Digital Inclusion Innovation Portal

Innovation in

Populations uncovered by mobile networks typically live in rural locations with low population densities, low per capita income levels and weak or non-existent enabling infrastructure such as electricity. These structural roadblocks have a profound adverse impact on all aspects of the business case for mobile network expansion, and calls for different approaches and business models to make remote coverage feasible. Here we introduce innovations that address the various components of the access infrastructure, within Last Mile, Backhaul, and Power.

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Innovation in Last Mile Connectivity

Last mile access is one of the key areas of focus for enabling remote connectivity. Products are emerging that allow for cheaper network roll out in rural areas and show promise, such as miniaturized equipment and mesh networks.

Project ARIES

Project ARIES

NETWORK COMPONENT: Wireless base station
IMPLEMENTATION STATUS: Proof-of-concept design

Facebook’s Project Antenna Radio Integration for Efficiency in Spectrum (ARIES) is a wireless base station technology that aims to provide faster connectivity in rural areas from city centres. With 96 transmit antennas, ARIES is a “Massive MIMO” (multiple input, multiple output) macro cell, serving up to 24 data streams on the same time-frequency resource.

Through the “spatial multiplexing” technology, ARIES reportedly provides 10x energy and spectral efficiency gains over 4G systems, allowing for extended coverage range and higher throughput in limited spectrum. Facebook reports ARIES is currently able to provide a capacity of 71 bps/Hz of spectral efficiency, and the goal is to increase this to reach over 100 bps/Hz.

Project ARIES provides a concept solution to provide connectivity to rural areas in emerging markets which circumvents the financial sustainability dilemma of rural network extension, as one single base station could cater for both rural and more affluent urban customers through the city centre deployment. The ability to provide higher throughput on smaller spectrum spaces also addresses issues of spectrum availability. Consequentially, the technology has the potential to be one driver of consumers’ connectivity in emerging markets, depending on the in-market deployment appetite of operators and internet ecosystem players.

The extensive transmitting capacity of the ARIES technology from one single base station could save operators from investment in multiple rural base stations, for a cheaper and faster network deployment in rural locations. The wireless technology of Massive MIMO also caters for the progression towards 5G, making ARIES a technology withstanding demands for future connectivity speeds and quality in the long-term.

Project ARIES has been developed as a concept design as part of the larger Telecom Infrastructure Project (TIP) initiative of Facebook, driven by operators, infrastructure providers, and system integrators. ARIES is still on a proof-of-concept stage and has not yet been deployed commercially. The idea behind Project ARIES is to deploy transmission base stations in urban centres and broadcast connectivity out to surrounding rural areas, and provide backhaul infrastructure to extend the reach even further.


For more information please visit the Facebook website.

Images credit: Facebook




EasyGSM is an IP-based compact base station of Huawei, which was developed in 2009 in close collaboration with Vodafone at their joint Radio Mobile Innovation Centre in Madrid, Spain. The base transceiver station (BTS) has been specifically designed for enabling communication in rural areas, and provides optimised IP transmission and local call switching that helps to save on its transmission bandwidth. EasyGSM also includes functions of radio self-planning and self-optimisation, which ensures easy maintenance and makes the solution unique for rural coverage.

Innovation in Network Coverage

It is specifically designed for low power consumption (115W) that increases the viability of micro-renewable solar and wind energy generation on site, removing the need for diesel generators. With two transceivers of 15W each, the EasyGSM BTS provides high integration, and low environmental impact. Being light weight (12 kg) and small in size (12 litre volume), EasyGSM can further be mounted on a tower, wall or pole, contributing to its quick and easy installation. Taken together, EasyGSM facilitates operators to extend wireless coverage in hard to reach rural areas at a low cost.


EasyGSM is developed specifically for rural markets in emerging economies, and has the potential to be a good solution for rapid mobile coverage deployment in hard to reach rural areas. The micro BTS provides the same coverage and has the same capabilities of a conventional macro BTS, but is deployed and operates at lower cost and is quicker to install, making it an attractive alternative for emerging market operators.


In addition, EasyGSM can be useful when fast network deployment and communication service is required for instance during humanitarian emergency conditions.

