Dr Fisseha Mekuria, research group leader of the CSIR’s wireless computing and networking research group.
Internet access can make a difference and yet stumbling blocks remain. How can this be overcome? Research and development (R&D) to address broadband connectivity for communities can make a difference. The CSIR’s wireless computing and networking research group has taken up this challenge through its focus on enabling wireless broadband network technologies such as cognitive radio and green networks.
Dr Fisseha Mekuria, who leads this group of researchers at the CSIR Meraka Institute, explains, “We need to work towards achieving access to efficient communications for South African communities. According to the South African Communications Forum (SACF) 2011 report, less than 10% of South Africans have broadband Internet access.
“A large percentage of the population in Africa is expected to get Internet connectivity through mobile and wireless data networks. Hence R&D on next generation radio technologies with efficient energy and spectrum utilisation have the potential to promote reliable wireless broadband connectivity and access to Internet-based services.
“This will help to create a knowledge-based service industry to improve the education and health care sector with new technologies and information and communications technology-based content and services."
According to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) 2011 ICT Index, there is a clear link between Internet access, educational standards and enabling wealth-creation. Mekuria confirms, “Wireless information access and delivery is continuously generating new industries with significant revenue. Sectors such as mining, power-generation, agricultural and process industries are benefitting from wireless information and communications technology (ICT) and sensor integration, for improved safety, control and operational efficiency.”
Mekuria and his group are moving fast to establish a critical R&D mass in terms of cognitive radio and green networks (CR & GN) which are enablers for dynamic spectrum access (DSA). An MoU (memorandum of understanding) with the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) sets out the terms and agreed possible areas of research collaboration and test-bed development with industrial partners.
A cognitive radio network is a wireless communication network, which is aware of its ambient radio environment and utilises the awareness to perform spectrum-efficient wireless networking to provide sufficient bandwidth for rural wireless communication and a minimum of interference to other users in the vicinity. A cognitive radio network operates in such a way that interference to primary or unlicensed co-users is kept to a minimum. Similarly, GNs are intelligent networks utilising the ambient information to minimise energy consumption of the wireless network.
Dr Thomas Olwal, a member of the research group who was recently awarded a PhD on the topic of energy-efficient networking, is poised to make this possible. The research group plans to implement CR & GN systems in the television white spaces (TVWS) spectrum area (temporarily unused portions of TV spectrum) to test and implement spectrum and energy-efficient algorithms for wireless mesh networks.
While systems are being tested and deployed, there is already a move to build geo-location spectrum databases, with ICASA providing wireless devices with location-based primary spectrum user information. This is the first phase of testing cognitive radio networks and is being undertaken in both Europe and the US.
“Working closely with ICASA will ensure that our R&D outcomes are aligned to and can support government regulatory requirements and developments,” Mekuria confirms. Spectrum areas in the TV band spectrum (100MHz – 1 GHz) are being considered as the first phase cognitive radio network test-bed with the TVWS technology. Studies will be carried out in collaboration with ICASA, on the state and use of the TV radio spectrum, including efficiency of utilisation, re-farming, DSA-licensing regimes, economic considerations and dynamic spectrum management techniques.
“Through our activities, we intend to propel R&D on cognitive radio technologies and dynamic spectrum access to the forefront of the national research agenda and that of regional African operators,” he states.
The ICASA MoU encourages collaborative work groups to be formed with tertiary institutes for the study of CRN, DSA and SWS research areas. Mekuria has been awarded seed funding for research and human capital development (HCD) in the area of smart radio technology by the CSIR R&D office for a university collaboration project with the University of Johannesburg (where he is also an Adjunct Professor) and the Tshwane University of Technology.
“In the long term, it is the desire of both the CSIR and ICASA that such a collaborative research project be extended to include the universities of Pretoria and Witwatersrand, as well as other higher educational institutions. The collaboration aims to accelerate research test-bed and HCD in next generation smart radio technologies, with applications to improve bandwidth capacity, energy efficiency and range of existing wireless mesh network deployments for wireless broadband connectivity in rural communities.”
Mekuria plans to do much more than influence the local agenda. He states, “We have set our sights on influencing the outcomes of world radio conferences by becoming part of the ITU Radio study groups and putting forward issues for considerations as agenda items to promote CR and DSA technologies relevant for improved wireless broadband access in emerging economies.”
Internationally, the wireless computing and networking research group collaborates with the University of California at Santa Barbara, the University of Botswana and Wireless@KTH, a Centre at the Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden.
The research group participates in the European Union (EU)’s European Cooperation in Science and Technology (COST) standardisation activities in the technology and socio-economic aspects of cognitive radio networks and dynamic spectrum access. It is also participating in the EU future networks, the Wireless World Research Forum (WWRF) and wireless research infrastructure projects.
Research group members Dr Albert Lysko, Moshe Masonta and David Johnson took the lead internationally by initiating and organising a full-day special session on cognitive radio and dynamic spectrum access at Africon 2011 held in Zambia in September 2011. This was the first African research forum on cognitive radio.
To accelerate research and HCD in CR and smart radio technologies, a workshop on 18 April 2012 is being organised by the CSIR, in collaboration with universities and industrial stakeholders. It takes place at the CSIR Knowledge Commons and will explore the R&D and HCD requirements to achieve the goal of maximum broadband penetration in South Africa and the region by 2020.