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TUCAN3G initiative opens the door for small operators to connect rural and isolated areas around the world

UPC-led European project brings low-cost 3G to heart of Peruvian jungle

“We need communication. Please bring it to us”. This was the request the members of ethnic Huitoto made to Josep Vidal, a professor and researcher at the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya · Barcelona Tech (UPC) and director of the European TUCAN3G project. The project, which is now coming to an end, has demonstrated the economic and technological feasibility of introducing 3G mobile service in remote areas, at a low cost and in open-air environments, such as the Napo River basin and Balsapuerto, in Loreto department, in the heart of the Peruvian jungle.

Communicating with grown-up children living in Lima or outside Peru and getting to know grandchildren via video calls; coordinating with a hospital toxarxa tucan3g al cor de la selva peruana arrange the evacuation of patients; contacting a supplier to negotiate the price to be paid for a harvest or avoid running out of products or food; taking advantage of the convenience of online banking; or simply playing, sharing and having new, enriching experiences through the Internet (via a mobile phone, and from the place where you live)—until recently, these were things that residents of remote rural communities in the Loreto department of Peru, an area not served by major telecommunications operators, could only dream of. That is what the residents of this part of the Peruvian jungle say. Now, though, thanks to the European TUCAN3G project, they have emerged from this isolation and no longer have to travel kilometres in search of coverage or to reach the nearest place they can communicate from.

Lenivel Conde, a nurse in the region, summed up the wishes of local residents: “Now we’re hoping this isn’t just a temporary measure. We want it to be permanent”. Martin André Fierro, a rural doctor, said: “Being able to communicate has helped us coordinate treatment of patients. We’ve even been able to arrange for patients to be evacuated to hospitals by river or by air”. According to Augusto Tito Tapunilla, a local teacher, the TUCAN3G technology makes it much easier to contact suppliers of various products: “We just send an email or WhatsApp message and they send us what we need right away. That way we never run out”

The European TUCAN3G project—led by Josep Vidal, a researcher with the UPC’s Department of Signal Theory and Communications—has demonstrated the economic and technological feasibility of introducing 3G mobile service in remote areas of the Peruvian jungle where local residents live in very precarious situations. The initial goal was to set up a pilot platform to connect four of twenty communities located in a 400 square kilometre area, but the project has achieved much more than that. Two platforms have been installed to provide 3G coverage to Tachsa Curaray, Tuta Pishco, Negro Urco, Libertad, Varadero and San Juan—six communities along the Napo River and in the Balsapuerto area.

The project received €1.5 million in funding from the EU’s Seventh Framework Programme and Peru’s Telecommunications Investment Fund (FITEL), and involves the participation of Spanish, European, Colombian and Peruvian companies and institutions, including international and regional telephone and telecommunications companies.

Integration of various technologies
esquema trucada des de libertad a lima, en 3gThe challenge was to deliver 3G voice and data services to remote, inaccessible areas where economic resources are limited, using low-cost devices known as femtocells—small, low-power mobile base stations with just a few channels. Roughly the size of Wi-Fi routers, these devices are very useful in rural areas that are free of the kind of man-made obstacles that affect signals in urban environments. Also, since femtocells use very little power and have self-organising capabilities, technicians are not needed to put them into operation.

Two 3G femtocells were installed in each of the six communities. The devices are connected to a long-range 802.11n Wi-Fi network based on the one already used by the Hispano-American Health Link Foundation (EHAS, one of the project partners) for healthcare purposes and telemedicine applications in the region. This approach made it possible to take advantage of the towers used by EHAS (19 m high and 30–70 km apart) to connect the 3G femtocells installed in each community via a series of jumps that carry signals to the mobile operator’s backbone network. The diagram below shows the route a 3G signal follows to travel from Libertad to Lima. In the case of the Napo River basin, connections are made via a satellite that efficiently concentrates the traffic of signals originating in communities in the basin.

Thanks to the TUCAN3G project, communities in the region now have access to services associated with 3G mobile technology for voice and data transmission. The project has succeeded in integrating and improving various technologies to deploy a low-cost communication system. Power consumption is also low, which is important because only solar energy is available.

The business model developed for the project demonstrates that the proposed solution is an economically sustainable way to progressively introduce broadband voice and data services in communities with populations under 250, in contrast to existing solutions, which require a population of at least 1,000 to be sustainable. In recent months, the system, which has operated stably since February, has been used to make around 40 calls a day from each community. It is anticipated that the number of calls will soon increase to 80 a day for each community.

