Researching Global Access to the Internet for All (GAIA)

By: Arjuna Sathiaseelan

Date: July 1, 2014

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The Internet has crossed new frontiers—access to it has gotten both faster and relatively cheaper, with novel applications and services being offered every day. As a result, today’s Internet represents a critical infrastructure enabling remote health care, education, employment, e-governance, digital economy, social networks, and more. As such, Internet access should be universal in terms of availability and ability to contribute to the wider community, thereby enabling true digital inclusion to all.

Although this vision is shared among both major stakeholders and global governments, the reality of today’s Internet and its level of digital inclusion is confronted by a growing digital divide—increasing geographic and socioeconomic challenges between those with sufficient access to the Internet and those who cannot afford access to its services.

Geographic challenges

Access problems often occur with sparsely spread populations in physically remote locations—it is simply not cost effective for Internet service providers (ISPs) to install the required infrastructure for broadband Internet access to these areas. Coupled with the physical limitations of terrestrial infrastructures (mainly due to distance) to provide last mile access, remote communities using wired technologies also incur higher costs for connection between the exchange and backbone network because the distances are larger. A large exchange may accommodate many users and allow for competition between service operators; in contrast, a rural/remote broadband often does not offer economies of scale, and raises the costs per user. Most important, in many developing countries, poor connectivity between ISPs is so prevalent that local traffic is routed over expensive international links in an effort to ensure that it successfully reaches destinations within the country of origin.

These kinds of geographic challenges motivate questioning the way we do things, such as insisting on end-to-end delivery, versus promoting more localized communication. The result is a socioeconomic obstacle: mainstream business models don’t work.

Socioeconomic challenges

Addressing digital exclusion due to socioeconomic barriers is critically important. The United Nations revealed the vast global disparity in fixed broadband access by showing that in some countries the access to fixed broadband costs almost 40 to 100 times the national average income. This problem is also applicable to developed countries where individuals are unable to pass a necessary credit check or are living in circumstances that are too unstable to commit to lengthy broadband contracts.

There are both research and policy challenges to the realization of a future Internet capability that offers appropriate access to all parts of society. It will require proactive collaboration and a shared vision among researchers, corporations, community groups, and governments, as there can be no single solution that is enforced on all types of users in all locations.

Global Access to the Internet for All

The proposed IRTF Global Access to the Internet for All (GAIA) research group aims to:

  1. Create maximum visibility and interest among the community on the challenges in enabling global Internet access.
  2. Create a shared vision among researchers, corporations, and nongovernmental and governmental organisations on the challenges.
  3. Articulate and foster collaboration among them to address the diverse Internet access and architectural challenges.
  4. Document and share deployment experiences and research results to the wider community through scholarly publications, white papers, and Informational and Experimental RFCs, etc.
  5. Have a longer term vision on influencing standardisation efforts at the IETF that could potentially change the Internet landscape to be more inclusive.

Exploration Areas

Addressing the geographic challenges

In rural and remote areas, both the service requirements and the delivery mechanisms towards customers are often different than those in cities. For instance, while cities might call for densely connected options for delivery, such as DSL and fibre optical lines, remote areas are likely to rely more on wireless-based access to the Internet through wireless mesh, satellite, or TV White Space options to bridge distances not seen in cities.


The reluctance of network operators (who are economically motivated) to provide wired and cellular infrastructures to rural/remote areas has led to several community led initiatives to build large-scale, self-organized, and decentralized community wireless networks that use WiFi mesh technology due to the reduced cost of the unlicensed spectrum. These community wireless mesh networks have self-sustainable business models, which provide more localised communication services, as well as Internet backhaul support via peering agreements with traditional network operators who see such networks as a way to extend their reach at a lower cost. There also are community-led wireless initiatives such as crowd-shared wireless networks, in which home broadband owners share a portion of their home broadband with friends, neighbours, or other users either for free or as part of a service offering by the ISP.

Recent years have also seen a rise in innovative ways of providing broadband Internet access via dynamic spectrum sharing, including the successful TV white spaces (TVWS) trials in Malawi, Kenya, and South Africa, which use the white spaces left by the termination of analog TV broadcasting, and which hold promise as an access technology for providing long-distance wireless broadband Internet access. In addition, companies such as Facebook and Google are exploring ways to connect remote communities via unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and balloons.

Finally, satellite technology is being viewed as a key access technology to provide ubiquitous Internet access. The ability of the satellite to provide global coverage makes satellites a key enabling technology to provide broadband access and to gather and deliver critical information to areas and locations that cannot be reached by other wired or wireless technologies. The two-way satellite market has undergone dramatic changes over the last 10 years in terms of IP adoption, coupled with the move to higher capacity Ku/Ka bands. The satellite industry can now provide a lower-cost “broadband” IP-based service that was not possible only a few years ago. Low-earth-orbit satellites, such as Cubesats and Picosats, can now be launched into orbit to provide a communications infrastructure (especially for emergency communications) at a relatively lower cost.

GAIA will explore and document the diverse set of characteristics and integration challenges of these technologies via measurement studies and deployment experiences. GAIA will also explore the regulatory and political obstacles of deploying some of these access technologies (e.g., spectrum regulation), as well as the challenges in deploying Internet Exchange Points (IXPs) in developing regions.

A Common Platform

GAIA will take a longer-term approach to exploring new architectures that would make the Internet more flexible and accessible. We hope to utilize well-researched practices, results, and working platforms from related IRTF groups in key networking areas, such as Delay Tolerant Networking (DTN) including Opportunistic Communications, Information Centric Networking (ICN) and Software Defined Networking (SDN) to explore innovative architectures that will enable new methods of access to Internet services over a wide range of connectivity options at lower cost and better efficiency in terms of performance, network utilisation, and energy.

GAIA will enable aninclusivevision, in which multiple transmission technologies, novel architectures, and new access models are integrated into a single platform. Such connectivity inclusion has the potential to reduce transmission costs and increase efficiency, flexibility, and dependability, and the common platform will help overcome socioeconomic obstacles to economically sustainable global access for all.

Addressing the socioeconomic challenge

Internet access can be made more affordable by coupling social and economic incentives with a common platform that enables these incentives to spur innovation for a wide range of new business models: more-localized communications, opportunities for nongovernmental organizations and local governments (driven by social rather than economic goals) to become virtual network operators, revenue creation from currently underutilized infrastructures, time-shifted services, and micropayments and reverse payment models (e.g., remote doctors pay for additional capacity or Quality of Service to video conference patients). To promote some of these new models, we need to address both technological and regulatory/policy challenges (e.g., net neutrality and tiered services).

It is important to emphasize that there also is room for innovation and experimentation in policy. The major obstacles to more persistent and affordable access in sub-Saharan Africa, parts of Asia, the Middle East, and other regions are not technological but regulatory. We need to create a regulatory space for new business models and wireless technologies that also requires innovation.

The diversity of its members help make GAIA a suitable forum in which to discuss, collaborate, and disseminate the aforementioned issues.

Next Steps

Today, the GAIA group has more than 100 members. Its mailing list is at

The first GAIA meeting was held at the IETF 89 meeting in London. It included several presentations from members (academia, industry, and nongovernmental organisations) that showcased the diversity of problem areas, projects, and solutions. The next GAIA meeting will be collocated with ACM DEV 5 in December 2014.

The group is currently finalising the topics of interest, and will ask to be formally chartered by the IRTF next year. Members aim to keep the proposed charter as more exploratory considering the diverse set of challenges that need to be addressed.