A Model for Data Connectivity in Remote Areas of the World

Inside the trenches, the challenges and reward of working in rural South America

5 min read
Image of a map where antenna are located.
IEEE volunteers and locals are working to connect six health centers in the Andes region in Bolivia with Internet access. One of the big challenges are the rocky hills that reach almost 4 kilometers above sea level, which makes it difficult to deploy towers and equipment.
Image: Javier Gorostiaga/Radio Mobile

THE INSTITUTEThe delivery of digital communications to remote parts of the world, mostly in developing countries, has been a challenge for private telecommunication companies and international development organizations alike. The former struggles with the lack of business opportunities in sparsely populated areas and the latter with the challenges of unsustainable ad-hoc projects that do not go beyond early funding stages. This is further complicated by the fact that these areas face extreme poverty, disease, a struggle for daily sustenance, and social and religious realities that make them different from Western models and require more than a "home improvement approach.”

In such scenarios, most citizens cannot afford the cost of a mobile device or Internet service. The lack of clean water, sanitation, health care, electricity, and food take priority. By bringing digital telecommunications and Internet access to these parts of the world, people can get the knowledge and empowerment that could lead them to economic opportunities.

Because of the lack of potable water and sanitation, the child mortality rate is quite high in the Andes regionBecause of the lack of potable water and sanitation, the child mortality rate is quite high in the Andes region.Photo: Martin J. Murillo

One of IEEE’s biggest humanitarian initiatives, the Humanitarian Technology Challenge, identified data connectivity for remote health offices as one of the top three solutions (or tools) that will contribute to reaching the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) set forth by the United Nations and its partners with aims to reduce poverty and disease around the world.

By implementing adequate technologies, remote health posts—which are makeshift clinics generally staffed by a medical technician—could, for example, have better communication systems with central hospitals from larger villages that are often miles away in order to get second opinions, step-by step guidance on how to treat a patient, information about medical supplies, and training from doctors and specialists.

In the absence of such communications, remote areas are left isolated and incapable of taking care of patients when emergencies and complications arise, during childbirth, for example. Some of these remote villages can be a day’s boat rideaway from the nearest hospital, and at times such trips cannot even be made because river levels are too low. 

Although some of these areas do receive limited mobile phone reception and, at times, Internet access, the services are saturated and intermittent and do not provide appropriate bandwidth for voice, least video, communications. In these areas, a 2 megabyte file can take as long as 30 minutes to download. This reality is not going to easily change in the coming years. But a group of committed IEEE volunteers are trying to do what they can to help.

IEEE volunteers and locals spend several years working in the region to bring data connectivity to health postsIEEE volunteers and locals spend several years working in the region to bring data connectivity to health posts.Photo: Martin J. Murillo

DEVELOPING THE MODEL

The IEEE initiative that I was part of, called the IEEE Humanitarian Technology Challenge, set forth three main challenges. One of them, the Data Connectivity Solution, gave birth to various initiatives including an e-Health project in the Peruvian Amazon, which is now a blueprint for similar projects that are currently being carried out in various parts of the Bolivian Andes.

The Peruvian Amazon project worked with local partners and technologies to help fulfill the key health needs of remote communities. The IEEE Data Connectivity Solution (also known as the Data Connectivity Initiative) partnered with four important groups: The Peruvian Grupo de Telecommunicaciones Rurales from Catholic University of Peru, Alto Amazonas Health Network, local municipalities, and local indigenous groups. These partnerships helped us learn from local experts about technical and health-related issues, as well as the sustainability potential of our project.

Remote health posts that have only one medical technician can now conduct an examination and provide a diagnosis for patients by connecting with medical doctors and specialists from several villages away. Now these health centers have access to high-resolution video conferencing, data streaming, and of course, Internet. The infrastructure has also been used to exchange patient data, monitor medical supplies, and has even helped mitigate feelings of isolation for personnel who work in these remote areas because they can communicate with their families who live in the larger villages.

The project is linking remote health posts, such as this one based in Peru's Andes region, to larger clinics or hospitals. These posts are equipped with basic supplies and just one medical technician.The project is linking remote health posts, such as this one based in Peru's Andes region, to larger clinics or hospitals. These posts are equipped with basic supplies and just one medical technician.Photo: Martin J. Murillo

The project has literally saved lives and has turned into an important component of health care in those remote areas. Several institutions have implemented data connectivity in their centers, and the government adopted better policies to promote telehealth. The Peru project has been operating for more than two years with the help of local and regional IEEE volunteers and with the guidance of the Grupo de Telecomunicaciones Rurales.