For more information please visit Huawei’s website.

Images credit: Huawei

Rural Broadband Solution

Rural Broadband Solution

NETWORK COMPONENT: Rural communication

VNL has developed a solar-powered wireless Rural Mobile and Broadband Communication System, which enables reliable voice and data access in rural and remote areas characterized by sparse population and low-ARPU. Using backhaul via satellite, fibre or radio, and low-powered, optimized base-stations, the system deploys high capacity Point-to-Point and Point-to-Multipoint links to provide secure wireless connections to a network of remote towns and villages up to a distance of 125 km in multiple hops, depending on the terrain. In contrast to other types of last mile infrastructure, no shelter, external electricity supply, air conditioning, generator or fuel are required. The system can be set up and can be ready to provide fully-functional mobile and broadband services within a few days.

The Rural Mobile and Broadband Solution uses VNL’s indigenously designed innovative telecom equipment and Cascading Star Architecture, which enables a very low-cost approach to scaling up the connections network as demand grows.


Connecting remote communities is one of the most challenging activities for any mobile operator, as it requires significant effort and investment. However, VNL’s rural broadband model can bring mobile and internet connectivity to rural areas at a significantly lower cost and at a much faster pace. Since it relies exclusively on solar energy, requires minimal maintenance, is robust enough to withstand extreme weather conditions, and is manageable remotely, it is a viable model for isolated communities, and remote enterprises with significant potential for scaling-up in emerging economies.


VNL’s solution has been widely deployed in hard to reach-areas in India and other locations across the world. Most notably, the system was utilised for the Indian government’s connectivity roll-out of 2199 towers covering some 22,688 villages in areas without roads and electricity, and heavily affected by extremist insurgencies. The project has been dubbed as the world’s largest green mobile network, and was completed in the autumn of 2016 in a record time of 18 months.

VNL has established digital villages using this Rural Mobile and Broadband Solution, bringing mobile and internet connectivity to rural areas, and enabling e-education via SmartClasses in schools, e-governance, and telemedicine – for instance, in the village of Karenda, Rajasthan:


For more information, visit the VNL website

Images and videos credit: VNL



NETWORK COMPONENT: Wireless network

Facebook’s Terragraph is a multi-node wireless system that has been designed to provide efficient wireless access in dense, congested locations. The system is based on 60GHz WiGig (wireless gigabyte) technology, which offers an enhancement to the WiFi standard through high-bandwidth communication coverage. The Terragraph hardware consists of 10x10cm pole-mounted WiGig radio units that form a network of distribution nodes to create a city mesh of high-speed fiber connectivity.

Terragraph is installed on lamp posts and other “street-furniture” around a city, and distributed evenly every 200-250 meters. This network architecture allows for flexible and simplified network planning across busy, congested areas, to avoid such interfering objects as tall buildings that can obstruct wireless connections. Operating on the 60GHz spectrum band, Terragraph enjoys a current bandwidth of 7GHz, making gigabit-speed connectivity possible. The signal-absorbing nature of the V-band limits interference, and through using phase-array antennas the directional signal of the band can be retained and facilitates communication across wide areas.

Terragraph is set to be deployed in a research pilot across the city of San Jose in California shortly, for street-level WiFi open to the public. Through the public-private partnership, Facebook will be installing Terragraph’s software and hardware on street lights and similar infrastructure for the network installation.

The project will initially focus on Terragraph deployment in downtown districts, with potential extension to underserved areas of the city and explore transit innovation corridors.

Consisting mainly of inexpensive off the shelf-components, Terragraph could signify a more cost-effective alternative for providing high-speed internet access to emerging market cities, as compared to rolling out expensive fiber networks. The flexible network architecture also caters for irregular city planning structure, and for both congested and slightly less dense areas, which could be an advantage for deployment in emerging markets cities.


For more information please visit, Facebook’s website.

Images credit: Facebook



NETWORK COMPONENT: Packaged Solution for rural coverage


Vanu’s CompactRAN is an extremely low power, light weight and easy-to-install base station, which provides 2km radius last mile coverage carrying both voice and data traffic. CompactRAN utilises packet-based satellite backhaul that is latency and jitter tolerant. This infrastructure caters for a variety of backhaul media, including e.g. microwave, wireless broadband, cable modem, and satellite connections.

