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UN: Wireless Internet Promoted For Developing World

The United Nations is stepping up efforts to promote the wireless Internet, known as Wi-Fi, as an important emerging technology for developing nations. Many states lack the infrastructure and funds for traditional copper-based networks. Wi-Fi, on the other hand, provides an opportunity for them to bridge the digital divide. But so far, many of the developing nations are taking a conservative approach with regard to their Wi-Fi policies.

United Nations, 2 July 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Hoping to bridge the so-called "digital divide," a number of public- and private-sector officials are promoting the wireless Internet for developing nations.

At a UN conference in New York last week, many of the more than 200 participants agreed that the wireless Internet, or Wi-Fi, must become a priority for policymakers in the developing world. They cited its cost-effectiveness, worldwide standards, potential for growth, and its deregulated nature.

Sarbuland Khan, a former Pakistani diplomat, is the director of the division of support and coordination for the UN's Economic and Social Council. He spelled out the importance of Wi-Fi implementation.

"Wi-Fi could possibly be, probably offers the opportunity of great equalizer, to try and deliver some of the content to the developing world which we are lacking at this point. If high-speed wireless access is available, then video streaming, distance education, health information, etc, will become much easier. The investment is not the same as it was in the fiber optics but it's still costly. And the cost of putting it up is not that much but the cost of operating it is probably a fair amount. We recognize that, so the challenge is to find a creative solution using multinationals, using foundations, using governments' capacity to try and build public-private partnership to try to achieve that," Khan said.

Wi-Fi transmitters use unlicensed sections of the radio-wave spectrum used to send any kind of data, which is then accessed by computers and other devices with infrared receiver ports.

Patrick Gelsinger, the chief technology officer at Intel Corporation, stressed in his address to the UN conference the advantages of Wi-Fi. "It's unlicensed, it's unregulated, its industry and worldwide standard, and it's delivering broadband Internet access. Those four attributes result in a very cost-effective technology that makes it uniquely valuable worldwide. We encourage nations, particularly developing nations, to take aggressive policy stances that enable this within their own countries. We see many of the actions of developing nations to be scarcity-mentality -- meaning to minimize the amount of unlicensed spectrum to maximize the regulatory position for a few dollars of regulation or licensing benefits. And that's exactly what's limiting the growth of this technology in emerging nations," Gelsinger said.

According to a recent report by Boston Consulting, an Internet research company, 30 new customers are subscribing each minute for Wi-Fi services in the United States. The technology is becoming ubiquitous in large urban areas and is embraced by young professionals and business executives.

Mohsen Khalil, the director of information and communication technologies at the World Bank, was another participant at the conference. He said that the real potential of Wi-Fi will be tested in the developing world where it is considered to be the most promising broadband Internet technology.

"Why is wireless [technology] particularly of interest? Because it is very promising. We have experiences and data [in the developed world] that show that the advances that have been achieved in the wireless technology over the past 10 years or so are very dramatic, much more than has been achieved in the previous 50 years," Khalil said.

The UN Wi-Fi conference, the first major international gathering of its kind, aimed to spread awareness about the technology and spell out the challenges facing developing states. It was also seen as an opportunity for possible public-private partners to share views and work to develop broadband wireless Internet policies.

Amir Hasson, who is an executive in First Mile Solutions, a Wi-Fi provider in India, cited one example in which a bus shuttling between villages in India was equipped with the technology. Those villages where residents -- usually a small number -- had proper computers had instant access to the Internet. The project, he said, cost less than $300.

But Hasson also stressed the challenges of providing Wi-Fi to poor rural areas. "The hardware requirements for rural access devices, rural infrastructure need to be extremely rugged and able to sustain and withstand the kind of maintenance that may not be at equal levels to urban areas, [as well as] heat and other factors. The most significant challenge in implementing these [Wi-Fi] networks that I found in developing countries is [poor access] to the equipment required, in that you can get it but oftentimes you will pay 30 to 50 percent duties. You also have to give yourself three to four months lead time on ordering them because of holdups at customs offices," he said.

Summarizing the benefits of Wi-Fi technology for the developing world, Gelsinger of Intel said that his company is convinced that the time for copper networks is long over.

Gelsinger said it's time to end investments in copper infrastructure and instead to develop fiber-optic networks. Fiber is renewable, follows the advances in technology, and has the ability to deliver increasing amount of bandwidth, Gelsinger said.

"We are just stunned, as we go to developing nations, for their excitement with technology as providing a meal ticket to them, [allowing them to] become first-class world citizens. When you are on the Internet, I can't tell if you're in a hut outside of Beijing or if in fact you are in a high-rise in Manhattan. The anonymity, the global access allows the developing nations to be seen as first-world citizens in this exciting new interconnected world of the Internet. And that's what we think the [proper] spectrum policies will in fact allow," Gelsinger said.

The Wireless Internet Institute, the co-organizer of the UN conference, is an international think tank that brings wireless Internet stakeholders together to foster universal connectivity in support of economic, social, and educational development around the world.