UCSB professors Elizabeth Belding and Lisa Parks recently received $1.2 million in grant money from the National Science Foundation as part of a project to improve Internet access in Macha, Zambia, a rural town in sub-Saharan Africa.
Parks, a film and media studies professor, and Belding, a computer science professor, will receive the funding over a four-year period. The grant will be used to support UCSB graduate students researching and designing technology used in the project, as well as those engaged in fieldwork.
“Macha is a remote village with little infrastructure: no paved roads, very few houses have electricity and running water,” Veljko Pejovic, a UCSB graduate student working with Belding on the project, said. “The place is unique as it has its own wireless network that, through a satellite link, connects it to the Internet,”
According to Parks, Macha had existing Internet access available to only a select few prior to the project. The city, in Zambia’s Southern Province, has a population of about 130,000, but only about 300 have Internet access.
Consequently, the team will begin their work in Macha by attempting to expand Internet use in the village, bringing people there into the digital age.
According to David Lloyd Johnson, a UCSB graduate student assisting in the project, the project’s lasting success may be more complicated than simply installing Internet.
“You don’t move into the village for a week, install some great pieces of technology and then leave after you’ve ticked everything off your checklist,” Johnson wrote in an e-mail.
Parks said that local involvement is critical to the success of their mission.
“We want to develop a network that’s sustainable … Local people will be integrally involved in the project,” Parks said.
Developing that network will require new innovations. Every device that sends a signal — televisions, radios, cell phones, TV remotes — uses different frequency bands in order to avoid interference. With so many new devices being produced, the radio spectrum is getting crowded. This crowding poses a challenge for those attempting to introduce new channels of communication.
Accordingly, the team plans to use currently unclaimed frequencies to secure universal Internet access in the village.
“New spectrum is becoming available in the TV bands. As TV transitions from analog to digital, this frees up spectrum that can be used for communications in these bands,” Belding wrote in an e-mail. “In the case of rural Africa, there is little TV transmission in the first place, allowing for many opportunities to support communications in TV bands. Our goal is to design new technology, including the right communication protocols, to support data and voice communications in this spectrum.”
If these solutions are successful, the team hopes to replicate them around the world.
“The goal of our work is to provide technical solutions that provide connectivity in a reliable, cost-efficient way, and reach even the world’s most remote areas,” Pejovic wrote in an e-mail. “Our goal is not to go to Africa and deploy this technology to a single village — although we do plan this as an intermediate step — but to create a global solution that can easily be deployed anywhere.”
If the team is successful in improving Internet access in Macha, their methods may be duplicated in other rural communities around the world, which, according to Belding, could have meaningful consequences for the people living there.
“Computer science has many humanitarian benefits, and this is simply one of many examples of how you can put computer science skills to work to help improve the quality of life of many people,” Belding wrote in an e-mail. “As rural communities get access to the Internet, they get better access to education, health care and commercial opportunities … Internet access is amazingly empowering for all cultures.”