The base station is also solar powered, and consumes only 50W for 5W output power per compactran-2
channel. The capacity of each CompactRAN supports 30 simultaneous voice calls (AMR-HR) across all transceivers. In terms of operation, Vanu builds wholesale networks by partnering with an MNO, in effect providing an extension of the existing operator coverage.

Coverage-as-a-Service solutions such as Vanu’s CompactRAN can potentially be one of the more promising ways to enable rural communication. It has strong potential for deployments in deep rural and remote areas, including hill tracts, sparsely populated regions, less frequent highways and geographies without permanent settlements.

In 2016 Vanu initiated their project of extending connectivity in Rwanda with the CompactRAN solution. By end of 2017, a total of 376 solar enabled sites covering approximately one million people in unserved areas of rural Rwanda will be a reality. The government and regulatory body of Rwanda are collaborating with Vanu and supporting the project with licensed spectrum, whereas from a commercial angle the first mobile operator to use the service will be Airtel Rwanda. Vanu has a long-term vision to replicate this scheme beyond Rwanda to additional markets.


For more information, please visit Vanu’s website.

Images and video credit: Vanu Inc

CCN1 “Network-in-a-box”

CCN1 “Network-in-a-box”

NETWORK COMPONENT: Packaged Solution for rural coverage
Endaga’s CCN1 is a satellite “network-in-a-box”, designed to bring voice and data services to remote uncovered areas. It functions as a straightforward plug-and-play turnkey solution in the form of a compact box, which can be installed on virtually any objects in the selected area (even on trees). The CCN1 box enables mobile phone users within a 10 km radius to connect directly to the Endaga provided GSM signals through a customised SIM card.

Endaga provides an easy to operate technology for local entrepreneurs to run the network themselves, by including a flexible billing system and cloud analytics-monitoring software on set up. Central to the solution is the acknowledgement of how local communities know best what type of infrastructure and network operation model will work well for their villages. Hence the aspiration is to establish a community owned and driven network.

Community owned network solutions that build on local know-how for deployment, could play a role to offload mobile operators’ commercial sustainability risk in the most remote areas unfeasible for 100% geographic mobile coverage. network-in-a-boxAssuming solutions like the CCN1 box can be brought into the regulatory eco-system and harmonise its spectrum requirements, these type of could be a game changer for rural communication.

In addition, there is potential opportunity for mobile operators to partner with these solution providers in order to extend their reach to new, very remotely located consumers and encourage rural-to-metro traffic on their networks.

Endaga was founded by researchers at UC Berkley and first deployed the community cellular network in Papua, Indonesia in early 2013 in partnership with a local primary school. Since then Endaga has been targeting rural communities in Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Philippines. In 2015 Endaga was acquired by Facebook, and the network-in-a-box technology is currently part of Facebook’s Open Cellular project with Globe Telecom in the Philippines.

For more information, please visit Endaga’s website.

Images credit: Endaga

Network Functions Virtualization (NFV)

Network Functions Virtualization (NFV)

NETWORK COMPONENT: Packaged Solution

Network functions virtualization (NFV) is the ability to virtualise network functions: moving from a non-unified hardware environment to technologies that streamline the hardware and disconnect it from the applications. This process optimizes resource usage and realizes operational efficiency. Through NFV, implementers aim to bring flexibility and enhance the efficiency of the network architecture of mobile communication, with benefits including:

  • Lower CAPEX: through NFV there is less need for purpose-built hardware, and the virtual network supports pay-as-you-grow models to eliminate wasteful over-provisioning;
  • Lower OPEX:requirements for space, power and cooling of equipment are reduced, and the process of roll out and management of network services is simplified;
  • Accelerated Time-to-Market: the time to deploy new networking services to support changing business requirements is reduced, which further enhances new market opportunities and improvement in return on investment of new services;
  • Agility and Flexibility: the NFV process caters for quick up- or down scale of services to address changing demands, and supports innovation by enabling services to be delivered via software on any industry-standard server.

