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Last Updated: Friday, 27 June, 2003, 09:54 GMT 10:54 UK
Is wi-fi good for developing nations?
School in Bangladesh
Wireless takes the net to schools in Bangladesh
The wireless web holds much promise for developing nations but technology analyst Bill Thompson is concerned about the politics of wi-fi.

Campaigning for internet access in developing countries can seem a bit of a distraction - the sort of thing that only the technologically obsessed would ever care about.

After all, millions of people need clean water, enough food and adequate shelter. They are not really going to miss the opportunity to send e-mails or surf the web.

But as the global economy comes to depend more and more on the internet the digital divide is seen as a serious barrier to economic development.

There are also many examples of ways in which net access can help people living in poverty, from getting access to weather forecasts to enable fishing boats to avoid storms, through to monitoring prices to decide when to harvest a crop.

Groups like the G8's Digital Opportunities Task Force, set up in 2000, have promoted a wide range of projects, and there are a vast number of local initiatives, some of which have featured on Go Digital, the World Service programme.


Despite the attention and the growing number of projects, there is still a lot to be done.

Bill Thompson
Wi-fi is the latest cool thing and a growing number of companies and market analysts have started touting it as the next big thing
Bill Thompson

Throughout large parts of Africa, South America and Asia net access is expensive, complicated and rare, and even the most optimistic estimates of the world's total net-using population put it at around one in 10.

At the moment a lot of attention is focused on the use of wireless networks, and in particular wi-fi, as a relatively low-cost way of getting fast network access to rural areas and less-developed countries, and this week the United Nations hosted a conference organised jointly with the industry-funded Wireless Internet Institute.

Wi-fi is not the only wireless networking technology, of course. Packet radio, microwave links and even 3G phone networks could all do a similar job.

But wi-fi is the latest cool thing and - not entirely coincidentally - a growing number of companies and market analysts have started touting it as the next big thing, the focus for a second-generation internet-style boom.

As a result, big hitters like Pat Gelsinger, Intel's chief technology officer, came along to the UN to discuss the best way to get wi-fi to the developing world. Along with many other wi-fi advocates, Mr Gelsinger argued that the main barrier was not the cost of the technology which his company makes and sells, but government regulation.

Advocates of wi-fi, in both developed and developing countries, argue that they need to have unregulated, unlicensed and uncontrolled access to the radio spectrum so that they can be innovative and make money.

They believe that the existing model, where governments issue licenses to radio and TV stations or to other users of radio spectrum, partly to ensure that services do not interfere with each other and partly to make some money out of a natural resource, is wrong and out-dated.

It is, of course, an unproven claim, but one that fits well with a pro-market, anti-government ideology that has been around for a long time and is especially prevalent in the US.

It also demonstrates optimism about the potential of technology to deliver long-term social benefits that those of us who remember the internet boom of the late 1990s might consider somewhat unfounded.

Commercial concerns

The advocates of free spectrum are loud and getting louder. They speak out on weblogs, they lobby politicians and they have the ear of the United Nations.

Wi-fi hotspot in Singapore
Wi-fi does away with the need for expensive cable
There is, therefore, a real danger that they will drive a model of development, in this case based around wi-fi hotspots and unlicensed radio spectrum, that fits their own commercial interests and ideological position, instead of being what developing countries really need.

We saw it happen in the 1960s when subsistence farmers were offered tractors which they could not repair, cash crops which did not actually feed them and fertilisers which they could not afford.

We are seeing it happen again with GM foods and patented plants. And if Intel and the other companies making wi-fi hardware and software have their way, we could see the same thing happen with network access.

Governments will be told that they can have aid from the US, as long as the aid is used to buy the equipment provided by US companies.

Attempts to manage radio spectrum in the wider interests of society instead of just throwing it open to entrepreneurs and US-style start-ups will be criticised as socialist or even blocked by the World Trade Organisation or other free trade advocates.

And in five years Africa will have a patchy, under-maintained collection of wireless networks which have failed to generate the profits that the private sector wants.

People first

Speakers at the UN conference took turns criticising governments for being unable to manage the growth of wireless, while ignoring the massive success of GSM mobile phone rollout, where the radio spectrum is closely regulated but private companies provide the service.

Even though Iqbal Quadir from Bangladesh-based GrameenPhone talked about how he had built a successful and profitable business offering shared use of mobile phones, the discussion was about the importance of keeping government - and the possibility of regulation for social benefits - out of the equation.

Bridging the digital divide requires more than a commitment to deregulation and a desire to make money from potential new markets. It requires attention to the real needs and the real interests of the people living in countries without proper network infrastructure.

Sadly, it seems that the UN has already been hijacked by the wi-fi lobby, and the results are unlikely to be what Africa and the rest of the developing world needs.

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Bill Thompson is a regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Go Digital.


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