Edtech in India

ByjusWhen broadband arrives, apps follow. Many initial uses of cellphones are for personal enjoyment (79% of time spent in India is on entertainment, search social and messaging). With time, however, other useful services involving health, education, finance and government services become popular.

As one example of this progression, the education technology (“edtech”) sector in India is now booming. The firm Byju’s, for example, has released an education app already downloaded over 14 million times (with 900,000 paid users). Byju’s uses innovative curriculum, such as a Bollywood dance troupe rhythmically moving to demonstrate the Pythagorean Theorem. If students don’t have a sufficient internet connection to download materials, Byju’s will send them a memory card with appropriate resources.

Byju’s boasts prominent investors including Sequoia Capital and Tencent and a valuation of $800 million.

India faces profound challenges in education: over half of fifth graders, for example, can’t read at a second grade level. The edtech sector is hoping to help.

Airborne Wireless Network

airborneIn the rush to expand broadband, companies are developing satellites, drones, balloons — and even outfitting LandCruisers.

One group, however, is taking a sensible-sounding approach utilizing a resource that is already airborne: commercial aircraft.  The Airborne Wireless Network proposes to outfit hundreds (eventually thousands) of aircraft with telecommunications equipment capable to communicating with both ground stations and other aircraft. The “mini-satellites” would form a mesh network serving worldwide data and communications service providers.

The firm has tested initial prototypes using two aircraft, and plans a 20 aircraft test in early 2018. The anticipated global rollout is scheduled for 2021.

LandCruiser Emergency Network Project

cruise70% of Australia lacks cell coverage. Even remote areas, however, do boast lots of Toyota LandCruisers crisscrossing the terrain.

Flinders University, along with Toyota and Saatchi & Saatchi Australia have proposed outfitting LandCruisers with communications hubs capable of “store and forward” messaging. Each “mobile hotspot” would include wifi, UHF and mesh networking capabilities with a range of 25 km. Messages would be passed from vehicle to vehicle until reaching an internet-connected base station.

The LandCruiser Emergency Network wouldn’t provide true broadband, but would offer messaging services, especially useful during emergencies.

Low Earth Orbit and Steerable Antennas

satThe advantage of geosynchronous orbit is that satellites appears stationary. Satellite dishes or antennas tracking the satellite don’t need to move. Any orbits other than geosynchronous require antennas to move to track the satellite. Historically, this added a lot to the complexity and cost of the antenna (although the Soviets employed the “Molniya Orbit” for decades which required dishes to nod up and down from the horizon).

As companies contemplate placing thousands of satellites into low earth orbit, and all of the advantages that confers (less latency, smaller satellites, lower cost), a major challenge appears: How do you design an antenna to track satellites, including frequent handoffs from one satellite to another? And if the antenna is moving in a plane or car, how does that factor in?

Fortunately, there is great progress in a new generation of “steerable antennas”, also described as a “phased array antennas”. Researchers have essentially built the “steering” elements, until now managed through motors, onto a chip. Flat panel antennas are being designed which can track satellites, including through the frequent passing from one to another.

The technology is well-demonstrated, and a number of agreements are being signed between antenna technology firms and satellite companies, such as recent agreements between ALCAN and SES or between Phasor and LeoSat.

Technology firms are still wrestling with costs for steerable flat panel antennas, although with millions likely to be purchased for broadband access, companies are optimistic that prices will fall to a few hundred dollars.

Country-specific Communications Satellites

bangabandhuSpaceX, OneWeb, O3b, and other satellite network companies get a lot of attention for their plans to launch dozens (or perhaps thousands) of communications satellites in coming years.

Relatively less attention is paid to country-specific satellite launches that also have significant impact on expanding broadband.

For example, in early April, SpaceX is scheduled to launch Bangabandhu-1, a communications satellite for the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission. The $250 million satellite will provide broadcasting and telecommunications services to rural areas in Bangladesh from geostationary orbit.

Later in April, the Chinese are launching Apstar 6C, and the Russians are launching Blagovest 12L, both providing (among other things) telecommunications and mobile broadband services to rural areas in China and Russia.

As is always true with satellites in geostationary orbit, both latency and costs tend to be high. That said, each of these satellites (and other country-specific satellites scheduled for launch later this year) play an important role in the expansion of global broadband.

China to Launch Internet Satellite Network

rocketChina has announced plans to launch an internet satellite network, putting it in competition with SpaceX, OneWeb, O3b, and other internet satellite contenders.

The Chinese “Hongyun Project” plans to launch 300 satellites into low earth orbit starting in 2018, with the network operational in 2022 and complete by 2025.

Earlier this year China also successfully demonstrated “quantum encryption” communications by satellite, potentially representing an initial step towards a global quantum internet.