Since NFV works on a pay-as-you-grow model, it can greatly increase the efficiency of mobile operators in emerging markets. With NFV technologies, large upfront investments can be avoided when introducing new services or expanding the service footprint. Consequentially, operators have more flexibility to try, test and grow their business.  Operators are further enabled to scale-up or scale-down their network capacity without depending on any proprietary dedicated hardware. In this manner, 4G and 5G expansion will become much easier to deploy and opens up potential for accelerated digital development in emerging markets.

Over the last few years, several larger OEMs including Cisco, Ericsson and Huawei have been working with major network providers to build best in class NVF. With NFV’s ability to enable speed efficiency and support new business opportunities, it provides the prerequisite for 5G and is predicted to be an important technology for the 5G ready core in the coming years.

One example of the NFV technology’s use in practice, would be Ericsson’s NFV solution. Ericsson’s first NFV deployment in Latin America took place in 2016 with Digicel in Guyana, where 100,000 subscribers were enabled with increased broadband speeds and improved network quality. Ericsson deployed a complete NFV cloud solution to Digicel’s core network, supporting 2G, 3G and LTE, which allowed Digicel a new level of scalability, cost-efficient expansion and service innovation at low CAPEX.


For more information, please visit Ericsson’s website.

Images and video credit: Ericsson

Innovation in Backhaul

Rural and remote areas often lack fixed network infrastructure, and backhaul transmission from the site to the core network may involve considerable distances. The below creative solutions aim to bridge this gap through innovative approaches.

Project Loon

Project Loon

SOLUTION PROVIDER: X, of Alphabet Inc.

Project Loon is a network of high-altitude connectivity balloons. The technology solution is loon_1designed to provide high-speed wireless internet to rural and remote areas at affordable rates, via clusters of roaming helium-filled balloons. The 12-meter tall balloons have been equipped with solar-powered key technology of a cell tower with capacity to provide connectivity to an area of 5,000 square km, cruising at an altitude of 18-25km and staying airborne for over three months at a time.

Transceivers attached to the equipment of each Loon balloon transmit connectivity from telecom stations on the ground, across balloons, and back down to users’ LTE devices. Loon is able to provide users on the ground with wireless connection speeds of up to 10Mb/s.

Project Loon could signify a cost-efficient solution for remote area connectivity, providing continuous, reliable high-speed coverage. Comparing with similarly functioning satellite technology, the production and maintenance costs, and development lead times of Loon balloons are generally considerably less. Once commercially launched, a leasing model of the balloons will be offered to service providers on the ground, signifying an extension of rural network coverage for operators whilst avoiding heavy upfront infrastructure investment.



Plans are underway to establish a ring of around 300 balloons around the world below the equator, which would provide continuous coverage for certain regions. Reaching that milestone successfully, roll out of Project Loon’s first beta commercial customers would follow.


For more information, please visit the website of X (of Alphabet Inc.).

Images and video credit: X (of Alphabet Inc.)



NETWORK COMPONENT: Solar-powered aircraft


Facebook’s Aquila invention is a solar-powered aircraft aimed to beam internet signal to remote areas. Still at concept and trial stage, with a wingspan of 42 meter wide the drone is designed to fly at altitudes of 18-27km to cover areas of ca 100km in diameter with internet connectivity.

aquila_2In order to maximise the endurance of the aircrafts to stay airborne, the weight of each aircraft is currently 400kg, and the plan is to fly the drones at slow speeds of less than 130km per hour. Based on these specifications the average power consumption required would be 5,000W per plane.

Facebook’s Aquila could provide a solution with minimal on the ground receiver-infrastructure, which can provide internet access to the most remote and rural areas that are currently hard to reach through traditional network deployments. In that regard, Aquila has the potential to accelerate internet connectivity across emerging markets in collaboration with local on the ground mobile operators and ISPs.


Further tests and refinement of the model over the coming years will inform its practical applicability on the ground. It will be interesting to follow its development and how in-market deployment will look like, which will influence operational Aquila economic sustainability and potential to reach scale in usage across emerging markets.