To accomplish this goal, we used inexpensive Wi-Fi technology that can reach long distances and connect to various health centers approximately 40 kilometers away from each other. The massive infrastructure consists of 60-meter (approximately 200 feet) towers that hold radios, antennas, solar panels, and batteries that provide Internet service 24/7 to the region. We must note, however, that technology has only been a small part of the overall solution. It is worth underlining that when we mention “project” or “implementation,” we refer to a broad categorization of activities that includes social, political, technical, and cultural efforts.

THE BOLIVIA PROJECT

In order to apply the Peruvian model to the remote Andes regions in Bolivia we had to go about it the same way. No two countries are alike, however, and the Bolivia project introduced us to new challenges. First, we could not find a Bolivian organization with expertise in the utilization of long-distance telecommunications focused on telehealth. To solve this problem, we partnered with the IEEE Bolivia section that provided passionate volunteers who were willing to participate in the project for several years. Those volunteers made visits to the areas in Peru where we worked and participated in regional meetings. Moreover, they helped us develop a plan for the initial stages of the project.

Some challenges that we faced included the high winds of the Andes regions, higher costs than in Peru for specialized supplies, and the complexities of directing funding for the project. The biggest challenge for us was the country’s spectrum regulations. The transmission of certain ISM (industrial, scientific, and medical radio band) frequencies can incur high costs and long waits. The Bolivian volunteers, through visits with political leaders and policymakers, participated in efforts toward changing these government policies to provide important communication services to underserved areas of the nation. Because of these efforts, this hurdle has been cleared and the region can now operate in such frequencies.

The first stage of this project, comprised of four health offices, was completed in July 2013. The next stage begins in the coming weeks. It will focus on expanding digital access to other health centers through the challenging Andes to the outskirts of Lake Titikaka, an area that more than 2000 years ago gave birth to the Tiwanaco civilization, which was characterized by their advanced astronomy and engineering knowledge. The initiative will then expand services to schools, as well as small communities that will profit from Internet access by making it easier for them to export their products.

Photo of Martin J. MurilloPhoto: Martin J. Murillo

Martin Murillo is a researcher focused on electronic data for government use and government transparency. He is also involved in data connectivity infrastructure in remote areas and has published his work in several journals on topics of optimal control, wireless systems, and political science.

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The Inner Beauty of Basic Electronics

Open Circuits showcases the surprising complexity of passive components

5 min read
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A photo of a high-stability film resistor with the letters "MIS" in yellow.
All photos by Eric Schlaepfer & Windell H. Oskay
Blue

Eric Schlaepfer was trying to fix a broken piece of test equipment when he came across the cause of the problem—a troubled tantalum capacitor. The component had somehow shorted out, and he wanted to know why. So he polished it down for a look inside. He never found the source of the short, but he and his collaborator, Windell H. Oskay, discovered something even better: a breathtaking hidden world inside electronics. What followed were hours and hours of polishing, cleaning, and photography that resulted in Open Circuits: The Inner Beauty of Electronic Components (No Starch Press, 2022), an excerpt of which follows. As the authors write, everything about these components is deliberately designed to meet specific technical needs, but that design leads to “accidental beauty: the emergent aesthetics of things you were never expected to see.”

From a book that spans the wide world of electronics, what we at IEEE Spectrum found surprisingly compelling were the insides of things we don’t spend much time thinking about, passive components. Transistors, LEDs, and other semiconductors may be where the action is, but the simple physics of resistors, capacitors, and inductors have their own sort of splendor.

High-Stability Film Resistor

A photo of a high-stability film resistor with the letters "MIS" in yellow.

All photos by Eric Schlaepfer & Windell H. Oskay

This high-stability film resistor, about 4 millimeters in diameter, is made in much the same way as its inexpensive carbon-film cousin, but with exacting precision. A ceramic rod is coated with a fine layer of resistive film (thin metal, metal oxide, or carbon) and then a perfectly uniform helical groove is machined into the film.

Instead of coating the resistor with an epoxy, it’s hermetically sealed in a lustrous little glass envelope. This makes the resistor more robust, ideal for specialized cases such as precision reference instrumentation, where long-term stability of the resistor is critical. The glass envelope provides better isolation against moisture and other environmental changes than standard coatings like epoxy.

15-Turn Trimmer Potentiometer

A photo of a blue chip
A photo of a blue chip on a circuit board.

