Casting a wider net
How much has the communications revolution transformed rural areas? Mobile phones sales may be booming - of the one million new subscribers each day, 85 percent are in emerging markets - but only a tiny number of those are outside of densely populated urban areas.
For mobile phone and wireless Internet service providers, it is not cost-effective for them to set up antennas and connect areas where only a few people live. Attempting to bridge the rural / urban divide is Eric Brewer, professor of Computer Science at Berkeley University, who has been instrumental in developing a wireless system that can connect remote areas to the Internet cheaply.
Working with the Technology and Infrastructure for Emerging Regions (TIER) project, and supported by Intel, Brewer and his team has found a way to boost normal wireless, or wi-fi, Internet from its usual range of around 200 feet to much longer distances.
"We've developed a simple, inexpensive software and hardware system that can provide high-bandwidth connection to computer networks in cities as far as 50 miles away," he said.
Previously, affordable long-distance wireless technology was only available in the form of satellite connection, which is prohibitively expensive.
"There has been wireless access for a long time via satellite, but the prices are astounding, about $3,000 per megabit per second. This is what multinational corporations use when they're in developing countries but it's no good for the majority of people, who may only be earning something in the region of $5 a day or less," said Brewer.
CONNECTIVITY: THE GREAT ENABLER
Currently only one sixth of the world's population is connected to the Internet. For companies, tapping into this market offers huge potential.
"For Intel it's more of a driver for adoption of this technology than a plan to make money, although it's developing a market that can be tapped into," said Brewer.
For Brewer the impetus for developing the WiLDNets technology came from more humanitarian sources.
After developing search engines during the first dot.com boom, Brewer's work took him around the world and gave him an insight into some persistent problems, particularly in developing countries.
"Connectivity is a great enabler for many important areas, such as better health care, which is something we've already been working on in India, but also better education, better governance, better commerce. If this project has the effect we want it to have, it will be because people will feel empowered," said Brewer.
FROM EYE CARE TO RADIO STATIONS
Brewer's team has trialed the technology at the Aravind Eye Hospital in Theni, in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. A shortage of doctors at regional clinics previously meant patients had to travel hundreds of miles to see a specialist. With the WiLDNets connections, the rural clinics have high-speed links to the hospitals where patients have a five minute consultation via a webcam with an Aravind doctor.
The success of the technology at Aravaid has led to nine new centres being connected, with the new links paid for by the hospital and installed by a local vendor.
"What's so pleasing it that it really is self sustaining now," said Brewer.
"Once the initial system is installed [around $800 for a pair of small computers with directional antennas], there's very little ongoing cost for operation. It's a high-tech piece of equipment, but has been designed to be low-tech when it comes to deployment," he said.
In deploying the technology, Brewer and the TIER team had to overcome the problems of setting up in remote terrain with sporadic power supplies, which led to a low-cost solar power solution using available technology such as car batteries.
Elsewhere the WiLDNets system is connecting universities in Ghana and in Guinea Bissau where it is being used by radio stations to share broadcasts and help preserve local languages and culture that are under threat after years of conflict.
"I'd like people to feel that they can connect from wherever they are in the world. Four links are now going up in the Galapagos Islands and we've talked about links in very remote areas in the Congo and Rwanda. I want people to have the mindset that if they want connectivity it's theirs to have at a reasonable cost."
What do you think? Have you say on any of the issues raised in this article.
It is a very good idea, but how can you connect to the internet in rural areas. Is it by using radio frequencies with long waves?
Professor Brewer is doing a wonderful job for developing countries. In my country, such a system will really benefit the rural community immensely. This is one way of closing up the digital divide gap.
I think they should invest more in solar panels to get more energy with out the danger of the car batteries that contain very harmful chemicals. There has to be a better way to get them power.