UN pushes Wi-Fi to bridge digital divide

The Wireless Internet Institute, the United Nations and major Wi-Fi technology vendors Thursday kicked off a global effort here at U.N. headquarters to use wireless LANs and other inexpensive and unregulated wireless technologies to bridge the digital divide in developing nations.

Pat Gelsinger, chief technology officer at Intel Corp., was the keynote speaker at the “Wireless Internet Opportunity for Developing Nations” conference. He said technologies such as Wi-Fi and the 802.16 standard for wireless metropolitan-area networks (MAN) provide the chance not only to close the digital gap “but leapfrog ahead of the digital divide.”

Daniel Aghion, executive director of the Boston-based Wireless Internet Institute, said Thursday’s conference grew out of a challenge made last November by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan to “think of ways to bring wireless fidelity applications to the developing world” via unlicensed spectrum to deliver cheap and fast Internet access. The Wireless Internet Institute is backed by World Times Inc., the Boston-based publisher of a global newspaper, one-third of which is owned by Computerworld’s parent company, International Data Group Inc.

Gelsinger presented an Intel plan to help developing nations realize the benefits of Wi-Fi that included an admonition to “say no to copper” for a wired backbone and install broadband fiber instead. Once that infrastructure is in place, developing nations then “need to deploy wireless aggressively,” he said.

The combination of short-range Wi-Fi, 30-mile-range MANs now under development that are based on 802.16 standards, and a fiber backbone will present developing nations with “the greatest opportunity for scalable and cost-effective networks,” he said.

Gelsinger also urged developing nations to follow the lead of the developed world in putting as few strings as possible on the use of Wi-Fi in unlicensed spectrum bands. Amir Dossal, executive director for the United Nations Fund for International Partnerships, agreed, saying developing countries should keep Wi-Fi spectrum as “unregulated as possible.”

Moshen Khalil, director of information and communication technologies at The World Bank, said the debate on allocation and unfettered use of unlicensed spectrum in developing countries is still open and the U.N., the Wireless Internet Institute and vendors will face “very tough” challenges before Annan’s vision can be realized.

In addition to the spectrum issue, widespread proliferation of Wi-Fi in developing nations needs to overcome a number of hurdles, including heavily regulated and expensive wired backbone carriers and tariffs that often push up prices for Wi-Fi gear — equipment that has reached rock-bottom prices as low as US$20 to $50 for a wireless access card in the U.S. Vendors and potential service providers in developing nations also need to “create viable business models,” Khalil said.

Amir Alexander Hasson, founder and managing partner of First Mile Solutions LLC, a Cambridge, Mass.-based company that has started to implement wireless service in India, said equipment used in developing nations often has to be tougher and more resistant to heat and dust than WLAN gear used in more developed nations. But even with that proviso, Hasson said he was able to assemble a WLAN system for use in rural Indian villages for about $250.

Dossal said he believes the hurdles can be overcome, with wireless Internet access eventually serving as the “great equalizer” in communications infrastructure between the developing and developed world.