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Last Updated: Wednesday, 30 July, 2003, 07:56 GMT 08:56 UK
Cut down web for digitally deprived
By Ivan Noble
BBC News Online science and technology staff

Software that speeds internet access by up to 35 times has been developed to help people in poor countries go online.

Satphone, BBC
Satellite telephones are vital for communication in remote areas
Aidbase, which currently exists as a working prototype, is one of a range of pieces of software under development by the Aidworld team, associated with Cambridge University.

"Aidworld is developing lightweight software to take the world wide web world wide," said Tom Corsellis, Aidworld's founder.

The Aidbase software, which will be free to use, is aimed at the vast majority of the world's population, well over 90%, not yet online.

A significant proportion of these people have access to a landline.

"We wanted to bridge the digital divide instead of talking about it," Dr Corsellis said.

Working prototype

The software, demonstrated at Aidworld's website, works by stripping out graphics and simplifying the format of web pages, leaving just the lightweight text.

It is designed for use on internet connections running either over satellite telephones, where connection costs are ruinously high, or poor-quality landlines, where the connection may break at any moment.

Women in Bangladesh go online
Going online in developing countries can be a slow process
Aidworld hopes that by initially making the software available to aid workers, the technology will be adopted by others in the developing world who need access to web-based information.

"We're working with the international aid community to develop, test and disseminate our bridges to the digital divide" said Dr Corsellis.

The project has been endorsed by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and aid agencies including Care, Save the Children Fund and the Red Cross, which has also offered funding.

Stripping out the frills

Aidbase acts like a window on the web through which only text can be seen.

Users access the fast and lightweight Aidworld website and then view other websites through it.

The Aidbase software is able to strip out all of the frills and compress the text automatically, much faster than it would be possible if the user wanted the original website.

Dr Corsellis says that the idea for setting up Aidworld came from working in the field as an aid worker and being cut off from crucial information stored on bandwidth-hogging websites.

"As an aid worker, I often find myself in the eye of the storm, with limited access to my colleagues and to the web.

"Aidworld seeks to connect people to each other and to the web," he said.

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