Intel commits big money to Third World project

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Intel hopes to gain a head start on untapped markets in the Third World by launching World Ahead, a global program that will pour US$ 1 billion over the next five years to promote computer training and Internet use in developing countries.

The Santa Clara, Calif.-based company recently unveiled its five-year project plan, which includes extending broadband access to one billion users and training 10 million teachers on the use of technology in education.

A component of the program is the development of a $400 mobile personal computer, dubbed Eduwise, that will run on Microsoft Windows or the Linux operating system. The World Ahead program will also push adoption of WiMax wireless technology that allows high throughput broadband connections over long distances.

Eddie Chan, lead analyst on mobile computing at IDC Canada, a Toronto-based research consultancy, believes that Intel is making a smart move.

Chan said the computer markets in Japan, U.S. and Western Europe are mature, registering only a modest 12 per cent growth in 2005 compared to 24.5 per cent for the same period by the so-called BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) regions.

“Penetration in Brazil, Russia, China and India is still very low. You get into those markets early and as they get more sophisticated, they can purchase more products from you,” said Chan.

WiMax is the key in areas where communications infrastructures are not in place, according to Chan. “Intel has a considerable stake in this since they are a member of the WiMax forum lobbying governments to allow adoption of the product,” said Chan. “Of course being a global citizen and bridging the digital divide is also a part of it.”

But that digital divide is not clear-cut. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are challenging Intel to target lower-income developing countries with resource-poor remote areas rather than focusing on major cities in countries with established electrical and communications infrastructures.

“It’s much easier to introduce computer technologies into the big cities of Brazil, India, Mexico or China where there’s a large market, well-developed infrastructure and an educated workforce than in less developed and rural communities in countries like Senegal, Indonesia, Uganda or Jordan,” said Eric Rusten, director of new ventures at the Academy for Education and Development (AED), a US-based NGO that helps individuals, communities and institutions in developing countries to become more self-sufficient.

Rusten believes Intel should balance its development efforts. “We recognize that Intel needs to pursue larger and more robust emerging economies that offer immediate payback, but it is also important to increase their commitment to helping schools, teachers and students in the neediest countries.”

But there are some aspects of Intel’s program that are progressive. What differentiates Intel’s program from others is that it’s geared towards creating sustainable communities and economies, said Rusten.

For instance, the Eduwise PC developed by Intel will be manufactured in the countries that it will be deployed in, according to Rusten. The company will allow local businesses to build the units and ensure they can be serviced by technicians in the area.

Intel is also developing the knowledge base needed to sustain technology. “They’re not just infusing money, but they’re reinforcing training by upgrading teachers’ skills, improving connectivity, and creating technology that is suited for the locale and helping local business.”

Rusten is also happy that Intel has established an advisory board of NGOs to guide the company with its World Ahead program.

But Rusten is not letting his guard down. “The program is well thought out. But the proof of the pudding is in the eating.”

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