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Friday, 1 November, 2002, 10:47 GMT
Watery region hides hi-tech hothouse
Girls using a PC
Village girls are shown how to use computers

At the school in the village of Durgapasha, in the northern Bangladeshi region of Sylhet, the only sign of any kind of technology is a radio tower providing a wireless internet link.

Inside, the classrooms are full of energetic teenagers learning the intricacies of computer programming.

They are taking part in a project run by the Learn Foundation to train Bangladesh's rural youth in computer skills.

The foundation is backed by Bangladeshi millionaire Imran Rashid, a former computer science teacher with a radical vision to transform this watery region into a hothouse of digital know-how.

Water everywhere

Sylhet is in the northern reaches of Bangladesh, 400 kilometres (250 miles) from Dhaka. The remoteness of the area means communication is difficult.

People using a computer in the field
Project takes computers into rural areas
People tend to travel by boat and during the monsoon season, the flood plains are inundated with water from the highlands of India.

The local economy is dependent on water, with most people living from fishing and rearing ducks.

The lack of communication and other infrastructure have acted as a deterrent to investment in the region.

Mr Rashid is hoping to reverse the underdevelopment of the area through the work of the Learn Foundation, a non-profit charity set up in 1997.

It has worked to bring computers and the internet to isolated rural areas of Bangladesh, using wireless technology.

'People's needs'

The Learn Foundation has already built seven radio towers in seven villages in the region and the target is to establish a broadband network in a 2,500 square kilometre (965 square mile) area.

They are hoping that the local population would be able to use their computers or other handheld devices to connect with each other and receive content from them as they would also be the service provider.

The village of Durgapasha
The area is often waterlogged
"The objective is to provide a complete solution to people's needs," said Mr Rashid.

According to him, these devices will enable people to improve their income.

When up and running, a fisherman could use a handheld device to find out which market would offer him a higher price for his catch.

When in the market, he could rent the device as a mobile phone. Later in the evening, his children could use it for their homework.

And that is why in the long run, people may find it cheaper to buy such a device and subscribe to the network.

"Although they will cost as much as buying a new mobile phone, the utility from this service would be much greater," said Mr Rashid.

A business approach

Villages and communities in the region tend to cluster together, which has made it easier to provide wired and wireless way of connecting to the internet.

The relatively flat surface also enables easy link-up among the wireless applications.

Although the demand for information is fairly high in rural Bangladesh, in most cases the vacuum is not filled because the information does not match the local needs.

Learn Foundation is trying to overcome this gap by designing their entire network and content based on local demands.

"This will ensure that the project is also commercially viable," hopes Imran Rashid.

The project is yet to be fully implemented. But is it too ambitious?

"If someone had said that to me a few years ago, I would have said yes," said Mr Rashid.

"But now I don't think so, we have achieved so much, that at this stage everything seems to be coming together."


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16 Aug 02 | Country profiles
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