Creating Fresh Network Deployments

Jay Turner, Senior director of development and operations, Console
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Jay Turner, Senior director of development and operations, Console

In 2011, the UN declared internet access a basic human right. Unfortunately, that declaration hasn't resulted in the rapid expansion of internet access. In fact, the internet growth rate has been declining over the past several years and, while developing countries have improved their internet capabilities, they're still hard-pressed to turn that access into opportunities.

  As the internet becomes more accessible on a global scale, at increasingly lower costs, it provides opportunities for small and medium businesses in these countries to become international players. 

The main problem for students in developing countries is the lack of quality educational resources. There are millions of people around the world who would like the ability to test themselves at higher educational levels, but can't. For example, in Sub-Saharan Africa, only 6 percent of all eligible students are able to access higher education. 

Online distance learning affords an enormous opportunity to help bring equity to global educational standards. It allows anyone, anywhere in the world, access to certified educators. In some cases, this access is even sponsored in the form of distance learning scholarships, allowing students to study at some of the world's top universities without abandoning their families and livelihoods. 

Ensuring educational access throughout the world isn't just a philanthropic mission – it drastically increases potential markets and hiring pools, which will result in a stronger and more dynamic global economy. But that's getting way ahead of us, as most people in developing countries still don't have internet access. 

In many developing countries, teaching is done on a volunteer basis. This naturally leads to a high rate of teacher absence, as they usually have other responsibilities they can't ignore. But even if you remove teacher attendance from the equation, you can't ignore the fact that many of these teachers have received minimal schooling, themselves. Their future workforce is relying on basic knowledge delivered at irregular intervals, when they could have reliable, verifiable educators at their fingertips. 

With the online distance learning model, rural students can take advantage of a flexible study schedule, even using the knowledge immediately to improve their family's standard of living. Knowledge of how to use the internet opens up import/export possibilities and a vastly expanded potential market. But, of course, that's if they have internet available. As it stands, now, internet access in developing countries is around 20 percent, which drastically limits their potential for economic growth. 

The benefits of getting widespread internet access to these countries aren’t exactly a new idea. There are plenty of projects involving balloons, drones, satellites, and billions of dollars, that certainly suggest an expected ROI. The issue, then, is the viability of such projects versus laying traditional infrastructure, which also has significant costs. Fortunately, there's a way to reduce the infrastructure to its absolutely necessary points (i.e. a grid of access points throughout these countries, which is already on its way), and from those points they can form an inexpensive, dynamic mesh network. 

Developing countries offer an opportunity to create fresh network deployments, ones that aren't encumbered by the need to interoperate with legacy infrastructure. The issue is deploying a design that's inexpensive, efficient, and offers redundancy and routing optimization. This is exactly what a SDN-optimized mesh network provides. There isn't a current infrastructure to maintain, and all the country needs is a single link to connect everyone to the outside world. Deployment can take place in a matter of months, and there's no legacy infrastructure to pretend to want to maintain. 

The terrain in developing countries can be an issue when attempting to set networks in place, but wireless mesh networks are a great solution. They work over any terrain and reach any region, no matter how isolated it is, at a dramatically reduced cost when compared to other approaches. Cellular networks do tend to exist in these countries with some degree of prevalence, but don't have the speeds necessary to connect ambitious students to the resources they require for proper distance learning. With mesh networks, developing countries are provided the potential to leapfrog more advanced nations in terms of their interconnection infrastructure. Mesh networks can provide a responsive network that's designed to optimize for speed, and there aren't any legacy devices to replace. 

Considering the scope of what we're looking at, automation is key. The nature of a mesh network is such that there are tons of devices to manage, and the management has to happen in a real-time, responsive way. The only way to make that happen is through SDN. SDN, aside from allowing for programmatic routing optimization, also means that the network can be managed centrally. The lack of expert knowledge as it pertains to the internet in developing countries means that these networks will need a way to be maintained by a small number of professionals. This is also why it's important for the maintenance of the network that it can be composed of inexpensive, easily-replaceable COTS hardware. And if a device in the mesh goes down due to environmental factors, SDN is there to optimize traffic around the break without an interruption. 

These dynamic adjustments and optimizations aren't different from the role SDN plays in traditional networks, but the added complexity of a mesh network is vastly simplified with SDN. The separation of control plane from network plane allows for different routing strategies across the network, which helps mitigate reliability and availability issues that are inherent in rural mesh networks. SDN networks can even continue to operate in the absence of a controller, although no changes can be made to the way the data plane handles traffic once the controller is gone. 

Internet access in developing countries isn't just an opportunity for ISPs – it has significant potential for segments across the whole global economy. As the internet becomes more accessible on a global scale, at increasingly lower costs, it provides opportunities for small and medium businesses in these countries to become international players. And it works the other way, too. Getting internet access to more countries means having more markets to approach. 

But maybe the most exciting aspect of the process will come when the next generation of internet savvy academics, intellectuals, entrepreneurs, and programmers bring their diverse backgrounds onto the global playing field. With distance learning, mesh networks, and SDN, we could be looking at an arena jam-packed with eager, skilled individuals. A vibrant and proliferating talent pool that takes IT to new heights. 

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