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Modular wireless networks for infrastructure-challenged environments


While access to Internet and cellular connectivity is easily achieved in densely-populated areas, provisioning of communication services is much more challenging in remote rural areas. At the same time Internet access is of critical importance to residents of such rural communities. People's curiosity and realization of the opportunities provided by Internet and cellular access is the key ingredient to adoption. However, poor network performance can easily impede the process of adoption by discouraging people to access and use connectivity. With this in mind, we evaluate performance and adoption of various connectivity technologies in rural developing regions and identify avenues that need immediate attention to guarantee smoother technology adoption. In light of this analysis we propose novel system designs that meet these needs.

In this thesis we focus on cellular and broadband Internet connectivity. Commercial cellular networks are highly centralized, which requires costly backhaul. This, coupled with high price for equipment, maintenance and licensing renders cellular network access commercially-infeasible in rural areas. At the same time rural cellular communications are highly local: 70% of the rural-residential calls have an originator-destination pair within the same antenna. In line with this observation we design a low-cost cellular network architecture dubbed Kwiizya, to provide local voice and text messaging services in a rural community. Where outbound connectivity is available, Kwiizya can provide global services. While commercial networks are becoming more available in rural areas they are often out of financial reach of rural residents. Furthermore, these networks typically provide only basic voice and SMS services and no mobile data. To address these challenges, our proposed work allows Kwiizya to operate in coexistence with commercial cellular networks in order to extend local coverage and provide more advanced services that are not delivered by the commercial networks.

Internet connectivity in rural areas is typically provided through slow satellite links. The challenges in performance and adoption of such networks have been previously studied. We add a unique dataset and consequent analysis to this spectrum of work, which captures the upgrade of the gateway connectivity in the rural community of Macha, Zambia from a 256kbps satellite link to a more capable 2Mbps terrestrial link. We show that the improvement in performance and user experience is not necessarily proportional to the bandwidth increase. While this increase improved the network usability, it also opened opportunities for adoption of more demanding services that were previously out of reach. As a result the network performance was severely degraded over the long term. To address these challenges we employ white space communication both for connectivity to more capable remote gateways, as well as for end user connectivity. We develop VillageLink, a distributed method that optimizes channel allocation to maximize throughput and enables both remote gateway access as well as end user coverage. While VillageLink features lightweight channel probing, we also consider external sources of channel availability. We design a novel approach for estimation of channel occupancy called TxMiner, which is capable of extracting transmitter characteristics from raw spectrum measurements.

We study the adoption and implications of network connectivity in rural communities. In line with the results of our analyses we design and build system architectures that are geared to meet critical needs in these communities. While the focus of analysis in this thesis is on rural sub-Saharan Africa, the proposed designs and system implementations are more general and can serve in infrastructure-challenged communities across the world.

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