Creative Use of Wi-Fi to Reach the Poor

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions

SOUTH-SOUTH CASE STUDY

In 2003 former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan called for greater access to wi-fi, or wireless internet networks, as a mechanism to help poorer regions catch up with the pace of technological change in developed countries. Wireless networks remove the need to lay costly wires and can quickly bring fast and convenient internet access to large populations currently denied access. By removing the need to lay lots of cables to get communities online, wireless could help poorer nations narrow the digital divide and catch up with countries where the technology has already taken hold. Social entrepreneurs are stepping in to fill the gap between the promise of wi-fi and the reality.

A contemporary take on the mobile library, where a bus travels to remote or under serviced areas to lend books, is being used to bring wi-fi and web content to remote villages in India, Rwanda, Cambodia and Paraguay lacking internet access. United Villages and its subsidiary First Mile Solutions cleverly targets only the content the villagers really want and then provides it to them for a fee. Using a fleet of buses and motorcycles, they upload in the city before going to the countryside popular pages and pages previously requested. “There’s only 0.003 percent of the web that rural Indians care about,” founder Amir Hassan told the BBC. “They want to know the cricket scores, they want to see the new Aishwarya Rai photos, and they want to hear a sample of the latest Bollywood tunes.”

Once in the countryside, a small box with an antenna onboard the buses or a motorcycle communicates with the rural computers, sometimes up to six times a day. Special content requests can be made for a few rupees, and emails are collected and delivered. Not only do the buses deliver web content, they also act as a courier service, picking up and delivering products ordered via the web for the villagers. “We-re bringing e-commerce to rural India,” said Hassan.

“My objective is to show to the village youth that having a PC with connectivity is a viable business, so that more and more unemployed youth can take up this as a self-employment opportunity,” remarks villager Raj Kishor Swain, who helps with United Villages.

Green WiFi, based in San Francisco, has a simple aim: to provide children in developing countries with access to the internet. But the difference is that they have developed a solution to the biggest problem in most remote regions: reliable electricity supply. Their invention is intended to partner with the US $100 laptop computers being rolled out in the developing countries by the One Laptop Per Child Project. Green WiFi has developed a low cost, solar-powered, standardized wi-fi access solution that runs out-of-the-box with no systems integration or power requirements. All that is required is a single source of broadband access and light.

In a further boost to internet access in Africa, the World Bank is also funding US $164.5 million in high-speed internet access for Kenya, Burundi and Madagascar to boost regional competitiveness. Eastern and much of Southern Africa is the only region in the world not connected to the global broadband infrastructure.

Resources

  • The Wireless Internet Institute was launched in 2001 as an international think tank where stakeholders explore wireless Internet technologies, best practices and sustainable implementation models. W2i is a World Times, Inc. initiative addressing the regulatory, business and integration complexities associated with the deployment of wireless Internet technologies.
  • The World Dialogue on Regulation for Network Economies is concerned with regulation and governance for network economies. They conduct research, facilitate online dialogue and discussion among experts, and publish and distribute papers, reports and other relevant information.
  • I-Genius: I-genius is a world community of social entrepreneurs and seeks to inspire a new generation of social innovators. They hope to encourage partnerships across geographical and cultural boundaries, by building partnerships between social businesses and wider stake holders, governments, corporations, NGOs, investors and the media.
  • A blog linking technology and social entrepreneurs: Click here
  • Social Edge: a web portal for social entrepreneurs by social entrepreneurs

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