Towards Connecting the Unconnected

By Peter Karagiannis 

It was one of the highest academic acknowledgments he could achieve.  Having left his homeland after high school to earn degrees in France and the United States, KAUST Prof. Prof. Mohamed-Slim Alouini learned that he had been elected as a fellow in the African Academy of Sciences (AAS), making him a peer among the best scientists from the continent. As part of the ceremony, he was asked to give a TED-like talk as an induction speech to the Academy, which is based in Nairobi, Kenya, and whose vision is to transform lives on the African continent through science. Ironically, however, the AAS ceremony in 2017 that celebrated his 20 years of work on communications science and technology would change the direction of his research.

Because his audience was from a wide spectrum of fields, including not only the natural sciences but also social, health, and agriculture sciences, the AAS encouraged Alouini to speak about his work in reference to a problem of interest across the continent. Make it "high level but not too technical," was how he remembered his instructions.

This left Alouini reading more about the continent and realizing that most achievements in communications had negligible impact on about one third of the world's population.

"Higher speeds. Lower end-to-end latency. Connecting more massively deployed devices. People want to be known for solving the next generation of communication challenges," he said of communications scientists. As an example, he mentioned that the current operation speed of smartphones at 5G technology can reach up to 10 gigabits per second. However, it is anticipated that with the advancement to 6G technology, smartphones will be capable of operating at speeds of up to 1 terabit per second. We focus on “Olympic” records. I was putting all my resources into top athletes." 

While preparing for his speech, he found new research questions that, as he put it, took him away from the “elite athletes” and to "the local leagues and make everyone perform better." In short, Alouini realized that there was a critical need to "connected the unconnected," using a phrase that summarizes his research vision, going so far as to say that connectivity is no longer a luxury but a human right. 

Besides the social impact, the research was scientifically attractively. "I was not aware of how important it is, the technical challenges, the interesting research on this topic," he said about research on communications for underserved communities. Solutions would also protect communities from disasters and emergencies that could knockout out communications systems overnight. 

Social distancing demands social connectivity

The timing for his research transition was prescient. COVID-19 physically shut down schools all around the world. Suddenly there was a mad scramble to continue education programs online. This effort depended on an essential assumption, however: students were connected. In reality, a study done in 2020  by the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF) and the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) showed that this was not the case for about half of the world’s schools, a number that reached closer to two thirds in the least developed countries.  

Alouini’s efforts to connect the unconnected are gaining notice, and he has quickly become a leader about cost-effective technologies for connectivity. He was awarded this year leadership of a new United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Chair on “Education for Connecting the Unconnected”, directed from the KAUST Communication Theory Lab (CTL) and encompassing five institutions globally. As part of this chair, he was invited to speak in Paris last September at UNESCO's inaugural Digital Learning Week. His talk was on the use of low tech delay tolerant networking techniques to enable education platforms in remote/hard-to-read/rural areas. 

Overall, Alouini is developing mathematical and technological solutions for non-terrestrial networks to serve terrestrial users. Roughly, this means creating networks in the air (high altitude platforms (HAPS) such as stratospheric airships, balloons, or gliders) and space (satellites) for people on the ground. Dozens of countries have thousands of satellites orbiting the earth. However, because of their distance from the ground, there is a latency problem. Air networks provide an alternative or complementary option for serving rural areas. Further, these satellites and HAPS are competing at similar frequency bandwidths, which creates interesting spectral coexistence and signal interference research problems to address. 

Another challenge for connecting the unconnected is of marine entities. Marine data are vital for Saudi Arabia to set policies that will sustainably harness its ocean resources and make the Kingdom a leader in the blue economy. This problem also blends nicely into Alouini's research on free-space optics communication, which is a wireless solution that uses infrared light and won awards in Saudi Arabia for connecting rural communities. 

“Despite significant efforts made in recent years to enhance cellular coverage across the kingdom, further research is still required to connect the remaining unreached communities and underserved areas”, said Dr. Mohammed Alotaibi, Deputy Governor, Radio Spectrum at the Saudi Communications, Space and Technology Commission (CST).

In this context, the UNESCO chair Alouini has established is allowing him to bring greater attention to connecting the unconnected in two ways. First is to focus his vision on education by developing new connectivity approaches to bridge the digital divide and ensure that children and young people, particularly in underserved and remote communities, have access to quality education and the resources necessary for their overall development. The other is using education to produce new technologies. Namely, Alouini and his collaborators are setting up multiple programs, such as training programs, summer schools and conferences, that he said will "generate more research, more activity, and more solutions. More brains working on these kind of problems."

The effort has him cooperating with scientists and institutes around the world to build new training programs for Ph.D. students. The first program was the “Workshop on Communication in Extreme Environments for Science and Sustainable Development” held from November 20 to 24, 2023, at the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP) in Trieste, Italy with the support of the UNESCO. A follow-up session on connecting the unconnected was also organized towards the end of November 2023 during the 4th KAUST 6G Summit.

Connecting the unconnected does not mean Alouini has abandoned his Olympian efforts in communications. Alouini is still investigating ways to transmit larger amounts of data at faster speeds in order to build smart cities and revolutionize the use of big data. Nevertheless, he believes that a successful scientist must embrace new challenges and ask new questions. Of all the lessons he wants the students and scientists in his laboratory to learn, it is this.

"You learn to formulate problems and find the tools to solve them. That's the purpose of a Ph.D. It's not, 'I learned this tool and all my life I use it all the time.' That's not the point. I always say to my students, 'Don't worry about the topic of your thesis. Don't be attached to the exact topic. Attach yourself to finding the suitable methodologies and mechanisms that effectively solve the problem.'"