Bridge International Academies

bridgeHundreds of millions of children have no school to attend. Hundreds of millions more attend schools with poor facilities, minimal supplies, and frequently absent teachers.

Because of this dire situation, a number of countries are experimenting with international private schools that focus on new technologies, broadband linkages, standardized curriculum, rigorous evaluation, and low cost.

The best known of these is probably Bridge International Academies, whose high profile is partly due to an august list of investors, including the Gates Foundation, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, Omidyar Network, and World Bank. Bridge currently operates in five countries: Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria, Liberia, and India. Over 100,000 students attend one of more than 500 Bridge schools. Bridge aims to educate 10,000,000 pupils by 2025.

Bridge provides teachers with a tablet that includes all lesson plans in highly scripted formats. Bridge rigorously collects data about teacher and student progress. Administrative cost are kept low due to centralization of many tasks; each school requires just one administrator with a smartphone app. Costs for students depend on region and economic status. In Uganda, for example, parents pay about $66 per year, which is much cheaper than other private schools and roughly on par with “free” public schools that require a number of purchases.

Bridge points to studies which demonstrate that its students out-perform public school children.

Simultaneously, private school networks — and Bridge International Academies in particular — are lightening rods for an exceptionally high level of controversy. Bridge has had periodic conflict with ministries of education, teachers unions, and other organizations with strong opinions about education.

Location Services in Developing Countries

locationWhere am I?

Answering this most basic of questions can represent a major challenge in developing countries. In regions with no maps, no addresses, sometimes no names, it is difficult to know location. And without location, it is impossible to meaningfully engage with the rest of the planet.

New technologies offer powerful solutions regarding location services.

First, and most fundamental, is global mapping. Google Maps, ESRI, and other services offer detailed traditional and satellite view maps. When conventional maps don’t exist in a location, researchers can now easily add them. For example, vaccine researchers at the Gates Foundation  analyzed satellite images for regions not yet immunized — often because of inaccurate maps — in order to build accurate vaccination plans.

Second, new technologies can help define property rights. Over a billion households still live without property rights to their homes that are secure, registered, documented and tradable. These “hidden” rights are economically significant — likely exceeding $10 trillion in value. New registries are helping. The World Bank and others have invested in open cadastre systemsDrone technology can play a role. Even distributed blockchain technologies may become increasingly useful.

Finally, how does one describe their location if no addresses exist? By providing GPS coordinates of two nine digit numbers? A British firm called what3words has a clever solution. They divide the planet into a grid of 3 meters x 3 meters and have assigned each square a unique three word identifier (I’m currently writing, for example, from this beautiful corner of the planet: searching.colonialist.suggested).

Why 5G Won’t Help Poor Regions

5gDeveloping countries often “leapfrog” technologies. Many regions, for example, can skip landlines and go straight to cellular. Many regions can skip the electrical grid and go straight to solar.

Will this “leapfrog” also happen direct to the latest cellular technology, 5G?


Previous standards — 2G, 3G, 4G — all placed equipment on cell towers typically spaced no closer than a mile apart (and often much farther — cellphones can reach towers tens of miles away). Even at this density, however, the economics for building out a network often don’t work for serving rural areas in developing countries (or even in developed countries in many cases).

5G, unlike its predecessors, requires much denser installation of cell stations — around 500 feet apart in urban regions. This is about 100 times denser than previous standards. The benefit is that 5G can be 100 times faster than 4G, connect 100 times as many devices, and be five times quicker to connect.

By the way, placing hundreds of thousands — perhaps millions — of new cell stations in neighborhoods is unleashing many battles. These are on top of the raging technology battles already underway in defining the 5G standards.

While the poor half of the planet mostly has 2G, is converting to 3G, and aspires to 4G, new 5G standards are poorly suited poor, rural areas. This is another example of the barriers that cellular will have in serving the poorest — and a further reason that alternative connectivity through satellites, balloons, or other means will be necessary.

Fake News is About to Get Way Worse

fakeVideos play a major role in fake news. Online video content can be repurposed from other tragedies to foment outrage (or even from video games). Fake videos can employ actors. In the US, tragedies are often followed by proliferating conspiracy videos.

Unfortunately, the fake video problem is about to get a lot worse.

New tools are allowing individuals to quickly, cheaply, and effectively substitute faces in videos in ways which are extremely believable. The videos, termed “deepfakes”, are popular in specialty communities on Reddit and elsewhere, but are about to become much more mainstream.

Those wishing to sow dissent or chaos now have a new, incredibly powerful tool at their disposal. What happens when an authentic appearing video appears of Donald Trump screaming for a nuclear attack?

Unfortunately, the tools to identify fake videos aren’t keeping up with the technology to produce them. Experts in identifying fakes still need to magnify images frame by frame to analyze shadow patterns, for example.

Educating people about the new technology will be necessary — although unfortunately this will have the side effect of questioning the veracity of all video.