Intel plans to test this summer an antenna capable of transmitting Wi-Fi signals dozens of miles, making it possible to bring Internet-based communications to villages in remote areas of the world.
The project is an extension of Intel's World Ahead Program, which brings technology to developing nations. Because such countries seldom have much of a wired infrastructure, wireless communications is often the best method for providing connectivity and links to information that can have a dramatic impact on people's lives.
The Wi-Fi project is a collaboration between Intel Research in Berkeley, Calif., and Nizhny Novgorod State University in Russia. The idea is to develop a low-cost antenna that can transmit and receive Wi-Fi signals over distances as far as 100 kilometers, or about 62 miles. Wi-Fi antennas used in homes, cafes, and airports transmit signals of about 300 feet.
Directional antennas that transmit a straight signal exist today and could do the job, but they lack reliability and are a headache to install. Such devices have to be pointed directly at each other in order to move a signal back and forth. In addition, there's any number of problems that could cause misalignment. Extreme heat or cold can cause a supporting tower to shrink or contract, wind could blow a device off course, or a loose bolt could cause the antenna to shift.
"In India, for example, local kids using the towers as a kind of jungle gym climb to the top and change the direction of the antenna," said Alan Mainwaring, who leads the project for Intel, in an interview.
What Intel and the university want to do is develop a directional antenna that can be steered from a remote location, so it will always stay on target. Existing technology to do that today is too expensive for poor countries. The Intel antenna is expected to cost only a few hundred dollars.
Intel and its partner have developed several generations of prototypes, and believe the antennas being tested the summer, one in southern India, the other in Ghana, will prove the technology is ready for production.
While similar to a TV satellite dish seen on many people's homes in urban areas, the Wi-Fi dish is flat, and the surface covered with hundreds of tiny antennas. In the middle are an emitter and receiver. An electrical charge sent through the small antennas makes it possible to steer the direction of the Wi-Fi signal, Mainwaring said. The antennas' surface can be produced using the same manufacturing methods used to create a printed circuit board, a high-volume, low-cost production process.
If the antenna proves itself in the field, and finds it way to rural areas, it could open up a whole new world of communications for villages in countries in Asia and Africa. "These are villages that have intermittent electricity during the day, and may not have landline phones," Mainwaring said. "Their cellular phone coverage is often not as ubiquitous as we're use to."
For these areas, Wi-Fi could bring Internet-based telephony and make it possible, for example, to transmit a video of a patient via Web cam to a doctor for diagnosis. Information on weather could save lives, and crop-price data could help poor farmers earn more money.
Intel has yet to decide how it would use or license the technology, which would not be as adaptable for urban areas where there are far more obstacles, such as buildings and other radio signals, that can cause reception problems.
Mainwaring, however, believes the technology will eventually find its way to poor nations, and plans to work on getting it there with researchers at the University of California, Berkeley. The university's TIER project, which stands for Technology and Infrastructure for Emerging Regions, has developed small, low-power, single-board computers that could act as routers and relay stations in moving the signal over long distances.