"Fiber Before The Fiber" Broadband to Use 3D-Printed Free-Space Optics to Bridge the Digital Divide

A recently-funded two-year project will see 3D-printed base stations offer free-space optical broadband across the digital divide.

The University of the Witwatersrand (Wits University) has announced, in partnership with the Universities of Glasgow and Aston, a two-year project by which it aims to cross the digital divide in South Africa: "Fiber Before the Fiber," which provides long-range high-speed broadband connectivity using low-cost free-space optics, no fiber cables required.

"In cities like Johannesburg there’s a stark contrast between informal settlements that don't have fiber and nearby affluent suburbs, often just across the road, that do," says lead investigator and Optical Communications Lab co-founder Mitchell Cox, PhD, of the project's potential. "What are the opportunities if we could simply ‘light up’ that digital divide?"

Installing traditional telecommunications infrastructure is expensive, disruptive, and slow. Fiber Before The Fiber, as the name implies, looks to bypass that part by using free-space optics — the same technology behind fiber-optic broadband, but without the glass fiber cabling.

"We are now developing a low-cost, 3D-printed wireless communication system using off-the-shelf components as far as possible," Cox explains. "These devices will link anchor sites, such as schools, clinics or police stations, via a wireless optical line-of-site signal to nearby fiber-sources in affluent suburbs that are within about a kilometer of the anchor sites."

Power, meanwhile, will come from a fellow project of the university: PeCo Grid, an off-grid energy system, which its creators claim could scale to power entire villages from cost-effective solar.

“Rolling out telecommunications infrastructure is an enormous and expensive exercise, and our intention is not to replace what the service providers do, but rather to try leverage what’s existing for maximum impact," says Cox, as the project celebrates the receipt of enough funding to build and study a demonstrator system."

"Hopefully this is just the start of something awesome. Access to the internet enables children to broaden their horizons and expand their curiosity: something that I believe leads to much-needed scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs."

More information on the project is available on the Wits University website.

Gareth Halfacree
Freelance journalist, technical author, hacker, tinkerer, erstwhile sysadmin. For hire: freelance@halfacree.co.uk.
Latest articles
Sponsored articles
Related articles
Latest articles
Read more
Related articles