Wireless networks could help poorer regions catch up with the pace of technology change, says the UN.
Annan: Wi-Fi could be key for development
But many countries will need help to deploy and make the best use of wi-fi, says UN Secretary General Kofi Annan at a technology conference on Thursday.
Wireless networks remove the need to lay costly wires and could quickly bring fast and convenient net access to large populations currently denied access.
Chip maker Intel said it was getting growing interest from developing nations keen to use wireless networks.
"It is precisely in places where no infrastructure exists that wi-fi can be particularly effective," said Mr Annan, "helping countries to leapfrog generations of telecommunications technology and infrastructure and empower their people."
The UN Secretary General made his comments at a conference organised by the Boston-based Wireless Internet Institute which debated what wireless technology could do for developing nations.
By removing the need to lay lots of cables to get communities online, wireless could help poorer nations narrow the digital divide and catch up with countries where the technology has already taken hold.
Gelsinger: lust for technology
Wi-fi has become hugely popular in offices and homes because it makes it so easy to set up a network and to share fast net connections among several different machines.
Many cities in Europe, the US and Asia are dotted with wi-fi hotspots that let anyone with a suitably equipped portable computer get net access.
Mr Annan said governments, telecommunication regulators, technology firms and enthusiasts should work together to ensure that nothing stands in the way of broader wireless network use.
Pat Gelsinger, chief technology officer of chip maker Intel, said it was getting huge amounts of interest about wireless networks from many poorer nations.
"This reflects a worldwide lust for technology," he said. "We see millions of people with the potential to become wi-fi users."
Mr Gelsinger said wi-fi was proving popular because it sent data over a radio frequency that was not government controlled and the standards defining it were widely shared and open.
Mohsen Khalil, director of information and communications technology at the World Bank, sounded a cautionary note.
He said the equipment needed to use wi-fi was not cheap and the popularity of the technology might tempt some regulators to impose tariffs on its use.