Facebook will partner with local ISPs on the ground to offer the Aquila internet services. Aquila is however still in early design stages and has not yet been in full operation-test with a partnering local ISP to date. A full-scale prototype drone was airborne for the first time in June 2016 during a 96 minutes flight test in Arizona, US. However, it is yet to be trialed at full capacity and for the planned long-endurance flight time, to ultimately assess its capability to effectively beam wireless connectivity whilst in air.



For more information, please visit Facebook’s website.

Images and video credit: Facebook

Innovation in Power

Allowing for cheaper and more sustainable on-site power generation, is central for ensuring continuous and reliable energy supply for network operation in remote areas.

eSite Hybrid power systems

eSite Hybrid power systems

NETWORK COMPONENT: Packaged Solution for rural coverage

eSite is a unique, single-unit hybrid power system optimized to outdoor standards, that esite_1can provide energy access for rural cell towers in off-grid or unreliable-grid areas. The hybrid system harvests the power of solar energy, genset and grid, and utilises a protective soft power switching solution between the grid and connected gensets, which replaces traditional mechanical switching making it highly tolerant to voltage and frequency variations. This energy control system combines or disconnects power input from two grid or genset power sources as required, and ensures maximum efficiency to charge the batteries quickly when the generator still needs to run. These efficiency gains make a 90% cut in diesel costs, energy related OPEX, and CO2 emissions possible.

Beyond its smart energy control system, what sets eSite apart is also its analysing and optimising software eManager. Through integrated sensors that gather reliable data for each eSite, and a robust communication protocol between sites, it brings a rigorous remote monitoring functionality. This allows network operators to have strong visibility into site activity and performance of eSites, and remotely monitor and control system upgrades, the generator and fuel logistics, and other site assets.

Operators and tower companies in developing countries often struggle to guarantee network uptime due to challenges in energy provisioning. With a system well adapted to sporadic grid access, eSite can make a significant difference for deep rural and sparsely populated regions. Operators are able to reduce their dependency on diesel, and minimise maintenance as eSite is a tamper-proof, water resistant, sealed unit with no moving parts. The passive convection cooling further allows eSite to operate in outdoor temperatures of up to +55°C. The system caters for quick and simple installation suitable for difficult terrains: with a plug & play process, and the single-unit being compact to transport and able to be hand-carried to site, each eSite can be active within a day.

In addition, since eSite has a built-in ‘community power’ facility, MNOs and tower companies can in addition to powering mobile networks, also utilize the system to provide basic energy access/charging services for rural communities.

Flexenclosure has deployed over 3,000 eSite hybrid power solutions in 27 countries to date, with the majority in emerging markets. For example, eSite was utilized for Myanmar’s large-scale green-field network rollout from 2013, where Apollo Towers had been selected to host many of Telenor’s phase 1 deployments of new cellular base stations. In a geography with highly unreliable or in many places non-existent grid power, Apollo Towers required a system that could reduce diesel-related costs and thus make this initiative financially viable and environmentally acceptable.


In the words of Apollo Tower’s CEO Philippe Luxcey :

We were under enormous pressure to meet an extremely tight launch deadline, and given Myanmar’s limited power and transport infrastructure, the practical challenges of achieving this cannot be overstated. However, Flexenclosure’s rollout capability, along with eSite’s operational performance and efficient real-time monitoring allowed us to meet our own commitment to Telenor.”

Watch how these eSites were manufactured in Flexenclosure’s Swedish factory, and transported, installed and commissioned in Myanmar:

For more information, please visit Flexenclosure’s website.

Images and video credit: Flexenclosure

Thin Plate Pure Lead (TPPL) Battery

Thin Plate Pure Lead (TPPL) Battery

NETWORK COMPONENT: Energy Provisioning


While the use of smart (or electronic) batteries has been increasing in recent years, lead-acid batteries remain the industry standard. Thin Plate Pure Lead (TPPL) is a type of lead-acid battery made up of ultra-thin plates made from almost 100% pure, virgin lead. This represents a significant step forward compared to the more commonly used Valve Regulated Lead Acid (VRLA) battery and promises to reduce the OPEX of connecting rural areas.