An opportunity for new initiatives
In the future, the experience gained from the TUCAN3G project—in terms of both economic viability and the technology used—could be applied in othertelèfon mòbil trucant amb tecnologia 3g rural environments and isolated areas around the world. The geography and social and economic conditions in the Amazon regions where the system has been introduced are the most challenging possible, so its economic viability in other regions is guaranteed.

The project also paves the way for new initiatives linked to 3G mobile technology that depend on having a network connection or provide services and applications for communities not served by large mobile operators. According to Professor Josep Vidal, “These companies are interested in supporting initiatives like TUCAN3G, which are the key to reaching areas where people don’t currently have access to any broadband communication system. In Peru alone, there are 5000 communities without mobile phone coverage”

Communication and development
The Andean Development Corporation will invest $1 million to deploy the TUCAN3G infrastructure in 15 communities in the Loreto area. Josep Vidal said both public and private actors will be involved, and that the process will include the participation of “rural mobile infrastructure operators, a new role, created under specific legislation, that will no doubt make a vital contribution to human development in local communities”. The TUCAN3G project is breaking the vicious circle that affects communities in the Amazon region of Peru: “Local people have low incomes, so telephone operators have had little interest in providing services. The resulting lack of communication is a significant factor behind the lack of human development and poverty”

Andrés Martínez, the technical coordinator of the project and a professor of signal theory and communications at King Juan Carlos University (URJC) in Madrid said: “Projects like this seek alternative solutions to prevent any further widening of the digital divide—not only between developed and developing countries, but between urban and rural areas within the same country. Such technologies are intended for the people who most need to be able to communicate”

The project results were published in IEEE Communications Magazine (Volume 54, Issue 7), the leading academic journal in the field of telecommunications engineering.

Eleven organisations took part in the project. The Spanish participants were the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya · Barcelona Tech (UPC) (the project coordinator), King Juan Carlos University (technical coordination), the EHAS Foundation and Telefónica International Wholesale Services (TIWS). The Peruvian institutions and companies involved were Pontifical Catholic University of Peru (PUCP), the Telecommunications Investment Fund (FITEL) and Telefónica del Perú (TdP). The Colombian participants were the University of Cauca (Unicauca) and the Regional Centre for Innovation and Productivity of Cauca (CREPIC). And the European partners were the UK company ip.access (IPA) and the Greek firm Knowledge and Innovation Consultants (KINNO).

3G and 4G coverage in rural areas of Spain in early 2015
The solutions proposed by TUCAN3G can be applied in remote rural areas anywhere. In developed countries, they make 3G and 4G deployments in such areas more economically viable. In Spain, according to data from the Ministry of Industry, Energy and Tourism (Broadband Coverage in Spain in the First Quarter of 2015; PDF file in Spanish), although 99.7% of households had 3G broadband coverage in the first quarter of 2015, the figure is significantly lower for municipalities with a population of under 500. In municipalities with a population of 101–500, 92.1% of households had 3G coverage, and in those with a population of 100 or less, only 75.6%.

As for 4G technology, which is still being deployed in Spain, average national coverage in the first quarter of 2015 was 75%, with notable differences between autonomous communities: Melilla, Madrid and Ceuta were in the lead, with coverage reaching over 95.3% of households, and Castile-La Mancha and Extremadura were trailing, with coverage of less than 43.4%.

In 2015, 4G coverage was concentrated in municipalities with populations of over 20,000 and was significantly lower in those with fewer residents. In municipalities with populations of 10,001–20,000, only 55.8% of households had 4G coverage. This trend continued for smaller communities: population 5,000–10,000, 37.3% coverage; population 2,001–5,000, 15.6%; population 1,001–2,000, 8.5%; population 501–1,000, 3.3%; population 101–500, 1.1%; and population under 100, 0.5%.

Mobile coverage figures for Catalonia are available at the website of the Catalan Ministry of Business and Knowledge.

The UPC provides Catalan leadership in ICT
TUCAN3G is the first Seventh Framework Programme project in the field of information and communication technology (ICT) to be coordinated by the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya · Barcelona Tech (UPC) in collaboration with non-EU partners. It is also a clear example of the UPC’s success in securing European projects in the field of ICT, in which it leads more projects than any other Catalan university.

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