The Vault

Francois Gagnon: Professor of Electrical Engineering, ÉTS
Data Sheet / Dec 2017 / CREATORS

A professor of Electrical Engineering at L’École de Technologie Supérieure (ÉTS) in Montreal and the chair holder of the Richard J. Marceau Chair on Wireless IP Technology for Developing Countries, François Gagnon has begun a project to bring the Internet to the most sparsely populated areas of the developing world. InterDigital sat down with Gagnon to discuss this project and the impact that access to technology can have on humans.

When most people in the technology world think “Amazon,” it’s the Seattle-based retailer that leaps to mind – but not for François Gagnon. A professor of Electrical Engineering at L’École de Technologie Supérieure (ÉTS) in Montreal and the chair holder of the Richard J. Marceau Chair on Wireless IP Technology for Developing Countries, Gagnon has begun a project to bring the Internet to the most sparsely populated areas of the developing world. He’s beginning this work in a place — the Amazon basin of rural southeastern Ecuador — that shares little in common with the world’s biggest e-commerce site or with his native Quebec. Gagnon admits that he probably could have begun this work closer to home. “In rural regions of Northern Quebec, people are still asking for broadband Internet, but no one there invited me to work with them,” Gagnon laughs. An Ecuadorian professor he had met in Montreal invited him to give a presentation in 2014. While visiting UTPL — the Technical University in Loja, Ecuador — Gagnon was asked to participate in a land management project spanning three provinces in Southern Ecuador. This project would become his test bed for technology development. In many ways, Ecuador is a lot like many other developed countries in terms of its level of Internet availability. Its biggest cities and areas nearest the major highways — where major trunk lines could easily be installed — have more or less the same access as most of the Western world. The large urban cities like Quito and Guayaquil have 4G LTE wireless and fiber optics. The big difference is in the rural areas, particularly in the sparsely populated Amazon basin. “Once you get about 20 to 30 kilometers off the main highway, there just isn’t a business case for providing Internet access,” he says. “I’m working to change that.” © 2017 InterDigital, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Gagnon | 1 CREATE. CONNECT. LIVE. An Interview with Francois Gagnon | Professor of Electrical Engineering Once you get about 20 to 30 kilometers off the main highway, there just isn’t a business case for providing Internet access, I’m working to change that. “ © 2017 InterDigital, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Gagnon | 2 There are some places that are so remote that local tribes only made first contact within the last 50 years. Many villages are a rugged two-plus hour journey to the nearest town. That village may only be home to a few hundred people, who may share only a single phone line or two. There is nothing in these remote areas that even roughly approximates Internet ubiquity. But that hasn’t stopped a number of enterprising individuals from using the internet to draw bird watchers from all over the world to the region, which is one of South America’s bird watching hotspots. The area where Gagnon will focus his efforts is near the Nangaritza River rainforest, which is home to hundreds of species of rare birds. “I was making a reservation online to stay with a local resident on a recent trip to a small rural village, and it took me a bit to understand why the innkeeper took 48 hours to confirm my reservation, and another 48 hours to answer my questions,” explains Gagnon. “Well, he only goes into town every two days, and that’s his nearest Internet access.” This part of Ecuador is where Gagnon is working to develop a business case for providing this kind of service, but it’s by no means the only country where the need is felt. An estimated 58 percent of the global population doesn’t have regular access to the Internet. In January 2017, Gagnon visited the remote village of Shaime, which is (as the crow flies) about 280 miles south of Quito, the equatorial nation’s capital. The nearest city of any size is Loja (population 180,000), a five-hour drive to the northwest of Shaime. “I went to this village to see what they wanted,” he says. “There are about 300 people in this village and 160 kids in the village school, and most of these people have a smartphone, by the way.” So what do they want? They want to share pictures, to watch videos. They want Wikipedia. They want to host tourists, according to Gagnon. “The things they want are not that different from what we want,” he says. But it goes beyond wanting to simply pull information from the modern world. It’s about participation and sharing as well. Many of these villages are comprised of people who live off the land. “They’re not agricultural,” Gagnon says. “So there’s no real economy like most of us would recognize.” Without regular access, these villages are mostly cut off from the modern world. Even for those of us who don’t shop online, much, we take for granted that we have local stores where we can buy things in real time. These remote villages don’t even have that, for the most part. So e-commerce is just one way in which they’d like to become more equalized with their urban counterparts. There are many ways to provide wireless Internet service to underserved populations. Gagnon is still in the research phase of his project. “My aim is to build a business case to bring wireless Internet into small villages,” he explains. My aim is to build a business case to bring wireless Internet into small villages. “ © 2017 InterDigital, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Gagnon | 3 A Meeting with the Shuare In Shaime, there are 160 kids at the village’s school yet the nearest internet access is a 2 hours bush drive. As Gagnon met with the Shuare, he wondered if access was important to them? He quickly learned that was a foolish question...they take the drive frequently! It’s not as if they didn’t know about the internet! For Gagnon, this project is very mission-oriented. He tells us that his goal is for the technology to be sustainable for these small communities, and for the residents to have some ownership over the technology as well. The details of this are still being worked out, but Gagnon sees this partially through his lens as a professor: as a learning opportunity for the community that will be served by the technology. The wireless approach is how Gagnon feels the technology will be deployed most easily. Microwave radio towers can be deployed at higher elevations to allow their signals to propagate over greater distances, with lower infrastructure costs and less impact to the environment. From a bandwidth perspective, Gagnon realizes that ultra- high bandwidth may not be feasible for these very remote villages, but he believes that some measure of normalcy will be possible. “It’s unlikely we’ll be able to deliver bandwidth that would enable voice over IP,” he explains. However, he believes that this project may be able to get into the megabit range, which will allow the residents to actually use the modern Internet, with video and some other normal Internet activity. “The minimum you need to get some minimal form of video is about half a megabit or 200 kilobits per second,” he says. There are really three major components to this challenge, the way Gagnon sees it. The first is the technological one. The second is the business and financial case – Gagnon would like to see this become feasible at around $400 per month to serve an entire village. And the third is the educational challenge – in order for this to be adopted by a rural village, Gagnon will have to work with the villagers to teach them how to get the best use out of it, how to solve problems that arise, and how to help in maintaining their end of the infrastructure. © 2017 InterDigital, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Gagnon | 4 At the current time, this project is still in the planning phase. Gagnon has plans for a test phase to begin in 2018. He says there will be some political and possibly legal hurdles to overcome, but remains optimistic. “At this point in time, I think it’s doable,” he says. “I went to see the Minister of Telecommunication of Ecuador,” he adds. “And I think we got an understanding that this will be okay.” Gagnon explains that a pilot project like this can involve putting an antenna on top of a mountain that can serve as many as 10 villages at once. His work with the Ecuadorian government involves helping them to understand the importance of finding continuing funding for these projects. “I told them that once they turn on Internet for ten villages, it needs to continue on for more than just a year or two.” Gagnon says that the Ecuadorian government has been very positive and collaborative and seems to have a good understanding of what this can do for their people. Perhaps Gagnon’s project in Ecuador can serve as a model someday for how other countries with underserved populations can bring the Internet to all of their citizens. “We tend to take so much for granted, living in the industrialized West,” says Gagnon. “But a lot of the people I talked to in these villages thought this was one of the most important things that could happen in the village.” We tend to take so much for granted, living in the industrialized West, but a lot of the people I talked to in these villages thought this was one of the most important things that could happen in the village. “