By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions
SOUTH-SOUTH CASE STUDY
Many initiatives seek to bring inexpensive access to the internet to rural and remote regions around the world. One of the most successful ways to rapidly expand access is to offer wireless internet so that anyone can use a laptop computer, a PC or a mobile phone to quickly access the Net. Access to wireless internet is being rolled out in cities around the world with so-called ‘hot spots’, but the thornier issue of improving access in rural or remote regions could get better, thanks to a Venezuelan team.
The rapid expansion of mobile phones has done much to reduce the digital divide in Africa, for example, where the number has grown from just 15 million in 2000 to more than 160 million by the end of 2006, according to the International Telecommunications Union. This rapid growth has paid off: Morocco, Senegal, Ghana, Gabon and Cote d’Ivoire are in the top ten gainers of the Digital Opportunity Index, 2004-2006 (http://www.itu.int). The proliferation of Wi-Fi-enabled mobile phones combined with the spread of inexpensive wireless access has the potential to close the digital divide between rural and urban areas.
The issue of inequality in access to the internet has stark consequences for global economic development. Already, according to the World Information Society Report 2007, “Europe has achieved the largest overall gain in digital opportunity over the last two years, followed by the Americas… Asia and Africa have witnessed smaller gains in digital opportunity. The implications for the digital divide are clear: digital opportunity is becoming more sharply divided by region, not less.”
As the Digital Divide campaign learned, it is more important to keep in mind “Internet kiosks or rental of cell phones and other devices hold great promise for the poor. But shared use is a complement to a strategy that involves giving each person their own wireless device. Eventually, the price of such devices will be low enough so that everyone can have their own device.”
A Venezuelan team led by Ermanno Pietrosemoli, president of the Latin American networking association Escuela Latinoamericana de Redes, has broken the world record for unamplified broadcasting of a Wi-Fi (wireless internet) signal. The signal was broadcast in June from two mountains 282 kilometres apart in the Venezuelan Andes. Importantly, they did this using equipment costing only just over US $360, while producing a signal strong enough to send video messages. The former record was 220 kilometres set in 2005.
The consequence of this achievement for entrepreneurs is important: It means inexpensive wireless signals can now reach further into remote and rural regions for a small investment.
“We we’re able to transmit voice and video with both,” said Professor Pietrosemoli. “280 kilometres is pushing the envelope, but the same technique can be used at distances of some 150 kilometres by people with some basic training provided there is uninterrupted line of sight between the end points. This usually means shooting from hills or using them as repeater points. For distances up to 80 kilometres, towers can be used to provide connectivity even in flat land”
The advantages of this approach include cost and simplicity. The more commercial WiMax technology costs more and is usually installed by large companies. Pietrosemoli’s technique is for people who lack those technical and financial advantages.
“I have been installing wireless networks for some 20 years,” he continued, “and reckon that wireless is the only viable alternative to ameliorate the digital divide in developing countries. For rural areas, the challenge is to use as little repeater sites as possible, as each repeater adds costs, delay and powering issues.”
Pietrosemoli said the only other obstacle to setting these networks up is the availability of unlicensed radio frequency spectrum in the 2,4 and 5 Ghz bands. The International Telecommunications Union has recommended that countries make these free for the use of data networks, but some countries are still blocking this.
World Information Society Report 2007: A progress report on pledges to bring digital opportunity to all.
The Wireless Geographic Logging Engine: This is a website with maps tracking the presence of Wi-Fi access around the globe. So far it maps over 10 million separate Wi-Fi networks. Entrepreneurs only have to log into the website to start searching for wireless networks near them.
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