It takes 15 rotations of an adjustment screw to move a 15-turn trimmer potentiometer from one end of its resistive range to the other. Circuits that need to be adjusted with fine resolution control use this type of trimmer pot instead of the single-turn variety.

The resistive element in this trimmer is a strip of cermet—a composite of ceramic and metal—silk-screened on a white ceramic substrate. Screen-printed metal links each end of the strip to the connecting wires. It’s a flattened, linear version of the horseshoe-shaped resistive element in single-turn trimmers.

Turning the adjustment screw moves a plastic slider along a track. The wiper is a spring finger, a spring-loaded metal contact, attached to the slider. It makes contact between a metal strip and the selected point on the strip of resistive film.

Ceramic Disc Capacitor

A cutaway of a Ceramic Disc Capacitor
A photo of a Ceramic Disc Capacitor

Capacitors are fundamental electronic components that store energy in the form of static electricity. They’re used in countless ways, including for bulk energy storage, to smooth out electronic signals, and as computer memory cells. The simplest capacitor consists of two parallel metal plates with a gap between them, but capacitors can take many forms so long as there are two conductive surfaces, called electrodes, separated by an insulator.

A ceramic disc capacitor is a low-cost capacitor that is frequently found in appliances and toys. Its insulator is a ceramic disc, and its two parallel plates are extremely thin metal coatings that are evaporated or sputtered onto the disc’s outer surfaces. Connecting wires are attached using solder, and the whole assembly is dipped into a porous coating material that dries hard and protects the capacitor from damage.

Film Capacitor

An image of a cut away of a capacitor
A photo of a green capacitor.

Film capacitors are frequently found in high-quality audio equipment, such as headphone amplifiers, record players, graphic equalizers, and radio tuners. Their key feature is that the dielectric material is a plastic film, such as polyester or polypropylene.

The metal electrodes of this film capacitor are vacuum-deposited on the surfaces of long strips of plastic film. After the leads are attached, the films are rolled up and dipped into an epoxy that binds the assembly together. Then the completed assembly is dipped in a tough outer coating and marked with its value.

Other types of film capacitors are made by stacking flat layers of metallized plastic film, rather than rolling up layers of film.

Dipped Tantalum Capacitor

A photo of a cutaway of a Dipped Tantalum Capacitor

At the core of this capacitor is a porous pellet of tantalum metal. The pellet is made from tantalum powder and sintered, or compressed at a high temperature, into a dense, spongelike solid.

Just like a kitchen sponge, the resulting pellet has a high surface area per unit volume. The pellet is then anodized, creating an insulating oxide layer with an equally high surface area. This process packs a lot of capacitance into a compact device, using spongelike geometry rather than the stacked or rolled layers that most other capacitors use.

The device’s positive terminal, or anode, is connected directly to the tantalum metal. The negative terminal, or cathode, is formed by a thin layer of conductive manganese dioxide coating the pellet.

Axial Inductor

An image of a cutaway of a Axial Inductor
A photo of a collection of cut wires

Inductors are fundamental electronic components that store energy in the form of a magnetic field. They’re used, for example, in some types of power supplies to convert between voltages by alternately storing and releasing energy. This energy-efficient design helps maximize the battery life of cellphones and other portable electronics.

Inductors typically consist of a coil of insulated wire wrapped around a core of magnetic material like iron or ferrite, a ceramic filled with iron oxide. Current flowing around the core produces a magnetic field that acts as a sort of flywheel for current, smoothing out changes in the current as it flows through the inductor.

This axial inductor has a number of turns of varnished copper wire wrapped around a ferrite form and soldered to copper leads on its two ends. It has several layers of protection: a clear varnish over the windings, a light-green coating around the solder joints, and a striking green outer coating to protect the whole component and provide a surface for the colorful stripes that indicate its inductance value.

Power Supply Transformer

A photo of a collection of cut wires
A photo of a yellow element on a circuit board.

This transformer has multiple sets of windings and is used in a power supply to create multiple output AC voltages from a single AC input such as a wall outlet.

The small wires nearer the center are “high impedance” turns of magnet wire. These windings carry a higher voltage but a lower current. They’re protected by several layers of tape, a copper-foil electrostatic shield, and more tape.

The outer “low impedance” windings are made with thicker insulated wire and fewer turns. They handle a lower voltage but a higher current.

All of the windings are wrapped around a black plastic bobbin. Two pieces of ferrite ceramic are bonded together to form the magnetic core at the heart of the transformer.

This article appears in the February 2023 print issue.

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