Most lead-acid batteries use alloys such as calcium, and tend to carry additional lead thickness as sacrificial material to ensure the battery can survive as corrosion eats the grid away. This practice is largely effective but results in a thicker plate. This matters, as thick plates do not discharge as efficiently as thin ones, as the active material at the centre of the plates has limited access to the electrolyte. Non-alloy TPPL batteries use thinner electrodes, which mean more electrodes can be used within the cell, meaning a more reactive surface area.

TPPL batteries enjoy a range of advantages over VRLA batteries. These include:

  • They last longer TPPL batteries offer a 10-year life expectancy, 3 times more than VRLA batteries. This is partly because there is less anodic corrosion, which is one of the main causes of battery failure.
  • Greater temperature tolerance: TPPL batteries are less susceptible to temperature extremes and can be used from -40 to 160 Fahrenheit. This is important as it means the battery can be deployed outdoors in hot, rural environments. They also have a lower internal resistance and exhibit a more gradual increase in temperature, giving more time to discover and remedy any potential problems
  • High power/energy density: The thinner grid/plate design in TPPL batteries mean that they have approximately 30% more power density and 11% more energy density than VRLA batteries of the same size.
  • Quicker recovery times: The thin-plate grids in TPPL batteries offer a larger plate surface area and shortened ionic pathways, resulting in an overall reduction in internal impedance, which means they can accept greater charge current in less than half the time of conventional batteries.

As a result, TPPL batteries offer a longer service life, a reduced maintenance cost and are easier to charge and recharge, minimizing downtime. This means that they are also far more economical than VRLA. This matters as a large part of the costs faced by mobile operators when connecting rural areas is the high OPEX of running these sites, a significant part of which is high-energy costs (including the replacement of batteries).


TPPL battery technology therefore represents a solution to one of the key challenges faced by emerging market mobile operators.

TPPL batteries are currently an early stage product. EnerSys, an early front-runner of the technology, is however active in the space and is selling a range of TPPL battery products, with a particular niche for the military industry. For instance, EnerSys deployed a $39m equivalent TPPL submarine battery supply contract with US Navy, and are negotiating contracts with additional navies.

For more information, please visit TPPL’s website.

Images credit: EnerSys

ElectraGen-ME: Methanol Fuel Cell

ElectraGen-ME: Methanol Fuel Cell

NETWORK COMPONENT: Energy Provisioning

Ballard launched the ElectraGen-ME methanol fuel cell in 2012 as an important innovation for mobile service delivery, especially in remote areas. ElectraGen-ME can be utilised for both stationary back-up power and prime power, and is particularly benefi­cial when onsite storage or handling of bottled hydrogen is not feasible. The fuel cell utilizes a mix of methanol (62%) and de-ionized water (38%), whereas traditional fuel cell technology relies on pure hydrogen.


  • Small footprint, quiet operation and low weight allows for flexible installation in dense urban environments and on rooftops;
  • Lower total cost of ownership compared to batteries and diesel generators for runtimes exceeding 6 hours;
  • High efficiency operation even at low power demands;
  • Liquid fuel simplifying supply infrastructure and allows system to be re-fuelled while operating;
  • Highly reliable system with minimal preventive maintenance requirements.


electragen_2Methanol fuel cell is a product directed mainly at actors in emerging markets, both for off-grid and limited grid-access sites. Since diesel is considered inefficient, expensive and environmentally unfriendly for running base stations, the methanol fuel cell can be a good alternative for power supply. As the system is modular in nature, mobile operators in emerging markets could utilise ElectroGen for expanding its network in rural and semi-urban areas.

One example of methanol fuel cell technology being deployed on the ground is from East Timor, where the mobile telecommunications sector has been expanding rapidly to keep up with growing subscriber demand. Telkomcel, which launched its network in 2013, installed more than 90 base stations with Ballard’s methanol fuel cell systems. Since deployment, these systems have delivered an average site availability greater than 99.9%.

Similarly in India, Reliance Jio, the largest 4G network in India, deployed 100 base stations with Ballard’s methanol fuel cell, after a 12 months’ trail of assessing performance and viability of different fuel cell models.


For more information, please visit Ballard’s website.

Images credit: Ballard