Everybody is talking about wireless communications, these days. Even school-going kids are eagerly awaiting the arrival of 5G in their cities. To find a restaurant, to check the least-traffic route or to let our friends know our whereabouts, we rely on wireless networks for one too many things. Indeed, we do take it so much for granted. However, how many of us realise that there are places where service providers shudder to go, where cellular towers are only a distant dream… the deepest jungles, the empty Arctic, the highest altitudes, the barren desserts, the stuffiest mines and the oh-so-fantastic outer space that we all dream about? On the other hand, these are the areas where wireless communication is imperative for success, for survival. As a result, the concerned organisations try untiringly to find all possible means to connect such terrains. With much difficulty some locations have been connected to base stations, while some still remain out of reach. Most success stories too have been possible, not with common commercial networks, but with cutting-edge technologies, radical disruptions and smart changes to existing technologies.

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Electrical engineering graduate students Hovannes Kulhandjian and Zahed Hossain in the lab (boat) of Tommaso Melodia’s WINES Lab Research on Lake Erie, near Buffalo; Photographer: Douglas Levere (Courtesy: University at Buffalo)

In this story, we look at some such tough terrains, and technologies to connect those.

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Deep sea dialogues
Radio waves, so commonly used on land, are severely crippled under water due to limited range and instability. For some time now, organisations such as the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have been using acoustic waves or sound waves to communicate with tsunami sensors and other such underwater paraphernalia. The problem with this, however, is that such a special non-standard sound-based network cannot directly connect to widespread public networks, making it impossible for messages to be quickly sent to the public or other concerned organisations. This is similar to the problem faced by wireless sensor networks some years ago, till IPv6 over low-power wireless personal area networks (6LoWPAN) became a standardised Internet protocol.

Realising a similar need to connect the underwater world to the Internet, a team from the University at Buffalo, New York, has developed and proposed a new Internet protocol (IP) compatible protocol stack for undersea modems. In a technical paper on the new technology, the authors propose an adaptation layer located between the data link layer and the network layer, such that the original transmission control protocol/Internet protocol (TCP/IP) network and transport layers are preserved unaltered to the maximum extent. The adaptation layer performs header compression and data fragmentation to guarantee energy efficiency. Furthermore, the proposed architecture includes mechanisms for auto-configuration based on router proxies that can avoid human-in-the-loop and save energy when broadcast is needed.

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The proposed architectural framework was implemented as a Linux device driver for a commercial underwater network modem SM-75 by Teledyne Benthos. It was tested by dropping two 18.1kg (40-pound) sensors into Lake Erie, near Buffalo, and communicating with them wirelessly using a conventional laptop. This test is a precursor, showing the possibility of implementing the technology in deep waters too.

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Sensors and other devices connected using this technology, which they hope to develop into a standard, would be able to readily communicate with other commercial, terrestrial wireless networks—relevant information will be available to any authorised person with a smartphone or computer connected to the Internet! So, if a sensor network detects a tsunami, warnings can be directly issued to all concerned officials or even the public. Sea animals can be monitored. Sly submarines and drug trafficking can be easily prevented. A lot more can be done, basically because the proposed undersea wireless network would be able to connect to the Internet!

Outer space Internet
When we see something new, we want to say lots about it! That is human tendency. Imagine how much an astronaut would want to communicate about the totally unexplored frontiers he beholds. Radio-based communications, of course, is possible from outer space, but NASA felt that it was not efficient enough to transmit heavy videos and data loads from spacecrafts, and so they set about exploring laser-based optical communications. Around a year ago, NASA set about testing a high data-rate laser communication system aboard its lunar spacecraft, the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE). The tests were phenomenally successful, opening the possibility of replacing radio systems with laser systems for faster satellite communications and deep space communications with human or robotic exploration teams.

During the tests, NASA observed that a laser beam sent from an Earth station to LADEE could relay data at the rate of 20Mbps. The downlink, from the spacecraft to the Earth station, could relay data at the rate of 622Mbps. The concerned team noted that six-times-faster communication from the moon was possible with laser instruments that were just half the mass, half the weight and used 25 per cent lesser power compared to radio equipment. Implementing this system in future spacecrafts would make it possible to explore Mercury, Mars and much more of outer space by relaying HD videos captured there, or even telepresence that allows scientists to virtually be there!

Close on the heels of this phenomenal success, NASA is expected to launch the Laser Communications Relay Demonstration (LCRD; http://esc.gsfc.nasa.gov/267/LCRD.html) sometime in 2017, which will test the success of this communication system over a multi-year trial period.

