Parsec plans to commercialise broadband in rural areas

In the wake of Parsec’s recent five-year licensing agreement with the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) on wireless mesh technology, the company is paving the way for its commercialisation.

A first step was to obtain type-approval from the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) for the high-performance node (HPN) at the heart of high-availability wireless. This type-approval essentially established HPN version two.

The commercialisation drive was partly influenced by the government’s broadband-for-all initiative, in which the CSIR’s Meraka Institute played a significant role. Parsec proved a suitable partner to turn the technology into a viable commercial solution that can be rolled out cost-effectively by Redline Telecommunications, a wireless solutions provider in the Parsec stable.

“This is an exciting moment for Parsec,” says Rynier van der Watt, managing director of Parsec Holdings. “We are passionate about South Africa and about taking on home-grown technologies that make an impact.”

Through the Department of Science and Technology (DST), the government is trying to address the lack of broadband infrastructure in rural areas, especially in schools and communities.

According to Kobus Roux, a CSIR researcher and the engineer behind the technology, the Meraka Institute ultimately succeeded in getting around the challenges of rural connectivity. “The DST liked what we were doing and facilitated funding with the European Commission, which enabled us to bring Parsec on board as our technology partner.”

This wireless mesh technology, based on peer-to-peer communication between high-performance nodes, has the advantage of applying locally developed intellectual property, while at the same time improving the quality of life of rural communities through access to education, health and job opportunities.

What constitutes wireless mesh technology?

Communication is established in a mesh network through each network node being connected to at least two other network nodes. Each node has the ability to relay communications between the nodes connected to it. When one node can no longer operate, e.g. due to power outage, the rest of the nodes can still communicate with each other, directly or through one or more intermediate nodes.

A mesh network relies on all nodes to propagate signals. Although the signal may start at a client connected to some base station (access point) attached to the network, a mesh network extends the transmission distance by relaying the signal through nodes to another (access point) attached to the network.

A key advantage of the mesh network technology is that its start-up cost is low and that it can be scaled up fairly easily. More importantly, these networks reconfigure themselves dynamically, meaning they are self-healing. Because more than one path exists to each node, the nodes tend to find a path, thus increasing the robustness of the network connectivity. Another advantage is that mesh networks can be daisy-chained to extend the reach of the network; not all networks have this capability.

Parsec has identified several commercial applications for the mesh network technology, apart from rural networks, including surface and underground mining, campus networks and city WiFi.

For rural applications, such as schools and clinics, which tie in with the government’s broadband-for-all vision, Parsec believes a business model could rely on a “village operator” who would be skilled to maintain the network and derive income from the operation.

Some thinking is required to successfully penetrate the mining sector, due mainly to the underground technical challenges in hard rock mining. Yet, Parsec has already investigated the possibilities to create a true mesh of interconnected nodes with wireless propagation along passageways in the coal-mining sector.

According to Van der Watt, the company is excited about the wide range of possibilities offered by the mesh technology for which Parsec now holds the CSIR manufacturing licence and Redline Telecommunications the distribution licence.