Wimax Brings Voice to Vietnam Villages

Residents of the country's many remote outposts rely on tourist dollars. Wireless service will connect them to travellers and the rest of the world

According to World Bank statistics, over 70% of Vietnam's 82 million people live outside urban communities. As in other developing countries, access to modern telecommunications in many rural areas remains absent.

Ta Van village is a case in point: situated 9km from the town of Sapa—a major tourist destination for travelers in northwest Vietnam—Ta Van welcomes tourists who trek to the village and spend the night at one of the numerous guest houses.

These travelers bring an important source of income to the villagers, whose monthly per capita income from farming is about $13. Besides rearing farm animals and growing rice and maize, some of the 150 households in Ta Van also earn about $50 per month from the 40 or so guests who stay overnight at the guest houses.

Ta Van is thus deeply dependent on the outside world, both as a market for its produce and as a source of tourist dollars. Establishing communication links to Sapa and beyond is increasingly important to the villagers. Though picturesque, the area's mountainous terrain makes construction of a fixed-line or fiber-optic network economically unviable.

To date, none of the households in the village have access to a fixed-line phone, other than a phone in the Ta Van People's Committee office and another at the communal post office. Mobile phone coverage is also spare, while broadband internet access is non-existent.

To overcome these limitations for Ta Van, the answer lies in delivering broadband internet and voice services over a single wireless network to remote locations via Wimax.

Working with Vietnam Data Communication Company (VDC), a local service provider that is part of Vietnam Post and Telecommunication Group (VNPT), and the US Agency for International Development (USAID), Intel used a combination of Wimax and a geosynchronous satellite to beam wireless broadband to this remote village.

The Ta Van solution works by distributing one satellite signal to multiple end-users via a Wimax micro base station. ShinCorp's IPSTAR satellite, which offers 2 Mbps of bandwidth on the downlink connection and a 512-kpbs uplink, is being used to "spot-beam" internet connectivity down to a Wimax/Wi-Fi network on the ground. A single Airspan 3.3-GHz Wimax base station receives IPSTAR's spot beam and then distributes it throughout the village via an omni-directional antenna. Twelve Wimax subscriber stations located around the village then route internet connectivity to PCs and VoIP phones in numerous locations, including the Ta Van medical clinic, post office, school, guest houses as well as residencies.

Bernd Nordhausen, solution architect at Intel Asia Pacific, says IPSTAR was selected as the satellite provider because of its availability across the Asia-Pacific region and its cost advantage. According to Nordhausen, the implementation in Ta Van is a second phase Wimax rollout in Vietnam, following an earlier successful trial in the nearby provincial capital of Lao Cai, where Intel, VDC and USAID used Wimax linked to a fiber-optic backhaul to bring broadband internet access and applications to 20 different public and private community sites.

"The objective of the Ta Van deployment is to create a viable model for rural connectivity, and demonstrate broadband can be delivered anywhere at reasonable cost," Nordhausen says. Beginning in 2006, Intel, USAID and VDC formed a public-private partnership in a joint effort to use Wimax to bring broadband internet access to the distant and remote agricultural areas in Vietnam. The deployment in both Lao Cai and Ta Van, which is supported by the Vietnam Public-Utility Telecommunication Service Fund (VTF), is undertaken as part of USAID's Last Mile Initiative, a global program launched in 2004 to bring modern communication infrastructure to farmers and small businesses in rural areas that have been bypassed by major telecom networks. Intel also has its own rural development effort, the World Ahead Program, a $1 billion, four-year initiative to improved technology access to developing communities.

Nordhausen noted that although it is too early for a comprehensive impact assessment study of the Wimax solution at Ta Van, early indicators are positive.

With the completion of the deployment, the 700 villagers in this area—which previously had the lowest teledensity in Lao Cai province—now have economical access to internet services. Among them VoIP service is gaining in popularity. Data services are also proven popular, with local users downloading an average of 1.5 gigabit of data each day.

"This is a huge amount for a network consisting only a dozen of end-user locations and particularly considering it is delivered over satellite," Nordhausen notes.

While the deployment helps connect Ta Van with the surrounding region and the rest of the world, it also introduces new value-added services associated with the tourism businesses that hold potential for improved economic growth.

At the guest houses, due to the availability of internet access, tourists now stay in Ta Van longer and spend more money. They can use of the broadband internet connection for as little as $1. The Ta Van Wimax deployment also provides a solid baseline for improving existing services such as health and agriculture in the rural community.

Staff at the health center, for example, now use the internet extensively to search for medical and pharmaceutical information. The center even documented a recent incident where a baby developed adverse reactions to a routine vaccination and information sourced from the internet diffused the situation, Nordhausen notes.

With the success of Ta Van deployment, Intel, USAID and VDC are planning to extend the project to more remote villages in Vietnam this year, with use of similar wireless architectures trialed in both Ta Van and Lao Cai. The ultimate goal is to scale it across Vietnam, where there are hundreds, if not thousands, of villages which are eligible for the VTF.

Nordhausen says while the Ta Van deployment provides a valuable laboratory for addressing a range of issues relating to providing broadband internet and voice services to remote-rural locations across Vietnam, it also demonstrates a viable solution set for most the Southeast Asia region being served by the IPSTAR satellite system.

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