Scaling great heights
Humans seem to be finding some means to communicate with each other from the nooks and corners of the Earth. While at one point of time, mountaineers were totally cut off from base after a certain altitude, today they can communicate even from the middle of nowhere with satellite phones and satellite constellations like Iridium.

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In 2012, 46-year old Simone Moro, master of over 50 mountaineering expeditions, set his mind on conquering Nanga Parbat, known in trekking circles as the ‘Killer Mountain’ under harsh Himalayan winter conditions. Till then, this peak had been impossible to reach in the winters because the difference in height between its summit and the nearest base camp is the largest in the world, and it is notorious for its unpredictable snow storms. What made Moro think he could do it?

Since 12 years before that, he had been using the Thuraya mobile satellite communications equipment with support from Intermatica, and with its help he became the first alpinist to conquer Mount Everest with a satellite phone. He was confident he could reach up Nanga too, with the help of a similar communication system.

His hunch worked. On the journey to Nanga, Moro records having escaped a killer storm. When he contacted the weather forecast centre in Austria with his satellite phone, he was alerted of the incoming storm, which helped him and his partner to outsmart the invincible downpour of snow, and ultimately reach the summit of Nanga Parbat.

For a long time now, satellite phones have been used by defence organisations for coordinating with personnel posted in remote areas. In India too, satellite communication is used mainly by the defence forces. In fact, there is such a great demand on this front that the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has been pushing the need for Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL) to set up a new gateway for satellite phone services, which will address the rising requirement from security forces.

It is also interesting to note that in September this year, the media reported about the Indian government’s intent to modify policies, allowing tourists to use satellite phones in the Himalayas and other regions of India, including parts of Arunachal Pradesh, where conventional network connectivity is not good. This will provide a further boost for satellite communications in the country.

On the device front too, satellite phones are now much better than they were a few years ago. Modern instruments can withstand extreme temperatures, harsh downpours and even terrible falls. Their communication capability is also much higher.

The complaints people usually have against satellite phones are that they are a bit chunky and also do not offer many value-added services and apps. However, satellite service provider Globalstar has recently offered an interesting service called Sat-Fi, which creates a satellite hotspot for any Wi-Fi enabled device. This can essentially turn any smartphone, tablet or computer into a satellite phone! So, you can enjoy all the conveniences of a smartphone at normal times and resort to satellite-based voice and data connectivity when cellular service is not available in the vicinity.

The coldest corners too
Just as the denseness of the Amazons deters service providers, so does the emptiness of the Arctic, making explorers—and defence organisations—to seek alternate means of communications. As one of the effects of global warming, a lot of sea lanes are getting opened up in the summer, which offers not only more opportunity to explore but security risks as well. In such a situation, better communication is highly essential not just to keep in touch and coordinate with others but also to use/develop maps and such applications. This has made the US Navy and the Coast Guard to explore means to improve the communications architecture there.

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Like in the mountains and other unreachable areas, satellite communication is the best option here too—and has been used since many years. However, the legacy satellite infrastructure, the UHF Follow-On, was found to be unreliable in latitudes higher than 65 degrees north. As these satellites are in geosynchronous orbits above the Equator, their beams cover most of the Earth, but fade in the polar regions.

In the near future, the Navy is betting on its mobile user objective system (MUOS) and the commercial satellite system Iridium, which is set to launch its next-generation fleet of spacecraft in 2015. Two of the MUOS satellites are already in orbit, and two will be up soon. These MUOS satellites will have more beams, more power and a waveform based on 3G-wideband-spread spectrum. Therefore these will be capable of bending around the curvature of the Earth. The reach of the current satellites has been tested well above 80 degrees now. They provide 24-hour coverage of the entire Northwest Passage. Although the communication used is narrow-band, they were able to send decently large data files of around 289MB. Once the remaining satellites are also ready, there will be a seamless handover from one spacecraft to another as one satellite rises in orbit and the other falls.

When their new satellite system is up, Iridium is expected to be of great help, supplementing the coverage of the MUOS satellites and extending connectivity to explorers and civilians too. Iridium’s 66 satellites will operate in low-Earth orbit, ensuring that every point on the planet is covered by at least one satellite. That means you and I will be crossed by their beams too, wherever we are.

Well, magical beams, invisible signals, bright balloons, unheard acoustics, all these wonderful communication technologies ensure we are always within reach of help. Should we be in danger, we can be in touch with anybody from anywhere and access any information whenever and wherever we want. The world is in our hands—literally—whether we are deep within the bellies of the Earth or high up in space. What was once the dream of kindergarten kids later became the realm of scientists and the play field of industrialists, only to become reality today!


The author is a technically-qualified freelance writer, editor and hands-on mom based in Chennai

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