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Communication in Remote Areas

My Reasons for Writing This Page

In mid-January 1997 I have been asked by a missionary, usually working in a remote part of the Central African Republic, to maintain contact with her german relatives in times of crisis. Even the german embassy recommended to leave the country due to unrest, so the relatives were pretty anxious. But these unrests took place only 40 km around the capital - which is 1200 km away, so in that remote place there was no real danger. Signs of life could be transported by shortwave voice amateur radio, so the relative could be made feel less anxious.

I have collected some information on how to get e-mail and other information to places hundreds of kilometres away from any phone line. In some future, this page is thought to become an information resource for people and organizations, especially missionaries, looking for communication in areas without telephone lines.

Requirements for Solutions

the next phone line is at least 100 kilometres away
missionaries are usually funded by donations, and that little money should go to people in need
easy to setup
if a communications specialist has to go to the remote site, the budget will quite drained - an ideal solution would allow the equpiment to be pre-installed at some service centre, shipped to the remote site (e.g. by the regular monthly supply flight) and installed by the end user with help from the specialist only by voice radio.
very easy to use
the end user is well trained in medicine, theology and perhaps construction, but not in RF communications - he will have enough trouble with the email program, so the radio equipment should not require complex procedures and filigrane fine tuning. One day of training should suffice, if voice radio assistance is available.
licensable in the countries of use
countries with low infrastructure often have a lot of bureaucracy, often being sceptical about international radio communications - couldn't the local guerilla movement also use this service?
flexible power sources
where there is no telephone, there usually is no reliable source of electrical power. More often than not, the computer and radio equipment has to run on 12V car batteries, charged by solar cells, and fed into an inverter (transforming 12V DC into 120 or 240V AC - usually not very power efficient).
a message that has been accepted by the system must eventually reach the destination. If, in exceptional circumstances, this is not possible, a notification of failure must be sent to the sender. A mere time delay of up to one day is not so much a problem; longer delays should go with a notification like "due to adverse radio path conditions, your message is being delayed; it will be periodically retransmitted and is likely to reach [location name] within a few days".
not everyone should be able to listen into the communication - this requirement might be in contrast to licensing conditions and could perhaps be sacrificed
There are groups with similar needs, whose experiences and infrastructure could be co-utilized:

Possible Technologies

This section looks at all the theoretical possibilities to communicate in areas without telephone lines. To ensure a wide scope and thus to avoid unnecessary restrictions on thoughts, there is deliberately no attempt in this section to examine the practical implementations. That is left to the section on available technologies.

Transmission Media

Transported Information

Type of Switching

Available Technologies

Digital Ground Radio

Classic Satellite Telephones (Inmarsat)

If you are communicating only a few short times a month over very long (intercontinental) distances, then the Mini-M service of Inmarsat is something to look at. Cost starts at 3000$ investment, 30$ per month subscription and 3$ per minute for calls to anywhere on the globe, which can compete with intercontinental rates even in some areas with telephone lines.

Recently, Globalstar also started it's service, which is more restricted in coverage, but slightly cheaper.

After their initial commercial failure, Iridium went into service again.

VSAT (Very Small Aperture Terminals)

Take a standard TV dish of 0.7 to 1.8 metres in diameter, put a small (1 Watt) transmitter in addition to the LNC at the focus and beam to a geostationary satellite. Due to the huge distance, the signal returned from the satellite is so weak, that another small dish can't pick it up, so it has to be amplified by a hub station on the ground, thus doubling the distance (and the delay) to be traveled.

I have no accurrate cost information, but it must be many thousand $ investment and a few thousand $ monthly subscription to get a 19.200 bps link. In some areas this still competes with leased digital land lines. It's used mainly for frequent small transactions, such as credit card verifications or the british national lottery.

Small Satellites ("flying mailbox")

As the satellite orbits the earth, it passes over its entire surface, including all the remote areas of interest. A small ground station (it can work with as little as 1 watt and a telescope antenna) watches for the satellite and exchanges mail when audible.

Detailed information about small satellites can be found at the Small Satellites Home Page.

Future Technologies

A lot of providers are going to be active in the satellite communication business in the next few years. Especially attractive is digital communication using low earth orbiting satellites. Names you might hear in the future again (after their initial commercial failure) include Teledesic (Bill Gates' vision of the "Internet from the skies" with about 800 satellites; a great way for Russia to put their 200 former Proton nuclear missiles to good use).

Active Providers

Globe Wireless engages in maritime shortwave communication.

The Mission Aviation Fellowship increasingly expands its infrastructure support to communications, including MAFNet radio email, a shortwave service, as well as the traditional flight service.

The Dutch Worldcom Foundation is using shortwave for a variety of communications projects in developing countries.

Infosat Transaction Networks in Canada is a provider of VSAT services.

The NSRC maintains a Link to a list of satellite network providers

One of many vendors of this type of equipment is Applied Satellite Technology. I have no business relation with them, just found their web site to be interesting.

Reasons for the Need

There is more to communicate than signs of life. What is an aviation service, such as provided by the Mission Aviation Fellowship (MAF), good for, if you can't call them when you really need them? How much exhausting but useless travel could be avoided, if you could check the availability of materials (medicine, food, fuel, construction equipment, ...) before you take off. Imagine yourself having no phone, only an unreliable mail service taking weeks and trying to gather material for a construction project (church, school, hospital, ...) from shops that often run out of stock and are a day's drive by Landrover away... And the home office in Germany, the USA or wherever also would like to communicate faster.

According to international rules, information like this is not allowed to be communicated by amateur radio, so other legal means must be found, although amateurs have much of the technology already in place - so let's bring those worlds together: hobbyists and serious develpoment workers.

Telecommunication in some countries has not strechted far beyond the capitals. A typical, but by far not the only, example was Uganda, although the situation there has improved during the late 1990s..

There is an interesting study on wireless technologies in Africa, probably also applicable to other places.

Another study covers Employment and income generating activities derived from Internet Access.

Active Users

Probably the mission society working "by definition" in the most remote areas are the Wycliffe Bible Translators.

AMSAT is a worldwide group of radio amateurs, that build and use their own satellites.

An organisation making use of satellites in really remote areas is SatelLife, serving mainly the medical community.

General Links of Interest

MAFlink has a great set of pages to check your options for remote communications.

The MISSION COMPUTER-RELATED RESOURCE DIRECTORY lists many places where to find more information, especially for missionaries.

The Network Startup Resource Center provides lots of information of what has already been done - a good place to find out how to get email to country X.

Volunteers in Technical Assistance bring people with time & knowledge in contact with organisations in need of experts - not only for communications, but also for drilling wells etc. They also manage electronic conferences about relevant topics, together with the world bank.

Dr Michael Berwick, one of the lecturers in my MSc course, has a large collection of links in his home page.

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Last updated: 05.05.2007 17:43:07 Martin Stut, email: email address as image, Marburg, Germany
URL: http://www.stut.de/remote.htm