all stages of the Internet of Things.

The Altera-Lime announcement should make it easier for people building wireless products, but whether it will help the emerging economies to make better use of wireless is probably an irrelevant question at a day-to-day level. Longer term, it is a question that the industry will have to address.

Some of the presentations from the Cambridge Wireless Conference are at: http://www.cambridgewireless.co.uk/futureofwireless/Resources/

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