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Last Updated: Friday, 18 November 2005, 08:31 GMT
Pocket answer to digital divide
By Jo Twist
BBC News technology reporter in Tunis

Motorola $30 mobile
Motorola showed a $30 mobile at the Tunis summit
Much of the debate about the digital divide centres on getting computers into the hands of budding digital citizens in developing countries.

But there are those who are looking to existing mobile phone technologies as the way to connect the world.

"Everyone is talking about the digital divide, but the real issue is getting phones in everyone's hand," Tom Phillips, the head of GSM Association's policy unit, told the BBC News website.

"The core message is simple; 80% of the world has mobile coverage yet only 25% is accessing it," he said

While the likes of Intel are pushing next-generation wireless technologies such as Wimax, Mr Phillips said that governments should be improving existing mobile networks and rolling out high-speed 3G services.

Cutting costs

Mobile technology has, for some time, been making a difference in remote, underdeveloped areas of the world where it is difficult and costly to build fixed-line infrastructure and net access.

One reason for its success is its ease of use and its ability to conveniently overcome language and literacy issues.

I don't want to say that there is no need for PCs. But the problem with them is that they last for maybe one or two years then start to break down
Simo Hoikka, Nokia

Net access in the traditional sense, via a computer, still needs some level of know-how, such as typing and reading skills. The mobile, in its simplest form, requires voice only.

They were also being shared in local communities to find out market prices, and other vital information, such as medical advice.

In Bangladesh, mobiles are being extensively used for e-learning, e-commerce, and e-government, and local communities there are working on making more local content available via mobile networks.

But even though two billion people have a mobile in their pocket, there was a lot of work to be done, starting with mobile manufacturers, to knock down barriers to access, said Mr Phillips.

The GSM Association has already worked with Motorola to produce an entry-level mobile handset with vastly improved battery life for under $30.

But taxation and regulation policies also needed to be tackled in developing nations to ensure fair and cheap access.

Some countries impose taxes on text messaging and even on handsets, and 3G licences were still too expensive, according to Mr Phillips.

Fast connection

Third generation networks (3G) are gradually being rolled out in developing nations, and already 73% of broadband subscriptions are through 3G.

Delegates at the UN summit
Thousands are in Tunis to talk about narrowing the technology gap
In Japan, the figure stands at more than 90%.

To speed up the roll out of 3G networks in emerging nations, harmonising the spectrum as well as technology standards was key before developing countries could take full advantage of 3G.

Mr Phillips recommended that countries not hold pricey auctions for 3G operator licences, but rely instead on natural growth.

He was cautious about Intel's Wimax technology because he feared developing nations would feel attracted to its promises over existing mobile networks, which would erode chances of 3G expanding across the globe.

Intel is keen to push into the mobile market place and is now providing the chip technology for Blackberry devices.

Currently, according to Intel's former CEO and current chairman, Wimax is undergoing 100 trials worldwide in preparing for its commercialisation.

But, according to Mr Phillips, even the next generation of mobile net offering speeds of 10Mbps would offer the connectivity required to narrow the digital divide.

Marriage made in heaven

The real opportunities for mobile technologies lie in its ability to work with other existing infrastructures that are in place already in vast expanses of countries were poles and wires cannot reach.

One project by Nokia, called BridgeIT, is on show at the UN's World Summit on the Information Society in Tunisia this week. It demonstrates how satellite and mobile technologies could be married to provide vital interactive e-learning for people in the Philippines.

Initiated in 2001, the project has been rolled out to more than 200 schools which are completely cut off from fixed net access.

Nokia BridgeIt model
The Nokia device offers lessons via a TV screen
The project provides schools with Nokia set-top boxes carrying 80GB of storage on board, a GSM mobile, a Sim card, and a guide to interactive maths and science lessons.

Through local partnerships, the Sim card is prepaid, the mobiles are under $30 and the boxes cost an initial $250.

When teachers want to access lessons, they text a unique code and the interactive material is downloaded at off-peak times to the box.

Teachers then access that material in their lessons via a TV. All the lessons have been formulated to be culturally relevant to daily life.

The video clips are three to four minutes long, and use Mpeg4 encoding which compresses files efficiently.

"We could add anything to the teaching modules," said Simo Hoikka from Nokia. "It can develop all the time."

Parents were also recognising that the lessons could be relevant for them too and were coming into the trial schools in the evening to do the lessons too.

Mr Hoikka is confident that the project will interest a lot of developing nation governments, judging by the success the pilot projects.

"There is a need for this in other South-East Asian countries and Africa," he said. "But it has to fit local cultures."

Nokia is in discussions with Indonesian and Indian authorities, particularly since the Asian Tsunami which wiped out many schools. It was also looking to try out the systems in Africa, and North African nations.

"I don't want to say that there is no need for PCs," he said. "But the problem with them is that they last for maybe one or two years then start to break down. Schools have no money to fix equipment, especially in rural areas."

Eventually, he imagines children being able to share video diaries and messages with other schools around the world using the system. Education departments could also use the technology to send messages to schools, cutting out the expense of postal letters.




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